Alumni ProfileRod Jellema ’51
Beckoned by words

In a culture that exhorts “think big,” Rod Jellema ’51 suggests:

        Think narrow. Think ...
        Your thin escape from being someone else.
        The slender grace of a sudden thought
        that takes you past your self.

Rod Jellema readingJellema narrowly slipped into Calvin College in 1947. A high school dropout, he’d flunked sophomore English twice “out of sheer boredom.” Then, in his second semester at Calvin, he met English professor Henry Zylstra. “I thought, ‘Wow! Where have I been?’” Jellema said. “A class with the deeply astonishing Henry Zylstra really started it.”

“It” has been a life “beckoned by words.” In 1956, after earning a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, Jellema began teaching introductory literature and composition courses at the University of Maryland. By slender happenstance and accident he found himself with the opportunity first to teach modern poetry, then creative writing. He had graduate courses in neither and said yes to both.

Teaching students to write poems, Jellema began, at age 40, to write his own poems. “It was a very unhappy time in my life,” he said, “and I found that sitting down and working a poem—which is an attempt to make some kind of cosmos or order out of swirling chaos—was very healthy and restorative.”

A poem’s order, he is quick to add, is not an answer, in the way that a belief or a doctrine is an answer. And while he has “no argument with doctrines,” he knows that words can be so much more than “mere clothing in which to dress ideas.”’

“Poems set out, not to say eloquently what the writer already knows,” Jellema said, “but to discover and embody something he or she didn’t quite know, something that’s beyond the intellect’s understanding.”

The way this more-than-intellectual discovery happens, Jellema said, is “through a kind of play. You begin with the smallest inkling, a second look at, say, the green beans on your plate. Language gets moving, word leads on to word, sound to sound, image to image; you don’t know quite where you’re going but you’re on the way with ‘the holy scent of turned earth / slendered into a bean.’ By the end, the poem takes you, by surprise, to something you didn’t know you knew.”

Good poems create an experience of discovery because of what Jellema calls their “incarnality.” It’s a word he coined, fusing carnality, “that carnival word that’s all black and filled with sin” and incarnation, “which we have spiritualized past its own meaning. We’ve reserved it for Christ. But it’s broader. It means ‘made flesh.’ Incarnality celebrates the way art embodies spirit; in the case of poems, thought or spirit puts on a physical body alive with sound and rhythm and images.”

Incarnality is what Jellema aims for in his poems. And, fittingly, it’s the title of his collected poems, due out from Eerdmans next spring. The volume draws together the work of his four earlier, award-winning poetry books—and new work. Retired from teaching and finished with a two-year artist-in-residency at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C., Jellema said he writes poems more slowly than he used to. “But,” he added, “I’m amazed at some of the things I’m finding my way into. The more I trust the process, the more it leads me in, further than I would have dared.”

For more about Rod Jellema, including his poems, visit