Course: The Art of Poetry
School: Boston University via edX
Instructor: Robert Pinsky
Poetry lives in any reader’s voice, not necessarily in performance by the poet or a trained actor. The pleasure of actually saying a poem, or even saying it in your imagination—your mind’s ear—is essential….
The course is demanding, and based on a certain kind of intense, exigent reading, requiring prolonged— in fact, repeated— attention to specific poems.
The readings will include historical poems, as well as contemporary work. The focus will be on elements of the art such as poetry’s historical relation to courtship; techniques of sound in free verse; poetry’s relation to music; the nature of greatness—with only incidental attention to schools of poetry, categories and trends.
Poetry Foundation ran an article about this course; I wasn’t going to take it, since my experience with edX has been less than productive, but at the last minute I went for it. I’m glad I did.
Each week featured Pinsky (US Poet Laureate 1997-2000) giving brief lectures and discussing various poems with a diverse group of readers from the Favorite Poem Project. This wasn’t a technical course on poetics; it wasn’t the super-close reading of ModPo; it was more of a personal exploration of the meaning of poems to individuals.
The first few weeks looked at approaches to poetry: Difficulty/Pleasure (I was thrilled to see Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” linked to Michelangelo “To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”), Freedom/Meaning, Form/Quality.
The middle of the course took a more thematic approach: courtship/teasing, music/poetry, humor/tribute. These were the weeks I found most engaging. I never thought I’d say that about courtship poetry, but once I realized the Courtly Love sonnets were madrigals, I felt at home, and moving on to Millay and Williams in the “teasing” segment came just in time. Then came music and poetry, featuring Pinsky reading Ben Jonson to a jazz trio. I referred to this as “slow-jamming Ben Jonson” which I hope was not taken as a sign of disrespect – I loved it! And, by the way, it’s available on YouTube.
The centerpiece of this course was writing: forum posts, weekly writing assignments, and, most notably, a personal anthology, a sort of do-it-yourself favorite poems project. This was a collection – twelve in all – of our “favorite” poems, along with a brief statement of why the poem was important to us, and any analysis we wished to make. Within a 200-word-limit per poem, which was difficult (I can’t write a 200 word grocery list) but just the process was informative: what poems should I choose? What should I say about them? Why do I so love the poems I love? Is it the poem itself, how I came across it, or what it evokes in me? I’ve appended it to this post, just because it was so much fun to do.
Initially the weekly writing assignments were peer-assessed, the first time I’ve seen that technique used on edX (it’s very common on Coursera). Problems developed; several of us received straight 0’s even on objective criteria, like word count. This may have been a technical glitch or simply a different attitude in the student base. The peer-assessed grades were dropped and “grading” such as it is for any mooc returned to the self-reported completion model (an “I did it!” button after each assignment). Good on them for flexibility; mooc grades are pretty meaningless anyway, particularly in a course such as this, where one’s personal opinion predominates over any knowledge base. I enjoyed the assignments in any case, and found the work that went into them to be productive. That’s the point, after all.
I seem to finally (after, what, 5 or 6 disasters) be getting the hang of the edX forums, as I was able to enter into several highly interesting discussions along the way. The intensity of the Coursera boards is still lacking, but communication in this session rose well above the waste of time I’ve found the edX forums to be in the past.
Two “Office Hours” segments were scheduled, which were more or less Pinsky’s responses to questions students submitted. I didn’t have the patience for them (why didn’t they have the questions arranged beforehand?) but they went well beyond course material. The course in general was run by technical staff, and TAs showed up on the discussion forums from time to time, which is how things usually work with a “name” professor (though there are exceptions).
With peer assessment and forum participation turned into self-report, multiple-choice questions provided the bulk of the “graded” material. Is there anything more antithetical to poetry than multiple choice questions? Week 3 seemed particularly bad: what was the last word of a paragraph? Who wrote “Moonlight in Vermont” (the song was mentioned in the video discussion, so it isn’t quite as absurd as it sounds, but still). I suppose it provides some evidence of participation – a live body has to answer the question – but I think the course would’ve been better off without them. At least there were only a few MCs per unit.
