By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
When I enrolled in an online class, Modern & Contemporary Poetry, I thought it was homeschool inertia at work. A day without school? Unthinkable. If, after 14 years of home education, the students had left the premises, then the teacher would become the student.
And so I did.
Through the nonprofit, Internet-based organization Coursera, hundreds of classes offered by top-notch universities around the world are now available for free to anyone who cares to enroll. These Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, have exploded in the past two years. A few higher-learning institutions, like MIT, have made course materials available to the public for years. Now, however, it seems everybody wants to give MOOCs a try. It’s not clear how staging a class like The Modern World, offered by University of Virginia last year, at a cost to the private university in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, ultimately makes money for the learning institution. For now, all of them – Princeton, Yale, the University of Edinburgh, for heaven’s sake — seem giddy with the thrill of learning for its own sake, made available to the masses.
In my ModPo class, those masses number more than 30,000 students, from Australia to Israel, Ontario to Delhi, Italy, Syria and Argentina. Kansas, too. Along with the video discussions posted for all to view via computer, iPod, iPad or smartphone, the classes offer discussion forums where students swap stories, critiques and questions. I can argue about Jack Kerouac with a graduate student from Barcelona or puzzle over Gertrude Stein with a Russian retiree whose English makes more sense than the avant-garde, verbal cubist herself.
Then there’s the interior angle. I’ve loved, studied and written poetry since I was 12, though life’s ebb and flow have sometimes interfered with its pursuit. It’s odd how a person can find such deep meaning in something, be it a piece of music or a work of literature, then lose track of that love for long years.
From the beginning, the class pulled at the edges of nearly-forgotten pieces of my life. We started with Whitman. I tried to recall what I knew of the barefoot bard. I read the introduction to my dusty, 1901 edition of Leaves of Grass and marveled to recall that Whitman, too, wrote newspaper prose. Then, the most unexpected presence slipped from the papery leaves: a snapshot of myself 25 years ago.
“I am to wait,” I had written on the blank back of the image, quoting Whitman, “I do not doubt I am to meet you again, I am to see to it that I do not lose you.”
Nor had I, because my former self spoke to me across the decades, laughing at the camera. Lose her? The girl who read every page of “The Voice That is Great Within Us” an anthology of American poetry in the 20th century, back in the days that she signed her name with a loopy, optimistic flower tacked onto the last “l”? That girl?
Seven weeks into the class. I’ve written a paper, turning Emily Dickinson to and fro as though she’s the most inscrutable poet, not the American legend we all think we know: white dresses, reclusive nature, meditations on the garden and its tiny citizens. Do I know Emily differently than I did at 14? Do I know myself?
For poetry, I’ve been reminded, is not just about reading the lines. Nor is it about placing the perfect word where it fits best, like a puzzle piece. Nor is it about prising out the purest meaning from the poet’s work, like the men who levered jewels from the marble friezes at the Taj Mahal. Poetry is a map. A proposal. A flight of fancy. A recollection.
A journey to the interior.
The way home.
In a poem by Cid Corman, underrated but, I was thrilled to find, asterisked with enthusiasm by my teenaged self, the poet wonders why he writes, talks, draws out the conversation.
“It isnt for want of something to say — something to tell you” he muses, “something you should know — but to detain you —
keep you from going —”
There it is. The will to preserve: moments, thoughts, one’s deep love, even, in the case of Wallace Stevens, the swarm of blackbirds in the neighborhood.
I saw them perching on the light poles Friday afternoon, as I scurried across town for photo assignments, groceries, gasoline. There are so many ways to see them. So many ways to say how Friday looked, with its snow and broken sunlight, and the water gleaming on black feathers and bright buttons of flowers.
There’s something strong and steady, too, about preservation in community. I may feel lonesome on days when my two children close the car doors and walk to the school building. Then I come home to eavesdrop on the conversation, always flowing, a circuit of seeing and saying and knowing, poets talking all around the world.
School, I realize, will always be in session.