The American visions of Ricardo Quinones’ poetry

A special Ath performance featured the emeritus professor's poetic meditations on national myth and tragedy

When he arrived at CMC in 1963, Ricardo Quinones was a rising literary critic whose presence and credentials, writes Kevin Starr in his history of the college’s first 50 years, boosted the College’s efforts to develop a robust literature major.

In subsequent years, Quinones P’88 has continued to demonstrate his authority as a literary critic with various acclaimed studies of literary modernism, Dante, time as various Renaissance writers understood it, the figure of Cain in Western civilization and culture, and much more.

ricardo_quinonesBut his latest published work has been as a poet, not a literary critic, and members of the CMC community gathered last week for a special performance of his poetry. That event, entitled “The Way We used to Be: Dreams of Americana in Verse,” drew from his most recent poetry collections, A Sorting of the Ways: New and Selected Poems (2011) and Shanksville (2012).

“I’ve always had poetry in my bones,” explained Quinones, Josephine Olp Weeks Professor of Literature, Emeritus,  to a large audience of listeners. “It’s always been a part of my life.”

Following an introduction by CMC President Emeritus Jack Stark ’57 (who praised Quinones’ scholarly achievement and also teased him about his cluttered Bauer office), violinist Rachel Vetter Huang provided American-themed interludes, and CMC Associate Director of Development Todd Mandel and drama teacher A. Richard Sogliuzzo performed the poetry.

The interaction of two speakers — sharing and alternating passages from the poems — turned the recitation into a charged, thrilling conversation about the American past at pivotal moments in the nation’s history:

Oh to be ten again in ’45
Joy it was to be alive

Mandel’s and Sogliuzzo’s vibrant reading also highlighted how much Quinones’ own poetic voice is grounded in the familiar rhythms and cadences of conversation with sudden, eloquent turns of phrase. When we’re told, for instance, in “Ten and More” (one of the four poems performed), that the boxer Joe Louis “gave the black man pride,” the next line sets Louis’ achievement within an elegant historical frame:

…Before Jackie opened the gates with his slide

Baseball and the end of World War II are not the only mythic elements figuring in Quinones’ poetry: So too is a more recent tragedy, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which he explores in “Shanksville.”

That poem takes its title from the small Pennsylvania town near the site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed after passengers fought hijackers for control of the plane. Quinones evokes the heroism of that terrible day and performs a lyric benediction upon those passengers, writing how they

Fell only minutes, maybe seconds short
Of wrenching the plane from its downward course
That tore its way
Through the lush countryside
Of south central Pennsylvania
By rural route 219
On that ordinary Fall morning
When all the elements were fresh and clean.

The program was followed by a Q-&-A session during which Quinones explained his approach to poetry with a comfort and ease that any former student will remember from one of his literature classes. He was most insightful in response to a question from Bob Walker ’64 about the nature of poetic composition.

“Your poetry resonates as beautiful music does,” said Walker. “I cannot imagine creating something like this. How do you do it? Where do you find the inspiration? How does it happen that something so beautiful is created?”

Quinones paused a moment before delivering his reply.

“What you shoot for is one line, the first line,” he said. “If you get that, and it’s good, then everything else follows.”

It was the sort of practical answer one would expect not from a critic but from a singer of songs – from a poet deeply engaged with the inner workings of his craft.

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Visit here for more on Ricardo Quinones’ books of poetry at 39 West Press