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Video, “David Thorburn: The William Corbett Poetry Series”

David Thorburn
David Thorburn, Professor of Literature and Comparative Media and Director Emeritus of the MIT Communications Forum

David Thorburn has been a teacher of literature for 57 years, 46 of them at MIT where he is Professor of Literature and Comparative Media. Knots is his first book of poetry.


David Thorburn has been a teacher of literature for 57 years, 46 of them at MIT where he is Professor of Literature and Comparative Media and Director Emeritus of the MIT Communications Forum. Generations of MIT undergraduates have taken his lecture course, “The Film Experience,” which now reaches an international audience on YouTube. He was born in Manhattan and grew up in an old farmhouse in Randolph, New Jersey. He’s written a book on Joseph Conrad and many essays and reviews on literature and media. Knots is his first book of poetry.

The following is an machine-generated transcript, with human corrections. For any errors the human missed, please reach out to cmsw@mit.edu.

Edward Barrett 00:00

My name is Ed Barrett, and welcome to the Corbett Poetry Series at MIT, sponsored by the Comparative Media Studies and Writing program at MIT. Tonight, I have the pleasure – and it is a pleasure – to welcome David Thorburn reading from his recently published first book of poetry, titled Knots. David is a distinguished Professor of Literature and Media at MIT, and a beloved and award-winning teacher to generations of MIT students, many of whom have taken his popular course, The Film Experience. As I mentioned, David will be reading from Knots, his first book of poetry. With a title like Knots, you might expect poems that are written in, you know, a knotty, difficult to untangle style. But the poems, at least in my reading of the book, are written with an open, direct style, embracing family, marriage, sex, sports, history, and, now and then, a Greek god or the ‘50’s TV character, Ralph Kramden. It’s a subtle, quick-paced book, just like life. After his reading, David will be happy to answer questions. Comment in the chat thingamajig, and he will respond to those questions. So please welcome our new poet David Thorburn.

David Thorburn 01:54

Thank you, Ed.  I’m very grateful. That was a very generous introduction. And thank you, everyone who’s here, colleagues, former students, family. Thank you all.


At 93, in flannel shirt and khakis, he warned me
To make the coffee hot and was a corpse three minutes later.
I touched his arm, raised and dropped it, I touched his forehead,
He seemed asleep but cold. He knew knots and rigging,
Varieties of the hammer, marlinspikes, masonry, copper.

That’s the first poem in my book.  Although I’d been writing poems on and off all my life, I never thought seriously about publishing more than an occasional poem. But in a spurt of grief and creativity after my father’s death, I began to write new poems and rewrite older ones with a new intensity. “Dressed for the Day” was the first poem I wrote, although its original version was three times longer than the poem I read to you.  What emerged in the end was a book in which poems about my relation to my father became a kind of through-line or spine, sharing space with poems about other topics.  The book isn’t a biography of me or my father but maybe it can be described as a biography of my ambivalence about that extraordinary and difficult man. Ed Barrett gave a generous description of the range of the book, maybe more generous than it deserves. When I looked back at the book, I myself was shocked by how literary it is. Some of the poems are actually literary criticism. Not really surprising, I suppose, given who I am. But also not surprising when we recognize that most poems are acts of interpretation, readings of the world, readings of objects or of texts.  Like this one:


In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”
Holmes deduces an intelligent
once respectable

tradesman in degraded lodgings
whose wife no longer
loves him

from a tattered bowler
whose size means brain
power whose broken chin

band proves foresight
corrupted whose yellowing
stains disclose a stumbling

candle-holder sneaking late
to bed in a flat not lit
by gas

unloved by one
so careless of
this grimy unbrushed felt

amazing Dr. Watson
not to mention
us inside

this parallel universe
where crime and married life parse
like this sentence.

