I was reluctant at first: A friend had taken the ModPo poetry course — twice — and she’s now pursuing an MFA at Columbia, living in a 4th-floor walkup while her wife remains here in San Francisco. I don’t need that kind of hassle in my life.
Eventually the draw became irresistible, thanks to my friend’s recommendations and my own growing shame at the many gaps in my knowledge of 20th century poetry. Plus, the course is online, accessible on a smartphone, and free. So last fall, I spent 10 weeks taking the course.
The format of the course is perfectly suited to what it is: A poetry appreciation class. There are not really any lectures. You read poems. You listen to recordings. You watch videos of poets performing. But you spend most of your time watching videos where the professor, Al Filreis, leads discussions with small groups of U. Penn undergrads.
You can do this on your phone while commuting to your day job. The Coursera app has lots of problems but the bugs don’t usually stop you from enjoying the course content.
Most of the course videos were recorded several years ago but many of the students are still involved in the course as TAs, helping out in discussion forums and the occasional live webcast.
It’s fun to watch the discussions and get to know the personalities as the weeks go on. Sometimes you get distracted by imagining back stories for these people who you only know through their appearance in the class sessions. (Just like a real life poetry class I suppose.)
The online discussion forums are lively. Somehow Prof. Al manages to stay on top of it all and makes the occasional comment on something you wrote, which makes you feel warm and special and singled out, as if a rock star had signed your t-shirt.
Sometimes one of the TAs will notice something you said, which makes you feel like a member of the rock star’s backup band had signed your t-shirt. Also awesome!
Eventually, no matter what the topic, the forum discussions seem to evolve into people sharing their own poems. That is the point at which I tuned out.
Al Filreis may be the world’s most enthusiastic cheerleader for the formal aspects of modern poetry. He’s engaging and entertaining and a bit dorky and funny. He knows more about 20th century poetry than almost anyone I know in real life.
But what I really valued from the course was not Al’s comments so much as the sense of wonder at watching poems unfold over the course of a close reading in a group, like tea flowers in hot water. There’s something remarkable that happens to many of these poems during a group reading.
In the same way that I have found memory to be deeply social, this course showed me that reading poetry is, too.
The course speeds breakneck through the late 19th and 20th century and on into the first decades of the 21st, and in so doing imposes more of a narrative arc than I think the history can actually support.
That arc, summarized: Poetry advances through innovation in form. The most interesting poets are those who bend forms or break new ground, formally speaking, in order to more accurately express the fragmentation and confusion of life as it is lived.
Thus the history of poetry, per ModPo, is an endless forward march: From formal and understandable to radical, free, and seemingly incoherent.
The arc is free of all but the most glancing references to political or social contexts that shape the meanings of these poems or the lives of the poets who wrote them.
Two modes of reading: appreciative and critical. The scholar’s mode and the editor’s. The classroom and the workshop.
Overwhelmingly the only mode used in ModPo is the former.
Troubling to me: Almost the only time a critical mode of reading emerged was during the discussion of Harlem Renaissance poets and of Communist poets of the 1930s. This was one of the few if only times that anyone asked: Does this poem succeed? Does its form match the content it’s trying to express?
This was also the only time I recall seeing an African-American student in the videotaped discussions.
I keep wanting to ask: What makes this poem so special?
Or to put it another way: Why did an editor or publisher choose this poem above all others? What if the poem had not been so chosen? Would we still be admiring it and looking for evidence of formal invention and assonance and allusion and more?
What if it was simply a Facebook update from a friend instead of a published poem from a respected poet?
What if it bore the name of John Q. Public or Anonymous instead of a respected poet?
What if it was the guy next to you on BART babbling his every thought instead of Ron Silliman writing down his every thought during a BART ride?
This is particularly apparent in the works of some Language poets and some conceptualists.
What if it was written on notebook paper and discarded on the street? If you picked that scrap up, would the genius shine through? Or does your appreciation of the poem to a certain extent depend on knowing who wrote it, what journal published it, whether it appeared in a book, and so forth?
Obviously the latter.
Given that this is the case, it is a shortcoming of the course that more attention is not given to the social and political circumstances of these poems, of those who wrote them, and of the editors who first published them.
Journalists and newspapers are regularly used as foils — as if the opposite of a poet was a journalist. As someone who often wrote and edited news stories, I understand the impulse. Like Frank O’Hara, I too have sat in my office, working on a boring manual, daydreaming of Guadalajara. But I think it stems from a naive understanding of both forms. Journalists, the best of them, in fact are much savvier about the form of their writing than this opposition would suggest. No newspaper editor would subscribe to the direct, purely representationalist view of language that Filreis seems to attribute to them. Most editors and reporters seek artfulness too, as well as honesty, if not a naive sort of truthiness.
Do we really want to address the modern era’s blurring and confusion of language by crafting poetry that is also blurry and confused? Now that public discourse is getting even more incoherent and multivalent, do we really want our poetry to do the same? ModPo seems to suggest we do. I am not so sure. Personally I would appreciate a return to someone like Oppen, or the Imagists, who sought a more crystalline, precise use of language.
Or maybe we want to think about the ways language could be used magically, in an incantatory way, like Jack Spicer.
Overlooked: The slam and spoken-word poetry movement of the past two decades. The poetry being written by rappers (arguably one of the most vibrant genres of writing today). The poetry of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Neko Case for that matter.
Also missing: Berryman. Bishop. Lowell. Moore. Plath. Hughes. A whole long list of midcentury giants that don’t fit into the arc of ever-advancing formal innovation but are nevertheless geniuses of modern poetry.
Most of the tenth week (on contemporary conceptualists, flarf poets, and other bullshit) pissed me off and left me cold but I admit a grudging admiration for Christian Bök’s virtuosity in “Eunoia.”
Not to let this override my gratitude to ModPo for showing me how deeply a close, group reading can change my feelings for a poem.
Nor for showing me how great Gertrude Stein can be (and how radical her innovations — in many ways they make later poets look far less radical by comparison).
Hell, I have a new appreciation for Kerouac, and I never saw that coming. Not that I am likely to curl up of an evening with “October in Railroad Earth” — even though it turns out that where I live is exactly what Kerouac meant by “railroad earth” — but I understand his manic, incantatory style better, and even like it.
I also have a deeper appreciation for Ashbery and Williams (and I remain ridiculously, dorkily fond of “Danse Russe” — so sue me).
But the poems that shot through me like blades of light were Stein’s. And Emily Dickinson. Lorine Niedecker. Gwendolyn Brooks (“Boy Breaking Glass”). Bob Kaufman. Lyn Hejinian. Charles Bernstein (“In a Restless World Like This Is.”) Susan Howe. Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments. Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings.” Laynie Browne’s sonnets.
I’m not sure where this leaves me but I have a stack of new books to read, and fresh lenses to read them with.
And since I used all my reading time for the past two months to take this course, I am looking forward to reading poetry books again.
So: back to the books.