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West Point and War Transform English Teacher

Elizabeth Samet at her West Point office overlooking the Hudson River.
Tina Tennessen, NPR
Elizabeth Samet at her West Point office overlooking the Hudson River.

Professor Elizabeth Samet calls the United States Military Academy at West Point a giant "found poem."

When she joined its English Department in 1997, Samet discovered a world with its own vocabulary and rituals. West Point does not teach freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, she found. It teaches plebes, yearlings, cows and firsties.

In her new book, Soldier's Heart: Teaching Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Samet shares her decade of experience teaching poetry and literature to future military leaders.

West Point was not an obvious choice for Samet. A graduate of Harvard and Yale, she first encountered West Point while reading The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. She was drawn to the school's legendary graduates, its close-knit community and its sense of mission. Above the entrance to Thayer Hall, where Samet teaches literature and poetry, the words "Duty, Honor, Country" are carved in stone.

On a recent visit to Samet's poetry elective, class began the way every class at West Point begins: with a military formation. After roll call and a salute from the designated "section marker," Samet and her students — most of them English majors — discussed Chinese poetry in translation, then moved on to Wilfred Owen's battlefields of World War I.

A soldier-poet, Wilfred died in action in France in 1918. Samet says she thinks many of her students are drawn to Owen's poetry because he "insists on the humanity of soldiers amid the inhumanity and brutality of war."

In Soldier's Heart, Samet shares some of the letters she receives from her former students fighting in Iraq. In turn, she examines what it means to be a civilian teaching at a military institution, and what she owes to her students.

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