when the school bell rings, i shuffle over to class in my holey-est slippers. and, dating my pedagogical style, i haul out my spiral notebook, my pen, and settle in. click a couple buttons, and poof! poetry school’s in session.
so it goes when you go to college from the comfy confines of your kitchen table. when you’re hauled out on field trips to the lower east side, and south street seaport, without so much as buttoning a sweater.
over the wintry weeks, i’ve grown fond of my professor — she tells us to call her lisa, even though she’s listed as elisa in the course book. (she lets on, in a cozy email, that only strangers call her by her full name, first syllable vowel-prefix attached; she seems to be inferring that we are now admitted to her inner circle — how kind of her, how generous. see why i like her already?)
she tells that to the thousands and thousands of us who click into class from wherever we sit on the globe, and learn a thing or two about poetry in america, and walt whitman, specifically.
thousands and thousands, you ask? yup, if they packed us all in a lecture hall it’d need to be about as big as beijing’s bird’s nest, that iconic steel-strung stadium built for the 2008 summer olympics.
back on the days when we were settling into class, when virtual papers were being passed out, and we were going around the room to introduce ourselves, i tried to scribble down all the countries we come from. i started with ukraine, scribbled india, UK, bangladesh, serbia, south korea, nigeria, netherlands, lebanon, swaziland, kosovo, even togo. i practically ran out of room after packing in itty-bitty letters clear to the bottom of the notebook page, and sideways up the margins. i just counted 49, and i’m sure i missed a few.
we are all huddled round our laptops, our iPads, our clunky desktops for a class called “poetry in america: whitman.”
think not that this is mamby-pamby read-along at home. this is sit-back-while-the-brilliant-professor — from the comfy confines of her book-lined office in the red-brick barker center just off harvard square — waxes-eloquently (and without notes) about the quintessentially american 19th-century poet. and when she wants to show us an original manuscript, she just hauls her video crew over to the rare books vault in harvard’s houghton library and pans the lens up and down the page. and when she wants us to know the streets whitman walked in new york city, she pops up yet another video and walks us up and down the sidewalks, pointing out the print shop where he set type, showing us his newspaper’s proximity to new york’s city hall, and even the back alley where whitman got to know the prostitutes and actresses of mid-19th-century manhattan.
this is hardly a hands-off matter. why, this fine professor insists on “two well-crafted paragraphs,” in open response to questions about the poems. she and her technical wizards have provided a nifty annotation tool, so we — the thousands of students, all of whom speak a thousand different mother tongues — can identify anaphora (repeating the same word at the start of successive lines) and parallelism (repetition of certain structures throughout the poem) and the latest poet-trick of the week, apostrophe (an address or salutation, as in O sun!). and we have to post these things in public manner. so anyone who’s in the class can scroll along and peek over our shoulder and figure out whether we are complete dunces or might be onto something.
in fact, this global classroom comes complete with office hours and TAs. and those brilliant almost-PhD’s actually scroll through the online postings, those “two well-crafted paragraphs,” and comment on our postings.
now, for a timid soul like me, one whose hand might be quaking in an early round of hand-raising in a lecture hall the size of kingdom come, it is scary enough to hit the submit button, and watch your thoughts on walt whitman’s “crossing brooklyn ferry,” or “song of myself” get all but nailed to the village crier’s blackboard. but even i can suffer the possible indignities and disgraces from the loneliness of my kitchen, so imagine how the soul doth swell, when hours later you circle back and find the nice TA has scribbled “you’re really onto something,” there beneath your humble words.
this whole exercise, in fact, might be far more than what i signed up for. i thought it was a vigorous way to dig deeper into the world of poetry that so captivates my imagination. but, slowly and certainly, i am discovering it might just be a brilliant bathtowel-rub of confidence and faith.
we all have a million reasons why we never think we’re good enough. the joke at harvard, we learned last year, is that nearly every freshman shuffling across the yard is peeking over his or her shoulder, wondering who in the admissions office made the mistake and let her or him in. “they must have mixed me up with the brainiac whose name was after mine in the applicant pile,” you can’t help but think — unless, that is, your mother gave you cans of ego-builder for breakfast with your eggs. (mine did not.)
so, i bumbled into this class in the ways i often do. first i wasn’t sure if i was allowed to sign up. (i was; it’s free and open to the public.) then i thought i wouldn’t take it for the nifty certificate that says i passed (i figured i didn’t need any more papers in my rat’s hole of an office, and besides, what if i couldn’t cut it?). and i sure didn’t think i’d ever muster the courage to say a single thing out loud (you could film a video introduction of yourself, or cobble a few penned sentences; i opted for the pen — aka keyboard).
but then, somewhere along the way, i started reading and thinking, and melting under the warmth of this professor with her deep love of poetry and her proclivity for messed-up hair and quirky field trips. and then i wrote what i thought, dug down not too deep — because what i thought had already bubbled up and wanted to be typed — and found myself deeply engaged in conversation with mr. TA and a few other students of poetry, who, for all i know, might be typing from a drafty hovel in azerbaijian or a dim-lit flat in kosovo.
it’s what happens when you go fling yourself into any one of life’s classrooms, the ones that don’t come with comfort guaranteed. you find a two-track curriculum — the one where you absorb the lesson plan, as penned by the professor, and the one that’s more of an independent study, and you find yourself quietly, wholly, learning who you are and who you might become.
walt whitman, i’ve learned, was the son of a carpenter who came of age during america’s building boom. he schooled himself in new york city, first as a newspaperman and, always, a flaneur, a fellow who strolled the city inhaling its street theater and its lessons.
but i’ve learned too that the wobbly-legged just-born thoughts that spill from deep inside, might “really be onto something.” and that’s a gold star i’ll carry closest to my heart.
word of the week, thanks to poetry school: amative — sexually potent. (i learned that whitman might be described as such. you decide for yourself how you choose to apply to your very own self or someone you admire.)
any hour now, i am sliding into my snow boots and riding the clackety el downtown to meet my dear professor in the flesh. yes, indeed, she is coming to the poetry foundation on chicago’s north side — that transparent cube of glass on aptly named west superior street. she is coming for conversation about whitman and gwendolyn brooks, chicago’s own poet wonder. i can’t wait to look into her sparkly eyes — the professor’s, i mean.
do you have a favorite whitman poem, or better yet, have you flung yourself into any discomfort zone this week, and did you find that you somehow stayed afloat?