Minor glitches aside, I enjoyed the course quite a bit, particularly the middle weeks. I discovered some poetry I’d never heard before (though, since I’m new to poetry, that isn’t hard). I loved the Personal Anthology project; it was like writing a bunch of short blog posts, but only about poems with particular meaning to me. The writing assignments provided good opportunity for thought as well – I very much enjoyed talking about the structure of Susan Sommers-Willet’s “Tallahatchie” as well as the very different parodies of Longfellow and Kipling – and I discovered more by reading other students’ work (peer assessments were still required though the grades didn’t count, which is a great model for peer assessment generally, by the way). I had some great conversations, particularly about music (medieval English madrigals of John Dowland, Paul Simon, and Eminem – all fit into this course) and about humor.
I’m glad I signed up; this course had its charms. Like slow-jamming Ben Jonson. I can recommend it for anyone who wants a gentle introduction to poetry. Or anyone who likes to just think and write about poetry.
Favorite Poems Anthology
Daigu Ryokan (1758-1831)There’s more to haiku than seventeen syllables in three lines: semantics enter into it as well. A seasonal word starts things off, then there’s a “cutting word” that separates the two parts – “The two parts are sliced in half, and there’s an open space which the reader, the audience, is supposed to enter into” says Haruo Shirane. I’m not sure if “thief” was at the time of this writing considered a seasonal word – unlikely – but there’s a lovely sense of “what does this mean?” that allows me to enter into it, and write it with Ryokan, even centuries after his death.
There’s a story (several variations exist) behind this haiku: a thief entered Ryokan’s hut, but found nothing to steal. Ryokan felt so bad, he offered the man his clothes, then after the thief left, wished he could’ve given him the moon (a symbol of enlightenment) as well. There’s so much to read into this: the nature of possession, of theft, of giving, and, in this day when genes are patented and property extends from the core of the earth to the stratosphere (really, it does, look it up), who owns nature? I also like the switch in atmosphere, from the thief – oh no, what did he leave behind? apprehension – to the beauty of the moon.
2 “Song of Myself“, part 23
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)I’ve always had a complicated relationship with math and science: they tantalize me, but -perhaps because? – they’re always slightly out of reach of my grasp. Here, Whitman, himself lacking much formal education beyond primary school, pays tribute to the other side of the room. I love his metaphor of “they are not my dwelling, I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling,” a sentiment he also touches on in “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”. I’ve always had the sense of math as a door I couldn’t open, my nose pressed up against the glass, so I cherish this idea of Whitman entering his own dwelling – poetry – via this house, passing through but not dwelling there. Though he deals in what we might call metaphysics – throughout Song of Myself, he emphasizes the unity of all things, he is one with the grass as well as every other person past, present, and future – he begins in reality, and uses it to develop his universalist view, that even as we all turn to dust, we become again from the dust.
3 “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)For me, this works with the above selection from Song of Myself as one.