David Thorburn 06:15

Well, as I thought about tonight’s reading, I became conscious of the difference between poems that you speak to an audience, even a virtual audience, and poems on a white page that you imagine are read in privacy and silence by a lone reader.  Many aspects of this difference are worth thinking about. Here’s a poem in which the arrangement of the poem on the page is part of its meaning. And I like the poem so much, I think it’s a valuable poem, I want to read it anyway, even though I think it needs to be on the page. But I will try to compensate for that by describing its format. The poem belongs to the ancient genre called ekphrasis – a poem about a work of art.  The full effect of my poem depends on the ending, where after the poem is over, there is in italics, right justified, a replication of the museum’s plaque of information about the painting. And the poem in a way depends on what happens when the reader gets there. So I thought of reading this first, but that would spoil the experience of the poem. I just guess it means you should listen extra, extra carefully. Because I’m aiming for the reader to be driven back to reread. The poem is titled “Leaves.”


In the Leopold Museum in Vienna way up,
floors above the sullen Schieles, their grimacing gaudy cunts and faces,
and Janssen’s yowling pencils of himself, bug eyes, bloating cheeks, hair
and the top of his head dissolving, irradiating out and away like nebulae,
a winter pastoral so modest you almost pass it by:
hundreds of withered leaves floating in windless air
bring dull color to a regiment of slender trees,
stalks of white bark, branches, the children,
two of them, in winter wrappings small against the trees and empty sky,
foraging for beechnuts in the snow.

Theodor von Hörmann (1840-1895).
Baurenkinder im winterlichen Buchenwald, 1892.
Peasant children in wintry beech forest.
Oil on canvas. Painted in Dachau (Bavaria).

David Thorburn 10:24


Tiger loose on deck:
first mate Thorburn

tackles his captain
to stop him firing the hand gun

rips free of his shirt to wave it like a flare
or so he’ll tell it years on to his son

as the creature coils in the early glare
and starts her death by water in the fiery air.

I remember when I first wrote this poem, I felt a kind of thrill at the triple rhyme – flair, glare, hair. Not so surprising, but for a first-time poet, a very exciting discovery. Excuse me about that. Well, one of the things I like to do is play with titles, use titles that don’t exactly mislead, but that have a kind of ambiguity in them.  Here are two slightly different examples:


I see them quibbling over our stuff, loving as they are
At heart. Who gets the kitchen Burra,
Vampirey woman chomping lunch?

Who’ll want the brass
Lincoln bookends, poor Abe’s right arms
Casualties of our march

To Boston? Which of them will have the Mediterranean
Bedroom, hardly scuffed dear
After 45 years? Your library of architecture,

Our dictionaries? I fear dispersal and dismemberment.

David Thorburn 12:41

Well here’s another of those kinds of poems, poems with what I think of as modestly tricky titles:

David Thorburn 13:02


At the insinuation
He’s shit to his master,
The bridler toys with revenge

Maybe bridling My Lord’s
Big chestnut
With a virgin bit

She’ll spit in rage
In half a mile
And rub His Fucking Arsehole

Off her back against
The willow branches
In the swamp along the river.

How many boys and men
In saddlery or
Harness-making then?

He’s not primitive, technology-deprived,
But literate, generous, adept among
His world’s deep systems of transport,

Caste and commerce. He won’t bloody
The grand creature’s tender
Mouth lucky for Poxnose

And selects a gentler
Harness, hating how she
Lifts her quivering lips

To take the iron in.

David Thorburn 14:39

Here’s a poem for my basketball buddies:


Not rushing is the secret, under control, never full-out but in a range of speeds
Keep the ball to the top of the key or else the foul line
Ready to pop from eighteen or bounce-pass left or right
Or take it down the lane and dish or kiss it off the glass yourself or take it to the rim or
Kick it to the shooter in the corner.

David Thorburn 15:18

Well, a moment ago I mentioned the differences between reading to an audience and writing a poem for the silence and distance of the page.  I feel you become more vulnerable when you’re speaking to living people, even in a virtual space like this one; the environment feels more intimate and personal.  There are family stories I find to my surprise that I had no compunctions about writing and publishing but that cause me unease, an odd discomfort, at the prospect of sharing with you here.  But of course some of the central poems in my book are like this.  Here’s one of them:


When she came out to you
it’s no excuse that you were ninety
and Claire no longer there to
steer you from your brutal deeps.

