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Writing the Senior Thesis: A Conversation

In this conversation about Process, Jacquelyn Ardam and her undergraduate advisee, Cole Walsh, demystify the senior thesis. Cole’s thesis, “Mak[ing] Bright the Arrows: Recovering the Political Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” examines the poetry of the underserved Millay, whose work with the sonnet, Cole argues, deploys its “memorable speech” to intervene within the isolationist politics of the United States. Here the two collaborators talk about the marginalization of poets within modernism, the endurance of a canon based on Eliot and Pound, and the importance of thinking politically through poetic language.

Walt Hunter

Portrait photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1914. Photo by Arnold Genthe.
Fig. 1. Portrait photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1914. Photo by Arnold Genthe. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

JA: My first question for you, Cole: could you tell me a little bit about your experience as an English major at Colby College and what made you want to write a senior thesis?

CW: I guess I decided I wanted to be an English major the spring of my freshman year. I knew I wanted to take literature classes but I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit my entire academic life to it. I took the Foundations class, the intro to the major, and I was so swept away by everything we were doing in that class. So I slowly took more and more classes before officially declaring and then I realized I had already taken enough classes and I wanted to take more classes—so I might as well be an English major!

JA: Good decision!

CW: Yes, it was a good one! And then I sort of fell into a poetry niche pretty early on, actually. I took a bunch of classes with Elizabeth Sagaser, including a Poetry of Revolutions class. And then I took Modern American Poetry, Contemporary American Poetry, and Poetry Remixes with you. That’s really where I found my passion in English. I knew when I was thinking about doing a thesis that I wanted to build on prior coursework and my interests. So, it felt natural that I would pick an area of study in the poetry field because that’s where I developed most of my expertise. I turned to Millay specifically because I feel like she had such a broad career that has not necessarily been overlooked completely, but has been overlooked in relation to a lot of other poets that we’ve studied in those classes.

JA: Do you want to tell us a little about what your thesis argued? What was it about?

CW: Sure. Millay obviously published a lot and one of her most interesting works, I think, was actually pretty widely forgotten. In 1940 she published this book called Make Bright the Arrows which had a very blatant political goal, and that was to persuade American politicians to end policies of isolationism in World War II. Essentially, she wanted America to take more of an interventionist stance. My project was largely that of recovery. I wanted to show how the forms in that book have their own academic merit, because they had been largely condemned by critics when she released the book. Specifically, I looked at the different political work accomplished by the various poetic forms, lyrics and sonnets, in the book. I also looked at the short play, The Crooked Cross, she included in the book. It definitely was not unusual for Millay to write plays—she had a long history of being involved with the theatre—but it definitely was unusual for her to put a short play in a book of published poetry.

JA: Something that is interesting to me about your project is that these poems are maybe not the best of Millay’s poems, but they still are quite interesting. I was wondering what your relationship is with the aesthetic of these poems. Where and how do you see value in them?

CW: That’s a good question. They’re definitely not the Millay poems you would want to turn to in an hour of need, like sometimes I do. However, I think the political aesthetics are definitely what makes these poems most interesting. Poetry is inherently political and politics are inherently dramatic and poetic, really. In both poetry and politics, speakers heighten and explore the properties of language to make themselves memorable and, often, persuasive. I think the way that these poems navigate these rhetorical boundaries is particularly striking and engaging, even if they’re not the most emotionally rich poems.

JA: Ok, that’s excellent! The people who are going to be reading this conversation are, most likely, a bunch of English professors, particularly those who work on modernism. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you want them to know about the senior thesis experience.

CW: Since Make Bright the Arrows had not been studied that much, my work felt very important. I was really contributing to an academic field and working on this project was definitely the most academic I’ve ever felt. I also think that because I was studying a female poet who didn’t necessarily have a strong impact on modernism more broadly, the work I was doing felt more consequential. However, if I had focused my thesis on a figure like Eliot or Pound, then maybe I wouldn’t have felt as engaged. Working with a historically marginalized voice really made this project worth doing for me.

JA: That’s really interesting. Something that we’ve talked about casually as you worked on the thesis is the way in which Millay might be relevant for our current political moment. Even though that didn’t necessarily end up in your thesis because your thesis was not about Millay today, I think it’s interesting to me as your teacher that you were able to find this work from the 1940s to be relevant to our current conversation about the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world.

CW: I think some of that, too, comes from the idea that certain voices of modernism are not the voices. Which is to say that Eliot and Pound should not define the way we think about politics or poetry. There are other voices that have been historically and politically, and thus academically, marginalized. So, recovering those voices is important to how we conceive of modernism but also how we consider our contemporary relationship with literature, both academically and personally. Are all types of voices, regardless of racial, gender, or sexual identity, getting an equal chance to say something?

Portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay, date unknown. Photo by Carl Van Vechten.
Fig. 2. Portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay, date unknown. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

JA: One thing I’d add here is just how deeply and immensely popular Millay was in her time. So, not to include her voice in the stories we tell about modernism is, I think, a huge oversight. Ok, so I think that might be a good time to flip the table a little bit and see if you have any questions for me?

CW: As your student, what did you want me to get out of the thesis, both broadly, as the culmination of an English major, but also what did you feel was important for me to know about modernism?

JA: It’s clear to me that you got what I wanted you to understand about modernism, which is that modernism is an incredibly diverse movement. But, I also wanted you, as someone who has studied poetry both with me and other professors, to have that chance to do a deep dive into a single author’s work. I think because of the way you framed the project, which was as a recovery project, your senior thesis is one of those theses in which you can see distinctly how you are contributing to a conversation and, frankly, doing work that has never been done before. This is not always the case with senior theses, but I was really glad to see you put together a recovery project, which was very much your idea, I should say. When we had our first early conversations about this project, we talked about you writing about Millay’s more well-known sonnets. I couldn’t have predicted that you were going to become really interested in this book of poetry that I knew very little about. I was really happy to see you be a part of a conversation that we just haven’t had about Millay. And, I also know personally that you are from Maine, and Millay is from Maine, and that you had some connections to her. It was interesting to watch you develop a more critical lens for Millay when I knew you had felt this emotional connection with her work. But it was great to see you exercise that and really turn it into a much more critical and analytical connection.

CW: Yeah, that really was a large part of it. Even though Maine doesn’t play a huge role in my academic discussion of Millay, our shared history is one of the ways I was more engaged with her on a more personal level.

JA: But you didn’t end there. That’s just where you began.

CW: Right. I’m also curious about what, as a teacher, you want your students to engage with most with poems?

JA: Well, the way I always like to think about poetry—and this is something you did very well in your thesis, Cole Walsh—is that I never want students to think about poetry as being isolated, as just this thing on a page in their Norton Anthology. I want my students to develop connections between poetry and the world. I want them to think about how those small things in poetry, like an interesting semi-colon or a strange enjambment, are actually making bigger claims about the world. I think that a lot of people see poetry as this sort of rarified thing dusty books. One of the things that I was really proud of in your project is that you saw poetry as doing something in the world.

CW: And I think that’s been the best part about my experience as an English major at Colby because I remember in some of my earliest classes feeling that texts have been isolated. For example, reading Shakespeare. I really like Shakespeare but sometimes it’s hard to get into a Shakespeare poem. But, now, three or four years later, I can now really feel myself experiencing Shakespeare’s voice and understanding the political implications of what he writes, as well as its relation to the present.

JA: As we’re wrapping up here, is there anything else you want to say? Anything you want people to know about Millay or the maybe the senior thesis process in general?

CW: Millay is important. She shouldn’t be overlooked. In terms of the senior thesis, I have been thinking about how the process might be different if I spent more time collaborating with some of my other peers writing English theses. A more official peer-editing or review process may have been beneficial to both my thesis and those of my peers. I would have loved to share my research more closely with them but also to be more involved in the conversations they had about their thesis.

JA: That’s also a useful conversation to have because, you know, we worked very much one-on-one on this project. You had a second reader and we had a small thesis group run by a thesis advisor, but that was more about logistical things. One of the things that we might do in the department is make it a more collaborative experience. The thing about individual research, and your professors know this, is that it can be quite isolating. I think it would be useful to make the senior thesis a more collaborative enterprise.

CW: I think that would be an interesting step to take, too, because there are different perspectives that each student has. I mean, I would have loved other peoples’ opinions on my work and I’m sure I could say interesting things about their work too. I think that would, overall, make everybody’s theses even better than they already were.

JA: My last question for you. You are a double major, with psychology. I’m wondering what your two majors have to say to each other and what might Millay have to say to your interest in psychology?

CW: In psychology, we study the mind and we study behavior, and poetry chronicles both of those things. Some people have conceived poetry to be a pure or direct access to the mind. In some of my analysis of Millay’s work, I take a cognitive approach. For example, I look at the way Millay organizes certain thoughts or the way that certain forms mimic or critique certain thought processes. In that sense, learning about how the mind works is an interesting lens to bring to the field of literature. I was also happy that I was able to use my psychology background in my project because that was an important part of my academic career at Colby.

JA: Excellent. So I think the take-away here is that everyone should do a thesis and everyone should read a Millay!

CW: Yes, I think so!

JA: Thank you, Cole.

CW: Thanks, Jackie.