On teaching poetry as a non-poet

Also, from a student today: “Well, poetry’s really like when you pour Coke into the glass, and fills in between the ice cubes. That’s the poetry.”

I’ve been taken aback by how much I’ve been soaking up poetry these last couple weeks as I prepared for class. I didn’t teach poetry in last year’s class – it is, after all, a nonfiction class – but, inspired by Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, I built two weeks’ worth into my syllabus and as it turned out, it hit right in the perfect time for both my students (who have been wearily slogging through midterms) and me. October was good, but not easy, and very wearying in body and soul and spirit in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. In the past when I was weary, I shut down, but this month I’ve felt the exact opposite happening inside of me. I’m beginning to understand things I haven’t in a long time, if I ever did.

And so I’ve been inhaling poetry, more than anything else.

On Friday I went down to First Things to hear Christian Wiman – eminent poet and essayist and editor of Poetry magazine. He read some old work and new. I admit, shamefacedly, that I’m familiar with his name and reputation but not his actual poetry. It was a rather august crowd, including some King’s students (some mine!) and a colleague on the faculty as well as a number of other familiar faces – including, believe it or not, Mark Strand.

Wiman’s poetry is dark in a not hopeless way. There seemed to me to be a lot of spareness and trees in his work, probably something borne of his youth in far-west Texas. He found his way toward faith through poetry. His work seems like it’s a curtain between the eternal and me, fluttering and letting me see beyond it just a little, once in a while.

Later that night we were at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, where about half my students and some of their friends and roommates piled into a corner for their Friday night slam, which was (at times literally) hopping. The poet who won is an NYU student and a pastor’s kid, something I wasn’t expecting and something I was glad of, for their sakes.

After these few weeks of teaching, experiencing, and observing poetry, I’ve been gratified to have several students approach me and say they want to start writing and maybe even performing their own work. Nothing could delight me more.

But I don’t write poetry. Sometimes I think  I could, but I’m not sure you can force that sort of thing, and I’ve chosen my genre for the next few years. And yet. And yet.

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