Weeping she hears you say you cannot love her
anymore, then that sailor’s tale of murdering queers
at night. This isn’t the worst to be told of you either.

I wish it could pour out of me –
your stories of square heads, Kallikaks,
Masinos, the saddle cinch used more than once

on me and Andy. But then, your teaching me hand tools,
digging, the constellations. The slingshot
you carved, mythic gift to your David,

perfect organic Y of oak, fitted to my hand,
the work of days, the sling a rigger’s boast–
a sculpted tool for killing rabbits and small birds.

At times I want to spit in your ashes,
still in their blue canister, Cremains
of Frank Thorburn, shelved
in a back closet where no one goes.

David Thorburn 18:00

One of the things I discovered as I began to write really seriously was how much poets need encouragement and how tender they are when they’re given criticism even when they claim they want it.  I showed the poem I’m about to read to a number of friends including a couple of poet friends, and they were quite negative about it; I was very down in the dumps even though I liked the poem. And then I showed it to another poet friend, Joel Agee. And Joel got it. Joel loved the poem. Joel understood what I was saying. And I resolved that I had a new rule. Maybe call it the Thorburn-Agee rule. If one person really likes your poem, publish it. Here it is:


We know of course that for the Jews of Europe
the Messiah did not come

says Mr. Spock on NPR
in his earthly guise as the actor

Nimoy, introducing Lauren Bacall
to read Bernard Guerney’s

English version of Isaiah Spiegel’s
Yiddish story of the dog Nicky

bereaved by Hitler of his master
Jacob Simon Temkin, fur dealer,

and later exterminated by machine gun with his mistress the widow
Anna Nikolaievna in the Lodz ghetto.

David Thorburn 19:48


In the stench and black of the animal hold
on the Adam Mackenzie out of Liverpool

you speak softly to the Arabian
calming her with Danny Deever and Invictus.

Knowing from your parents’ farm
that horses need human voices,

fear confinement, come to harm like children,
you’ll feed her carrots, sugar cubes, Tennyson

every day of the voyage, then supervise
her hoisting in rope harness you designed

and rigged to the pier in Brooklyn.
She’ll be balky entering the van

until you gentle her and receive your
tip of fifty dollars from the owner.

David Thorburn 20:48

Two more to go, people, two more poems. This poem is my entry in the conversation that poets like to have about their own funeral arrangements. I hope some of you will hear in its lines an homage to my betters, great poets who have written poems of this sort.


Let no one wear a tie.
Let all smoke dope whose mortgages are paid

Or children gone from home or mates content.
No prayers or seminars allowed, no art displayed.

Let’s start in twilight on my backyard deck
And drink and eat enough to keep our talk

Alive at least through three or four a.m.
When some may go but most of you stay on

For songs, poached eggs and vivid argument
To keep my drowsy Empress awake

And save the earth from ill and fix the sky.
O wait till dawn before you say goodbye.

Last poem:


Car repair was not in his repertoire but here
he is, working a ratchet wrench
under the hood of my blue station wagon
the 68 Ford with a hot spot in the cargo space where
the kids would dry their bathing suits
after the beach.

He turns from the work now, hobbling strangely.
My shoes, he says, where
are my shoes?

The kids are grown and far away, the shoes
are ten years gone to Goodwill with his decent shirts
and the woolen long johns he wore at sea
before he came ashore
to make me.

Edward Barrett 23:28

Thank you very, very much. Songs and poached eggs on your backyard porch. I think we’d all like to be there. There will be some questions and comments perhaps and Andrew will moderate them so that I don’t press the wrong button and suddenly turn on the air conditioning. Um, I have one quick question for you. And it’s very open-ended. You’ve had a distinguished career as a scholar. You have your first book of poetry published. How does that feel? What’s your process for writing a poem?

