You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

I've watched the subscriber alerts pile up in my email to the point where I now have close to five hundred students in my MOOC on poetry. 

Okay, it's not the tens of thousands of people who enroll in Machine Learning. It's not MOOCzilla. But for a close reading of difficult twentieth century poems, it ain't bad. 

My George Washington University poetry enrollments tend to be about 25 per class, and I love these small groups, in which I gradually get a sense of the humanity of the students -- and they get a sense of me.  I love the mix of wide-eyed nineteen-year-olds and well-traveled retired diplomats that shows up in my Foggy Bottom classrooms.  I love it when I arrive early to class and the wide-eyed are lost in conversation with the well-traveled. 

After class, students offer me tokens of interest -- an obituary for Adrienne Rich, a parody they found of The Waste Land.  I love it when they ask me to read their stories, poems, memoirs.

I love it when - as sometimes happens in these small classes - I become aware that one guy (it's always a guy) sits very still, last row, in a miasma of anger and sadness... Everything we read, everything we say, seems to feed his nihilism ...

I fantasize, every time I get one of these guys, that he's the next great poet, and that our bumbling classroom ways are stoking his poetic contempt...

When I was in college, I got crushes on these guys.

Main point, though:  I also love talking to a very large, rather abstract (I do hear from them; they comment on my course page), international group of students.


Although next week will be my final Faculty Project poetry lecture (title: "What Are They Trying to Tell Us?"), I now intend to keep going.  I'm learning from my techie sister how to do the filming by myself, so I don't need to wait for the weekend.  I can go wild.

I've been intrigued to see the evolving focus, shape, and direction of my lecture series.  Of course I mapped out modern poems and themes in order to provide Udemy with a syllabus; but beyond wanting to talk about obvious things (the loosening of form; spiritual crisis) I didn't have in mind A Big Idea.  Yet my sense of the central modern poetic preoccupation with "exile"  -- as Philip Larkin calls it in a poem I feature in my remarks -- from a comprehensible and reasonably non-threatening world, has clearly emerged as the theme of the series.  Exile and - in the case of poets like Wallace Stevens - forms of possible return.

One thing I'd like to say in subsequent lectures is that debates about poetry are often actually philosophical and moral debates about the value and meaning of life -- that a particular poem can serve as a sharp aesthetic focus for discussions of human fundamentals.  In a wonderful essay about the recent release of Larkin's Complete Poems, Stephen Akey notes that "[n]o stoicism or detachment softens the harshness" of one of Larkin's best-known lyrics, a meditation on death-fear titled Aubade.  Although A.N. Wilson began an essay, a few years ago, by writing: "If I had to name one poem, written in England in my lifetime, of unquestionable greatness, it would be Philip Larkin's 'Aubade,'" Aubade is quite controversial among readers and poets, many of whom think its uncompromising nihilistic attitude blameworthy.  Akey cites Czeslaw Milosz:

No less an authority than Czeslaw Milosz called it “a desperate poem about the lack of any reason — about the complete absurdity of human life — and of our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death” (Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi, 2006). It’s not that Milosz objected to Larkin’s thematics, and he greatly admired his “wonderful craftsman[ship].” What he found “hateful” about “Aubade” was its passivity, its “attitude of complete submission to the absurdity of human existence.” With this attitude, he went on to say, “Poetry cannot agree…Poetry is directed against that.”

Is it?  Is poetry as such life-affirming?  How can this spectacularly important and broadly admired poem actually be non-poetry, a species of utterance radically at odds with poetry?  I want, in my subsequent Faculty Project lectures, to consider what Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, says about poetry:

...  Kafka says in his diaries ...something like “literature is an axe to break the sea frozen inside us”. I think that we are very frightened of the intensity and the excesses of our emotional lives. And that the arts — and if you happen to like poetry, then poetry, but it could also be music — enable you to both bear and get pleasure from your feelings. And also to discover the things that matter most to you.

Poetry is a tributary into our truest and most turbulent feelings, suggests Phillips, a tributary that both allows us to "bear" and derive pleasure from those otherwise frightening intensities.  Poetry spans Milosz's life-affirming springs and our obdurate death-swamps. 

You don't need to put this idea in Phillips' psychoanalytical terms; you can think of it spiritually, as Christian Wiman does:

Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine — not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature — and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the sorrow; the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness.


“Having [taught MOOCs], I can’t teach at Stanford again ...  I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

Sebastian Thrun swears off classroom teaching.  He's run amooc!  How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?  UD feels like a junkie saying it, but she'll take one red and one blue.

Next Story

Written By