June 12, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 19

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    Graduate Teaching Award: James Lawler

    Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures Why is James Lawler a successful teacher? His reason is simple: "I love it," he said. "And I like to translate my enthusiasm."

    Lawler, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures, has been writing about poetry for 40 years and teaching late 19th- and 20th-century French literature and poetry at the University since 1979.

    "Poetry is very meaningful to us -- it is not meant for museums and libraries, but should be brought into our lives," he said. "There are plenty of lessons in poetry that are there to be read and discussed in their diversity. There is joy in reading and thinking through things in the company of poets. They use the simplest words -- bread, trees, sky -- yet these little words go to the heart of consciousness."

    Lawler loves the give and take of the University of Chicago classroom. "When I first started teaching in Melbourne, Australia, I gave lectures with a microphone for 200 to 300 students, which is not an ideal teaching situation. It's very rewarding to teach here and have groups of only 15, 20, maybe 30 students. There is nothing I like better than to sit in front of a text with Chicago students and discover it with them, explore the many-sidedness of it, the sound, the different ways of entering into a text."

    Last fall, he did something new -- he taught two classes for the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities in Japan program. "It was wonderful. I had 46 sensitive, enthusiastic students, some of whom had full-time jobs and then traveled for hours to get to classes. It was a great human experience," he said, adding that he is going to teach more classes in Japan next winter quarter.

    Lawler himself discovered poetry when he was very young. "I see myself at 12 years old buying a copy of Paradise Lost at a bookshop in Melbourne," Lawler said. As an undergraduate, he discovered the symbolist poets and did doctorate work in Paris on a little-known poet, Guillaume Apollinaire.

    "He had died in 1918, and his widow and many of his friends were still alive. I was able to talk with them, to hear his voice on records, to visit places he had visited," he said. "He had come to Paris as a foreigner, as I did, and so he loved French with a freshness that I felt I had as well."

    Lawler received his Ph.D. from l'Universite de Paris in 1954 and has twice been honored by the French, as a recipient of the Prix International des Amities Francaises and as an Officier des Palmes Academiques. He taught at Dalhousie University, UCLA and the University of Western Australia before coming to Chicago.

    Lawler, who is retiring at the end of this quarter, has just finished a book on another French poet, Charles Baudelaire, which will be published by the Associated University Presses. "Baudelaire said, 'To learn is to contradict oneself.' He was aware of the constancy of contradictions and brings that struggle to us as no other poet has done. Poetry is the extremes of one's own sensibility and thought; it's coming to a final resolution to the tension in-between these two extremes," he said.

    Lawler brings that sense of multi-layered poetry into his classroom. "Poetry has many different aspects," he said. "It is not just language -- it is psychology, philosophy, history."

    -- Jennifer Vanasco