David Thorburn 24:15

My process is waiting 80 years for the courage. The truth is now that I reflect on my balked career … well, I’ve had a wonderful career.  I don’t mean to denigrate it in that way. But I’ve written much less than I intended. And I’ve struggled with my writing much more than I have wanted to. I’m proud of what I’ve written and I think I’ve done valuable work. But I’ve written much less than I expected to be able to and it’s been a real burden to me. I think that one explanation was that I had a kind of poet’s tendency in me from the beginning, but couldn’t let myself acknowledge it or see it.

And there are a couple of reasons for this.  One is my temperament. I mean, I’m a fussbudget. I think part of what makes me a good writing teacher is that I can’t ignore even trivial mistakes or failures of tone. So I fill my students’ papers with ridiculous grammatical and other complaints. So there’s a kind of fussbudget, almost an obsessive side to my nature, which poetry – at least my sort of lyric poetry – is kind to, even encourages. You can work on single lines for so long, right. And I would often do this in my essays. They would be horrifically time-consuming. And then I would get into horrible arguments with editors, especially when I began to write about television and other forms of popular culture. Because the editors I was dealing with were – how to put this gently – less well-read than I would like. So I would put in allusions, really famous lines, Shakespearean lines that everyone knows, and they would edit them and fix the grammar. I spent a lot of time defending my prose against editors much younger than I and much less interested in the nuances of language than I.  So I was bringing a poet’s meticulousness to a world indifferent to such things.

But there’s another element to this confession. In graduate school I was surrounded by poets, dear friends of mine.  Two of them became poet laureates. A third, I think, is at least as good as those two who are more famous.  It was an environment of such remarkable poetic intensity.  I think now that they intimidated me without my acknowledging it to myself. I can’t be sure that that was true. But to be honest, that’s what I think it was. And I also think, to be really honest, I was able to unlock my ability to write poetry when I was too old for it to matter, when the competition was over.  I’m still very grateful that I was able to write these poems.  And I do regret that I didn’t take this quality in me more seriously.  I have been writing poems all my life. And some of the poems in Knots were begun many years ago. But most of them are an old man’s poems, because I became a better writer as I got older.

And the final point is, of course, I don’t really think that there’s such a big difference between my best paragraphs and my best poems. I think I write really good prose. And I think that the attention I gave to my prose was unusual. I don’t think it never happens. There are many great prose writers that I admire tremendously. I’ll name two that will offend people. They’re both political conservatives or thought to be political conservatives.  One is Simon Schama, the historian. I think he’s one of the greatest writers of English prose who ever lived. Another prose writer I tremendously admire is Steven Pinker. Now they’re not poets, and they don’t aim for a poet’s compression, but I think they write with admirable grace and clarity.

But it is also true that reading my poems to audiences –  even the few times I’ve done it, especially this event tonight –  was so much more rewarding and pleasurable to me than any lecture I’ve ever given.  I’ve given hundreds of lectures, some of them to large audiences. I’m proud of them. They were good work.  But reading your own poems!  Boy, I wish I’d had this experience all my life as you’ve had, Ed.

That’s enough of this. I’m grateful for the chance to have done it at all. . And I believe in these poems. I believe that these are good poems. I’m grateful to have lived long enough to have written them.

Edward Barrett 29:06

Thank you, David. I’m going to pass it over to Andrew, who has been collecting various questions coming through in chat. And I’ll just disappear, Andrew, is that the idea?

David Thorburn 29:22

Thanks so much for that wonderful, generous introduction. That was really wonderful.

Edward Barrett 29:28

Thank you for a wonderful, wonderful reading, David. Absolutely wonderful.

Andrew Whitacre 29:33

I wanted to comment how nice it is looking at the attendee list and seeing so many people with the last name Thorburn. Oh, I think that’s great. Oh, there’s so many I didn’t know. Five or six at least.

David Thorburn 29:48

Well, I have three children. I have two granddaughters. I should have at least five there. If my wife hasn’t come, I guess I’m going to be very unhappy.

