By Daniel Biegelson, '01

The first time I saw Diane Ackerman, she was peddling her cruiser bicycle down Gateway Road on her way to Ryland Hall. Her jet-black pigtails seemed to rotate like airplane propellers from either side of her helmet. She was a fountain of energy and excitement. (Of course, this was before it was hip to seek out alternative means of transportation.) Although Diane is a naturalist, amongst other things, her interest in the environment and the natural world is anything but cold or clinical. Rather, her interest is, like her writing and her personality, exuberant and passionate.

Diane has published several volumes of poetry, along with books about animals, gardening, neuroscience, working in a crisis-call center, and the history of love. She is, in a sense, a “Renaissance woman.” And fortunately for her students at Richmond, she brought these myriad interests into the classroom. There, I learned from Diane the importance of rooting out new wonders and proposing new answers. In essence, she encouraged all of her students to develop bodies of knowledge, to become experts in whatever interested us—astronomy, gardening, baseball, or democracy, say—and to employ such expertise in our creative endeavors. And of course, she urged us to let intuition be our guide.

Diane taught two classes—a poetry workshop and a modern poetry seminar—during the spring of 2001, which was the last semester of my senior year at Richmond. I was lucky enough to take both classes. In her writing workshop, Diane had a way of offering (and eliciting) insightful advice about a poem without disrupting its spell. She taught that curiosity and compassion are keys to good writing because they encourage writers to avoid cliché and seek new ways of seeing. In our workshop, Diane offered not just a primer on how to write and revamp one’s own poems; she also offered lessons on how to constructively engage work by our peers. In other words, she taught us how to honor each poem’s original intent and its rapturous mystery.

In our literature class, Diane emphasized the power of the lyric poem as we examined the work of Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and Pablo Neruda, amongst others. These were formative lessons—instead of reflexively putting “Anecdote of the Jar” under the bright light of literary analysis, I began to look for seams and stitches, to examine craft of the poem. In doing so, I learned that “deep image” was as important as “deep play,” and I began to experiment with anvil-like images and turns of phrases which I hoped (I’ll admit) would whisper multiple meanings. Classes with Diane were laboratories, and if not all of our experiments were successful, they were, at least, encouraged. In this sense, Diane fit right in at Richmond.

Diane once commented to me, “It’s easy to imagine the woods full of questions and answers.” Well, it is easy if you understand that empathy is the key to unlocking this hidden dialogue. One of the most remarkable aspects of Diane’s tenure at Richmond was that she left us with a fuller understanding of poetry’s place in the world. Indeed, creative curiosity and its imaginative expression are the best cures for scandalous times and timid minds.

Daniel Biegelson, '01, holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Montana and was a Poet-in-Residence at the Solomon Schechter Day School in 2007 and 2008. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.