The upper floor of Muskie Archives, full of seats arranged in rows, was already packed with students, professors, parents, and friends alike. I walked in with a couple of other students from my Poetry Writing class; our professor had suggested we attend this poetry reading in anticipation of analyzing some of Robert Farnsworth’s work in class.
I would have come to listen in any case; this semester I got a seat in one of the last classes he will ever teach at Bates: ENG 121C- Frost, Williams, Stevens. Professors and students had all insisted that I, as a prospective English major, take a Farnsworth course.
From the first day, I was awed. He speaks like he writes: words neat and clear, but burdened with poignancy and fervor. Bates has been lucky to have him and I, for one, will be sorry to lose him.
The Literary Arts Live program has hosted readers and speakers who number among the most talented authors of our age, alumni included. The Farnsworth event was the first reading of 2018 and the turnout was beyond what I had expected.
A friend and I had snatched a seat on a comfortable couch behind the podium, but the unlucky people pouring in behind us were squeezing into corners or seizing floor space. Farnsworth helped institute the Literary Arts program over twenty years ago.
Jess Anthony, an English professor and ex-attendee of Farnsworth classes in her day, stood up first to present the man to the crowd. Her passion for her teacher and his writing was clear as she listed accomplishments and published works, including another book on the way. She wistfully told us, “when Rob speaks, you drink words… If we must lose him, let it be to poetry.”
Robert Farnsworth is a talented man and a lover of literature, which is well apparent in his weighty achievements throughout the years. This will be his last year of a twenty-five year tenure teaching at Bates College. A resident poet of The Frost Place, he is as quintessentially an American nature poet as Robert Frost himself. This means, as I’ve been learning in the first semester of his course, that his poetry speaks of a variety of lifestyles, intentions, intimate moments, themes, and locations.
Raised in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, he now lives by the Androscoggin River and works with the Maine Humanities Council. Despite his appearance, it was clear on that Thursday evening, as the aged but dignified man approached the podium and began to speak, that his heart lies in sharing wisdom with generations of Bates College students.
He began with a few poems written by those who taught him; a tradition to honor the profession to which he has given thirty-seven years. As his low and sonorous voice fell over the room, people attending the busy standing-room-only event instantly hushed. People closed their eyes. Some bobbed their heads, faces peaceful as if in sleep. Silently, and in mutual agreement, we all gave into the trance that Farnsworth’s words were casting. Picture it: a warm and cozy room, students sinking into couches and leaning on walls, the soft buzz of a radiator merging with the soft and intimate words of the wizard in front of us. Poems about cameras, past students, diabetes, and Lewiston in wintertime all melted together. I swear I was asleep at moments, despite my unwavering gaze fixed to the besuited man in front of me for almost the entire hour. Robert Farnsworth closed with a poem entitled ‘Fiction’ that had been featured on the Bates website in the past, the last lines fading into the air like satin. Piercing applause awoke us from our daze and the enchanter in front of us became a small, human figure again.
If you get a chance, look out for the next Literary Arts Live event. Three of Farnsworth’s students will be reading their poetry. It’s a fitting way for the program to honor the legacy of the man who created it, and who has given so much to a college that will miss him dearly.