Andrew Whitacre 29:57

And a number of other familiar names.  One is Stephen Tapscott, Professor of Literature.  Here is his question:  I admired and enjoyed these poems when I read them in the book. And so it was interesting to hear you revising some of them or critiquing the aesthetic on the fly as you presented them. And that, in turn makes me wonder if you’re rethinking aesthetic positions, how or why? Which further makes me wonder if you’re writing new poems? And if so, what’s new? How do they differ from these passionate, quote, early poems? What’s to look forward to?

David Thorburn 30:29

Thank you, Stephen, that’s a very generous question. I am still trying to write although I’m writing with the same slowness.  I’ve written a few new poems that, I think, are okay. But the poems in my book, even after I got serious, took me about ten years. Nearly all of them were much longer in their original form. If I have a style, I guess it would be called minimalist. I once wrote a poem called Mission Statement, and I realized it was so bloated, that I retitled it Nearly-Streamlined Mission Statement, and then I wrote another poem called “Mission Statement”:

Don’t lie.
Scour all words and the spaces between them
Scour each line scour each stanza scour again.

Everything I write takes me a long time, especially now because there’s nothing at stake except my pleasure in the work. I have gotten tremendous pleasure from whittling away at the poems and making them as short as possible. One thing I’ve tried to do, and I’ve succeeded in a few poems that friends I respect have said they admire, is make poems without any punctuation at all. Sometimes I’ll put a period at the end; they’re perfectly readable, even though they’re quite long. In fact the second poem I read is an example of that. There is no punctuation in “Hat Trick,” so I was bragging a little in those final three words: “like this sentence.” The original read “like a sentence.” But then I got boastful because I was proud of what the poem managed to do. Not a full answer to your question, Steve.

So I am still writing. I don’t know if the work is changing that much. But I did change the poems on the fly, because I was conscious of the difference between hearing a poem read aloud and seeing it on the page.  And I felt that I needed to violate some of the lineation in order to give a kind of emphasis appropriate to oral presentation. And if I had thought more about this question, I might have changed more things in my oral reading.  I remember my friend and former colleague Barry Spacks.  Many of you may remember him, he used to teach at MIT. And then he went to California, where he had a wonderful career as a poet. Spacks was a magnificent reader of his own poetry, very dramatic, he could put on voices and so on. And I often felt that his poems were much better listened to than read. This is a cruel thing to say about a wonderful man who was kind to me and I admired. But I think it was true, he wrote many books of poetry, but hearing him read was a far more memorable experience than reading his poems by yourself. I guess I hope that’s not true of my poems.

Andrew Whitacre 34:07

Richard Cross wonders if you might be able to read “Knots.”

David Thorburn 34:19

It’s the title poem and the longest in the book.  I’d love to read it.  It does give a kind of additional energy to that spine of stories about my father.

Andrew Whitacre 34:48

All right, let’s take one question from Nick Montfort, and then have you read that one.

Andrew Whitacre 34:57

How has your experience as a poet, publishing and reading your work, changed your teaching of poetry?

David Thorburn 35:06

Frankly, Nick, it’s actually the reverse in some ways. Reading and teaching English poetry, especially modern poetry, helped me to become a poet.

It gave me standards, you know. There was a certain level of crap I could not write. Because I had been immersed in great poets all my life, I’d been hearing them and listening to them, not to mention wonderful contemporaries, like Ed Barrett or Stephen Tapscott, who asked me a generous question, or Robert Pinsky, or Robert Haas, two poets laureate or James McMichael, an incredibly fine poet.  I had their voices in my head all my adult life. So they wouldn’t let me go too far wrong, even though I didn’t have the skill to reach their levels or their experience. I mean, you know, I do sometimes wonder if I had started at the beginning, maybe I could have been a contender.  But I don’t mean to denigrate my own poems, I believe in them very deeply. But I also have a realistic sense of where they belong in the pantheon of poetry.

Andrew Whitacre 36:32

That’s great. Wyn Kelley asks, David, when you describe your writing, I think of your description of your father gentling horses. Is there a way in which shaping a poem is like calming a balky animal? I guess I’m wondering how much your father, the subject of your poems, might also have provided a model of a writer?