4 “Prayer to Persephone”
Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892-1950I first encountered this poem – just the last few lines, really – in a novel, Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman. In the book, an inner-city teacher is trying to get her students to think about this poem, and reads the lines; “Persephone / Taker her head upon your knee: / Say to her, “My dear, my dear, / It is not so dreadful here.” The teacher asks the class of misfits and academic disasters who might be speaking these words, and one student offers: “Maybe a teacher?” I was about 12 when I read that, and hadn’t yet learned to view school as hell. Later, when I read the entire poem, I was more taken with the notion of “She that had no need of me” and sensed a mother-child relationship, an adolescent who was in the painful process of disattaching from the nuclear family to make her way in the world, when some tragedy struck. I later found out Millay wrote this poem, a cycle of elegiac poems, in fact, for a college friend who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. What I find especially moving is not that the speaker asks Persephone to send the woman back to life, or comfort the grief, but to relieve the fear and insecurity she knows underlay the confident surface of the beloved. “She that had no need of me” has a touch of bitterness to it, but it’s saved by this selfless act of concern.I’m very fond of poetic “conversations” – poems written in response to other poems. In 1860 Walt Whitman wrote “I Hear America Singing,” but he left someone out – the voices of those who were still enslaved. Hughes wrote this reply less than a century later, but while Jim Crow still reigned. He begins with “I, too, sing America” as a direct response to Whitman, and closes with a slightly different line: “I, too, am America” with both lines separated, standing singly, isolated. That closing line can be viewed several ways: an indictment, perhaps: while you’re all singing how proud you are on the Independence Day on which slave-owners announced their freedom while they simultaneously denied it to others, remember that I, too, AM America; I am what you have created, I am here to remind you that you have made tragic, hideous mistakes and you still haven’t made it right. Or it can be read as an announcement: like it or not, I am the America of which you are so proud, so stop treating me as an Other.
6 “The Woman with Two Vaginas”
Denise Duhamel (1961-)Denise Duhamel writes a lot of sexual poetry, but this particular poem, despite its title (and though it does deal, somewhat explicitly, with sex), comes from a book of poems based on Inuit mythology. As bizarre as it seems, I find this poem very moving: husband abandons wife due to custom rather than his own displeasure, she’s wailing on the ice floe, he’s weeping into the “barren palms” of his new wife, and for what? To maintain some kind of community-imposed normality? It’s as tragic a story as Heloise and Abelard, or Violetta and Alfredo, Romeo and Juliet, or any other pair of lovers who are separated by some societal demand while their love remains strong. The tercet structure interests me: why three lines? Tercets are often found in highly structured forms, like terza rima or villanelles, but here, there’s neither rhyme or a strong rhythm (many lines are pentameter, but many are not). Maybe the idea is to use a stanza associated with a structured form, then break the structure – as these people might have remained happier had they broken the structure of society? Do they symbolize the woman, the man, and the concept of “normality” which disrupts their lives? Is there some significance to the number “3” in Inuit culture? I don’t know; all I know is that I can hear her sobbing on the ice floe, and I can hear his mourning in his hut, and I wish they’d been wiser.
7 “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”
Eduoardo Corral (1973-)In his video reading of this poem, Eduoardo Corral says he uses code-switching in his poetry – using Spanish words here and there, not italicized – which would normalize the English and “otherize” the Spanish. That seems like a reflection of the wish to not “otherize” Latinos, which would be even better. I like the couplet structure of the poem, since I can see two strong “duo” elements in the poem: the speaker and his father, and the two identities the speaker wrestles with. He wouldn’t have a problem with them, if one of those identities were not so hostile to the other in contemporary society. Some of the Spanish language is easy, or inferable, but some is more opaque; I didn’t realize “aguila” was the word for “eagle,” nor did I realize an eagle perched on a cactus holding a snake in its mouth is on the official national Seal of Mexico. Then the last line: “The snake is torn.” So is the speaker, whose father did so much for him, whose shirt he wears: “The gaze of the moon / stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin” – the speaker literally takes on the mantle of his father.The poem opens with “Instead let it be the echo to every prayer” – instead of what? And what is the “it”? I love the openness of these words, in view of the poem’s setting (a friend of Vuong’s, fellow émigré from Vietnam, possibly a lover, shot himself at age 18) it might be, Instead of the life being silenced, or Instead of the dirge of mourning, or Instead of the gunshot fading, or Instead of the war that, though long over when we were born, still poisoned our lives, or Instead of being shamed and harassed for whom we love. The poem combines so many echoes, I’ve only been able to scratch the surface, and it’s the sort of poem I might want to keep reading for years, and see how it changes. I came across it early this year in the 2014 Pushcart anthology, and liked it so much, I ordered Vuong’s chapbook, the first book of poetry I’ve purchased since I was a teenager.
