Poetry, Coffee, and Fly Fishing

By Ryan Hackenbracht

The beautiful thing about both poetry and fly fishing, I’ve often thought, is precision. In a well crafted poem, every word—every syllable—matters, and in fly fishing, it’s much the same thing: a bad cast will spook every fish in the pool, but a well placed cast will land the fly right on the nose of a rising trout. In this way, both poetry and fly fishing are mechanical—a matter of establishing just the right rhythm, of hitting the nail on the head. But at the same time, they are both an artistic craft, and as much as we might try to reduce them to formula, they consistently amaze us by transcending the very rules we think define them.


My fascination with precision and poetry began as an English major at Whitworth. In the classes of Doug Sugano, Laura Bloxham, Leonard Oakland, and Vic Bobb, I discovered that analyzing poetry was not only fun but hard. It took all my concentration to unravel the bits and pieces of jumbled language—much like sitting on the bank of a river and struggling over a knot of colossal proportions. I was attracted to the complexity of Renaissance poetry and to John Milton, in particular. Poems like Paradise Lost and Lycidas harbored some deep, delicious secret—some stunning revelation about the relationship between faith, politics, and literature—that spoke to me and simply needed to be teased out, dissected, and discussed.


One afternoon, sitting in his office in Westminster Hall and chatting, Doug told me (to my surprise) that I could actually make a living studying such things. With his guidance, I applied to English graduate school. I was accepted into Penn State’s program, and in the woods and spring creeks of Pennsylvania, I cultivated a second obsession: fly fishing. There, as I watched brown trout rise to the evening spinner fall, I understood what Dylan Thomas meant when he said he could hear the sabbath ringing slowly in the pebbles of the holy stream. On the water, fly rod in hand, I found another kind of enchanting, rhythmic poetry that complemented what I was studying on the printed page.


That is, of course, when I was not sitting in one of the many coffee shops that littered State College, sweating over my dissertation and first article publications. As any doctoral student can tell you, writing the dissertation is a lot like assembling a puzzle with 10,000 pieces—some of which play peek-a-boo and laugh as they run away, while others promise they will behave but then frustratingly, agonizingly, refuse to do so. In moments like those, caffeine was a necessity and a curse. It encapsulated much of the grad school experience: nervous excitement about your research coupled with the anxiety that—should you prove anything short of unflagging in your intensity—you’ll crash.


Today, as an English professor, I still measure out my life with coffee spoons, and afternoons are spent doing what I love most: sitting in coffee shops and writing about Renaissance poetry. Publication, I’ve found, is an intoxicating drug, and your addiction grows stronger the more you do it. Quite frequently, I marvel at the magical powers of Microsoft Word, which has the uncanny ability to lure me away from everything else in order to render a blank page not-blank. But here, too, I discover beauty in precision, and I’ve come to realize that writing scholarly books and articles is, in a way, its own kind of poetry. Whether I’m working on Milton, political philosophy, or Protestant theology, there’s something thrilling and satisfying about constructing a well-wrought argument that (I hope) will catalyze debate and produce “much arguing, much writing, [and] many opinions,” to quote Milton’s Areopagitica.


While much has changed since my time at Whitworth, much is surprisingly the same. Although I’m now the teacher, I walk into my classrooms with the same excitement I had walking into Westminster Hall. Now as then, I’m excited to be talking about the texts I love with like-minded English majors, and I learn new things from our class discussions all the time, just as I did when I was a student. At the end of the day, my educational philosophy boils down to this: I try to live up to the example set by my Whitworth professors. They put me on the path to where I am today, and if I can inspire my own students in a similar way, then great. If I can teach my students to cherish literature as the people in Westminster taught me, then I’ve done my job.


And if, by some miracle, I can get them to try fly fishing too—well, then I’ve done even better.

. . .

Ryan Hackenbracht (’06) is Assistant Professor of English and Associate Director of Graduate Studies at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from the Pennsylvania State University. Originally from the Seattle area, Ryan is adjusting to West Texas life, practicing his “y’alls,” and slipping out to New Mexico and Colorado for fly fishing adventures. You can check out his website here.


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