Birds chirp in the courtyard outside of Marcus White Hall at Central Connecticut State University, but inside it’s just as loud. Students fill the oversized couches of the wood paneled living room partly for the presentation, but mostly for the spread of free food that greets them at the door. College students love free food. No one is in a better mood than the presenter, Ira Joe Fisher. He doesn’t explain why, but his name is always said fully—Ira. Joe. Fisher. Dressed in a fuzzy sweater vest and aided by a wooden cane, Fisher hobbles to the podium in front of the fireplace with a big grin on his face. In one quick breath he assures us how “very, truly excited” he is to be in our company for the night.
Fisher is speaking on behalf of the humanities, to offer a plea for their passionate continuation. In an email to me before the event, he informed me that he titled the presentation “Long Live the Poet.” As a radio and television broadcaster, writer, lecturer, and published poet, Fisher’s whole life has revolved around words. While he has won two regional Emmys for television writing, he speaks to everyone else in the room as if they have too. “Who here is a poet?” he asks the assembled students and professors. When only two hands go up, his eyebrows furrow. With a shake of his head he searches over the audience and asks, “Who here has written a poem?” When more hands go into the air, he bounces excitedly on his feet. He briskly stretches his arm out, finger pointing to the audience, “You see! No, no, no, no, don’t you see? You’re all poets! Anyone who has ever written a poem is a poet. That’s how it works.” Grins spread across the room.
Fisher’s main love has always been poetry and he speaks of it in terms of absolutes. He goes on to discuss the film Dead Poets Society. “Have you seen it?” he asks, “It is a wonderful film, but it is completely wrong. Dead Poets Society? No! There are no dead poets. Poets live right now and they always will, because the words they speak to us from the page are vibrant, important, and filled with life. A poet never dies!”
Throughout the night Fisher effortlessly weaves poetry, both his own and others’, into his discussions. At the end of every single poem he looks out at the room over round reading glasses and says, “Isn’t that beautiful.” Despite the upward inflection this isn’t a question that Fisher is asking. He is telling us, in rushed excitement, how beautiful these words are. It is a phrase that he repeats continuously throughout the night.
At the end of his presentation he stops talking, scans the faces of the students sitting in front of him and asks, “Most of you are pursuing an English degree, are you not?” As the room murmurs in agreement, he breaks into a smile, “Oh, my god, what a beautiful thing.” There is silence in the room. In this day and age, this is not the usual response to the pursuit of an English degree. Fisher brings up the typical responses people get when they announce they are going to major in English. He speaks on society’s current fixation with business and finance degrees and how students are told to major in degrees that they can “make a living” with.
No, no, no, we have to have an adequate number of dollar signs in the jingle of our pocket to comfortably put bread on the table, but we need to feed our soul. That is what the English major does. That’s what the humanities do.
The idea of studying English is somewhat revolutionary today. There is a continuous need to justify the choice. English departments scramble to tell prospective students that an English degree teaches you how to analyze, research, and write. We argue that those skills are essential to business, communication, and marketing jobs. Learning to work your résumé for jobs outside your major is an essential part of the English degree experience.
In a room of English graduate students, Fisher pleads with us to embrace the degree and “speak loudly in favor of the humanities.” As the event ends, the students give Fisher a loud round of applause and quickly converge around him to talk more. As I loiter in the room, a classmate tells me how much she enjoyed the presentation and how nice it was to hear someone speak of the degree as if it was worthwhile. “You are very lucky to have had Ira Joe Fisher as a professor,” she tells me.
I met up with Fisher at a place he referred to only as “the diner right off Exit 10 of I-84” and that was as much of a description as it warranted. Pulling off the highway, you can immediately see the 50’s style neon lights and chrome trim of the building letting you know it’s a diner. As I run through the rainy parking lot I see Fisher in a booth in the back corner with a cup of clam chowder, a mug of coffee, and a book. He is wearing another fuzzy sweater vest, he still has his wooden cane, and he is (if possible) happier to see me than the last time we met. The conversation naturally comes back around to the humanities.
The plight of the humanities scholar is harder than most, Fisher admits, not because the subject is less valuable, but because society now focuses on immediate results. Students go into college wanting to earn their degree within four years and have a career lined up six months after graduation. However, it usually takes a bit more work than that to land a career with an English degree. Fisher supports this fact saying, “Anything worth doing on the planet requires perspiration. We have to work for it.”
Fisher has worked for the humanities; not with long hours and big projects, (although he has had his fair share of both) but by constantly working his love of the humanities into every aspect of his life. Fisher has worked various jobs over the years, from broadcasting to teaching, but he admits that no matter the job, he has “always lived in poetry.” He tells me how he “bends the syllables of a word” when he’s speaking in front of a group and how he chooses just the right time to use silences in order to increase the drama of the moment. Fisher is always looking for the poetry in life. He talks about Beyoncé and Biggie Smalls in the same breath as naming literary giants; not to contrast them, but to combine them. “Poetry lives today. It lives in rap. It lives in hip-hop. Because it lives in the human soul.” The humanities are not one field of study, they weave and overlap with every facet of human life. The humanities, and poetry in particular, are our ways of connecting to one another, and that skill to connect to people, to communicate, cannot be forgotten, no matter the careers we choose.
We exist in a generation of helicopter parents, perpetually concerned whether or not things are lining up the way they should. We need to know that our jobs will get us the big house, the nice car, and all the latest gadgets. To pursue an English degree, where the payoff is not guaranteed, goes against all of today’s societal values. Schools across the country have started STEM initiatives to get students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math; fields where the job market has been rapidly increasing. But Fisher seems optimistic about the survival of the English degree. He believes there is an ache in people to pursue the subjects that feed our souls. Society may fixate on business and finance and computers, but underneath it all is the human desire to connect and converse with one another. Like the poet, the English degree will never die.
Sarah, this is wonderful! Great job!!!