I’m captivated by the translation of this poem. It’s in a highly restrictive form – a Ballade Supreme – with strict rhyme and meter requirements, yet the translation works perfectly aesthetically and practically. The poet – Villon was himself condemned to death at one point, though he was pardoned – speaks for a group of hanged men in first person plural. To me, there’s an accusory tone: you may be revolted by our rotting bodies, but was it not you who executed us? So don’t judge us harshly – and then, the repeating refrain, “Pray to God that He forgive us all”. Us all, meaning the executed criminals, but also those who executed them, and those who scorn their remains and feel superior. We are all guilty; we all require forgiveness for what we’ve done here. Then there’s the use of “forgive” instead of “absolve” – I don’t know French well enough to know if that’s standard practice, if there’s a different French word for the English concept of absolution, and in theological terms, there is a difference: “absolve” changes the condition of the miscreant; “forgive” changes the condition of the forgiver. It is for God to absolve, it is for man to forgive. So though the prayer is aimed at God, it’s directed at the observer, the reader, who is also a participant in this scene. There’s a lot to think about here.
10 “The Mrs. Gets Her Ass Kicked”
Tracie Morris (contemporary; no birthdate available)This is a bit of a change-up. I discovered Tracie Morris through another poetry MOOC, and though this poem is odd – it’s sound poetry and must be performed rather than read (the link is a video) – it’s amazingly thought-provoking, uniting Doris Day, “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”, and the impact of slavery on the African American woman. Doris Day was a squeaky-clean actress in the 50s who epitomized the standard middle class dream every woman had: to meet a man who would support her. The song’s lyrics echo this “Heaven, I’m in heaven” and then the sound starts, with Tracie patting on her chest to break up the words – it reminds me of something out of a war movie where a helicopter evacuates the wounded. Then she sounds like she’s strangling, all the while singing this insane song about how happy she is. This slowly morphs into “It all started when we were brought here as slaves from Africa”, linking domestic violence against black women to the overall devaluation of human life through slavery. It’s powerful experience, unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.
11 “Musée des Beaux Arts”
W. H. Auden (1907-1973)I came across this poem in connection with a short story from The New Yorker, “Kattekoppen” in which a Breugel painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appears on a postage stamp sent to a Dutch soldier in Afghanistan. At the time I was taken with William Carlos Williams’ poem, which is very similar to Auden’s; they both make clear the “life goes on” quality, that one person’s catastrophe might not even be noticed by someone else with the routine business of living on his mind. Williams’ poem is subtler, I think, but I prefer the reflection of Auden on the wisdom of the Old Masters. There’s also an odd rhyme scheme, I’m not sure if it’s even deliberate (it must be), it’s very irregular, but noticeable. It’s interesting that these two have such a similarity with Steve Smith’s poem as well; perhaps that’s why I was drawn to them.
I began this course with this poem as my “favorite poem” in the first week; since I feel very strongly about it, and since it’s ok to re-use it here, I’m including it again. Stevie Smith wrote it after she’d read a newspaper story about a man at the beach who’d drowned as his friends waved to him, not realizing he was in danger. The irony of that situation touches me, but the poem treats it beautifully by making it unclear who the speaker is in each stanza. How is a dead man moaning? Or was that before he was dead, was it another man perhaps? Who says “I was much further out…”, is that the man speaking (as a ghost), or the poet speaking metaphorically? That phrase gets repeated at the end, again with the same ambiguity about who is speaking. The middle stanza seems to be onlookers at the beach, or possibly at his funeral, absolving themselves from responsibility. But really, how could they have known – it was a mistake anyone could make, isn’t it? Or were they just having too much fun, were they too comfortable in the sun, to really pay attention? How many signals do the drowning send before they go under? Maybe we need to pay more attention to each other, make sure we see the difference between waving, and drowning.