David Thorburn 36:52

That’s a very smart question. I hadn’t thought about it in that way.  I mean, I’ve always thought of my father as a kind of model, although also a negative model, as you can see from the one really negative poem I read tonight.  He taught me how to use tools, he taught me about precision. And I do have one poem that says that:


he taught me patience, willingness to stop, back up and start again
when threading metal couplings, to keep these gendered parts clean above all, to start a nail

with a sharp exact concussion, one-third strength or less depending on conditions
type of nail, for example, textures being nailed and nailed to

to know a pick-axe from a mattock, carve a turkey, name some stars
work the coal furnace, ashes hauled out back to lighten soil for

his Jersey corn, tomatoes, snap peas, rhubarb, cucumber,
strawberries the size of plums.

Yes, then, Wyn, of course: he taught me respect for accuracy. He had a mathematical and architectural bent. He always wished he had been an architect, I think, and he had an incredible amount of practical knowledge. So maybe his attitude toward tools and toward the uses of tools affected my attitude toward words and the uses of words. It certainly affected my desire to clean them and abrade them and sand them down. And scour them!  I mean, a lot of the metaphors I use for working at poetry come from tools and tool making.

Andrew Whitacre 39:03

So to go back to Richard Cross’s request, would you like to read “Knots”?

David Thorburn 39:06

Yes. I’ll read “Knots.” Maybe we should end on this note. Okay. I mean, everyone’s had enough. And this is, uh, let me find the poem. When I read poetry to audiences, I’m nervous and I was never nervous as a teacher. It’s something different. It’s something wonderful. I’m so happy that it happened to me in my old age.

David Thorburn 39:53

Thanks, Richard.


The Bride’s Necklace tightens
against resistance
but never fully closes
named and rigged so by an unknown
possibly Scots or Cockney sailor
three hundred years
ago, maybe the Matthew Walker
whose namesake knot’s
for sale as a keepsake
from nautical museums in
Sydney and Dunedin.

Among the Lapps and the aborigines of Borneo
knots or knotted garments are taboo
for pregnant women and their husbands lest
the delivery be restricted. No crossing of legs
no locking of house or cupboard until the child comes.

The Hangman’s Noose with Nine Turns is made exactly
as the Hangman’s Noose with Seven Turns, except for the two
extra turns, reserved by long tradition for white men.

The Cuckold’s Neck aka Half Crown Seizing
doubles the strength of the Round Seizing
by forming the eye at the point where both ropes cross.
This loop knot was invented for the murderous
harpoons they called dolphin strikers
aboard the old whalers.

The secret of the Turkish Archer Knot
is lost. Joining slingshot to bowstring,
the knot is illustrated and carefully
described in many documents. But no archer
in a thousand years has achieved
the killing range, eight hundred yards,
of the ancient bowmen who made this knot
sacred to Allah.

The knot in your belly
from bad clams, the one in your chest
for angina. The knot in my head and heart
if you don’t come or
when I remember too much.

Othello in his frenzy says the heart
is a cistern where foul toads knot
and gender.

The Triple Hitch has saved many lives
including said my father once or twice
a drunken Dutchman lonely for his wife
who pitched headfirst into the forward cargo
hold, and dangled swinging by his hitched right ankle
laughing and vomiting before they cut him down
to hose his mess before the morning watch on
the SS California, New York to San Diego
via Havana and the Panama Canal.

The Knot of Hercules secures
the girdle barring entrance
to Vestal Virgins’ most sacred part,

our oldest knot, the Square Knot,
sometimes called the Reef Knot nowadays
so strong and perfect to its purposes,

its strength increasing under strain and use,
that it was said to be the god’s invention
and was remembered in erotic rites

once widely practiced on patrician wedding nights:
the bridal gown held barely shut by this god’s knot
is gently nibbled open by the groom.

Edward Barrett 43:51

Thank you, David. Thank you for sharing your beautiful poems with us. And thank you all for attending. And we’re off to spring. Thanks again. David.

David Thorburn 44:02

Thank you very much to all of you for coming.



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