When I first began teaching, eons ago, my least favorite part of pre-semester prep was crafting class policies. In particular, the part of pre-semester prep I dreaded, avoided like all manner of plagues, and generally kvetched about to no end was writing the all-important “course objectives” part of the syllabus. It seemed so painful, so impossible: how to describe your goals for the class, what you think is important for your students to learn, and what you want them to think is important?
Now, entering my eighth year in the classroom, I’m really not sure that the process of creating a syllabus has gotten any easier — in fact, I think it’s probably more difficult now that my brain has to churn through so much. However, the process has become more enjoyable — and even — in fact, particularly — the previously-dreaded “course objectives” section. I’ve found myself turning these sections into manifestoes of sorts, which helps me to get a grasp on what I’m thinking about for the class — and for the art. I’m not sure that they’re the most successful manifestoes, but they are from the gut, and, if there’s one thing I believe about poetry, it’s that it needs a little gut in it.
Here’s the current manifesto, from my poetry syllabus, which probably resulted from my thinking a great deal about Marianne Moore’s masterpiece, “Poetry,” after it was mentioned on the Wom-Po discussion (I’m offering a link to the poem, as WordPress and I tend to disagree about formatting):
Let us remember … that in the end we go to poetry for
one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives
and the world in which we live them, and that if we
more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt
to destroy both.
– Christian Wiman, editor, Poetry magazine
Poetry. Some are polite and call it difficult: others, impossible, or, at worst, irrelevant. Many claim with sincere conviction that poetry is dead.
In our time, poetry is often relegated to the madwoman in the attic, furiously scribbling away at verses incomprehensible to anyone but herself, or else to dusty books pounded by fusty professors who claim they’ve found the key. But poetry is as far from dead as it could be. Historically, poetry has told us who we are – the Greek poet Callimachus’ Aetia, or Causes, explained Greek culture, customs, and festivals; Hesiod’s work explained everything from agriculture to astronomy; and most of what we know of Greek theology comes from Homer’s Iliad – as well as how we are to relate to each other and our world. From Milton, we derive what we know about Christianity; from the Brownings, we learn how to love; from Dickinson, we learn how the mind works in solitude; from Coleridge and Wordsworth, we learn what we can learn from nature; from Eliot, we learn how to navigate the treacherous reaches of the psyche and the modern world. Poetry may be a foreign language, but it is a language that explains the landscape of the human heart and of a human’s relationship and responsibilities to the world; to say that poetry is dead is to kill much of what we know about ourselves, and the way to express what we know. In our times, in this battlefield where we are bombarded by promises of instant gratification and entertainment solely for the sake of entertainment, in a world of YouTube clips and reality television and a whole host of what T.S. Eliot would call “broken images,” in a world where mindless entertainment threatens to wash away our minds, we as human beings must fight to keep what is most human about us: and poetry can be the key to preserving and expressing this.
In this class, we will keep poetry alive by reading and examining the works of poets both ancient and modern. We’ll learn a number of different techniques and forms from various cultures and language systems, from the 1rst century Japanese renga to the 13th century Italian sonnet to the 20th century French transliteration. We’ll strengthen our skills at analysis and scansion through the study of sample poems, and we’ll strengthen our craft by writing a wide variety of poems, both in formal and free verse (and some forms in between!).
Which, of course, translates as this.