Emily Vasiliauskas may be the only undergraduate at Harvard who has learned German specifically so she could read the poetry of Paul Celan.
Celan, a German-speaking, Romanian-born poet who survived the Holocaust, then died by suicide in Paris in 1955, is best known for his poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”). What struck Vasiliauskas about Celan’s work was his effort to express the inexpressible. “How do you write about things that escape language?” In her senior honors thesis on Celan’s poetry, Vasiliauskas attempts to answer that question.
Engaging with the work of a difficult modern poet on his own linguistic turf is not a task Vasiliauskas finds unduly intimidating. She thrives on it. A literature concentrator, she has excelled in a program that emphasizes study in more than one language with a heavy dose of literary and cultural theory thrown in. And by all indications her explication of Celan promises to be only the first of many accomplishments in the field of literary and cultural scholarship.
As Harvard’s only 2007 Marshall Scholarship winner, Vasiliauskas will travel to Cambridge University later this year to begin a two-year master’s program in criticism and culture. After that, she sees a doctoral program and a career in academia in her future.
But Vasiliauskas not only studies poetry, she also produces it. She wrote her first poem in the third grade and hasn’t stopped since. One summer during high school she attended the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College, Vt., and that experience got her thinking more seriously about writing and about how poetry would fit into her life.
At Harvard her poems have appeared regularly in the student poetry magazine Gamut, which she co-edits. A longtime student of Latin and Greek, she has also been associated with Persephone, the journal of the undergraduate Classical Club, as both an editor and contributor. And last year she won the $1,000 Joan Gray Untermeyer Prize for Poetry.
In addition to Celan, Vasiliauskas lists her poetic influences as Emily Dickenson and the contemporary poet Anne Carson, a classics professor at the University of Michigan and the author of the 1998 verse novel “Autobiography of Red.”
Creative writing and scholarship can both be quite solitary activities, but Vasiliauskas has tried to round out her life by working at the Writing Center, putting her literary talent at the service of her fellow students. She discovered that helping undergraduates organize and write their honors theses has brought unexpected rewards.
“I found that by helping people write their theses I’ve gotten to learn about all sorts of things I would never have encountered otherwise, everything from the racial achievement gap to the fall of the Roman Empire.”
She has also worked as a photographer and photo editor for the Harvard Crimson.
Does Vasiliauskas see a conflict between writing poetry and the demanding career in scholarship that she plans for herself? Quite the opposite.
“I’ve always been most productive in my creative work when I’ve been most engaged in academic work. I’m looking forward to pursuing both.”
At this hour the world is washed in the same darkness, shadow
of unlit candles in a stone room where a woman passes
her prayer to another and God sees no difference. But
let there be a darkness underneath, where the sky outside those stones,
the sky inside these hands, would open for us to see
each stretch of skin as the grayest window. Slowly
I see that blackness is a bird, that what appears
as a circle exists as feathers and eyes glossing black,
that there must be bones below. But
what evidence can there be for your eyes? They cast no shadow
but the shadow of my darkness, as reddening breath
passes within us and opens every window to light.
— Emily Vasiliauskas