Sunday, September 16, 2012

70 Days of Poetry with 30.000 Others + a History of the World in 100 Objects

70 Days of Poetry
Some days ago, the literary course "Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo)" by Al Filreis started. The official introduction to it says: "This course is a fast-paced introduction to modern and contemporary U.S. poetry, from Dickinson and Whitman to the present. Participants (who need no prior experience with poetry) will learn how to read poems that are supposedly "difficult." - Almost 30.000 people enrolled so far, and after taking listening to parts of 2 other classes before (more about that here), i really looked forward to this one, and was curious how a poetry class of that size might work. I also put a ModPo blog feature up in the blueprint blog with a preview video, which gives an idea of the classes.

The poem they picked for the start is “I Dwell in Possibility” by Emily Dickinson. The suggested approach to take part is: read the poem, listen to the video discussion, then join the forum discussion. What really is great and different compared to the other classes: it’s not a lecture-styled video, but a round-table talk with different takes. it’s a good concept to show how there are multiple ways to read a poem, not one single, “correct” interpretation, and lively to follow.

There were 7 videos for the first week, which made it easy to figure out a rhythm to join. While listening to the video, i thought: it will be 10 weeks of poetry = 70 days. After 3 poems from Dickinson, Walt Whitman followed, with "Song of Myself", and a 2-part discussion. So inspiring to watch - i really had no idea of how the “closer reading” might work. We never did something like this in school here in Germany. It’s really a pity – back then, they made us learn poems by heart, no matter if we understood the meaning or not. which might explain why some people have a kind of broken relations to poetry. I was reminded of that in the forums, when i read a thread called “I am lost”. it  starting with this note:

I am Lost
“I am lost. I feel just the same as I did in high school. There seems to be some magic skill one has to have to deal with poetry, and it seems that most other people automatically know how to do this.I don't. I thought now that I am older, I may be able to figure it out, but I am still just as lost. How do you know what she (the poet) is trying to say? It seems like magic, like just making something up. It seems like there is some secret way of doing this and nobody is saying what it is or how an outsider can become a member of this secret society. Right now I am frustrated because it seems that poetry is forever beyond my comprehension or ability."

following that, many comments appeared with suggestions and own experience, like this: ”I used to feel the same frustration until I realized that there is no right or wrong intrepretation of a poem, and you also don't need to neccessarily understand a poem to enjoy it. There is no magic skill, just a close study of each word in the poem as they are doing in the video discussion. “

and this: “This isn't magic, although I know that it feels that way at times. The first step is to read the poem. What does it make you feel? What does it make you imagine? What does it make you think of? What does the poem describe? The goal isn't to make a complex cathedral of ideas that are guarded by boiling oil and cannon, but to each describe how we view it and share our ideas. Unless one of us is a medium, we will never know for sure the meaning intended. However, we can enjoy the journey and find what the poems mean to us. - Does that help at all?”

and then, a following post with someone describing his feeling in the course: “71 years old...little background reading poetry, but having great fun! Had no idea what "close reading" I do (have an idea). Brief expose has been enlightening and enjoyable. I begin the course a novice...and will end as such...but, I hope, the better for the experience.” 

A Play with Possibility
i loved that. i thought: i want to be like this when 71. open, joyous, a novice, the better for the experience. i also tried to remember the turn that brought me to poetry, the first poem i wrote. strange, i thought it would stand out in memory. it took a bit until the answer surfaced: the first poem i put online, it wasn't a poem on first glance, but a moving flash: Falling. and it was more of a play with possibilities at first, until i arrived at this page, which was the start of my webpage for a while (click to see animated version):

"Falling" was followed by a series of moving images, again with words included. here's one of them, called "Time":

I Remember
The pondering on poetry and memories brought me back to "I Remember, I Remember" by Mary Ruefle, from the current edition of Poetry magazine. it's one moving and beautiful read, starting with the first moment of poetry for Ruefle:

"I remember—I must have been eight or nine—wandering out to the ungrassed backyard of our newly constructed suburban house and seeing that the earth was dry and cracked in irregular squares and other shapes, and I felt I was looking at a map and I was completely overcome by this description, my first experience of making a metaphor, and I felt weird and shaky and went inside and wrote it down: the cracked earth is a map. Although it only takes a little time to tell it, and it is hardly interesting, it filled a big moment at the time, it was an enormous ever-expanding room of a moment, a chunk of time that has expanded ever since and that my whole life keeps fitting into."

here's the whole text: I Remember, I Remember


A History of the World in 100 Objects
The reason i ordered "A History of the World in 100 Objects" was partly the same one as registering with the poetry class: a curiousity for format and concept. How could anyone tell the history of the world in 100 objects? It seems impossible. Even when the one who takes on the task is the British Museum. After coming across the book for three times, i read an excerpt. The excerpt starts with the very words: "Mission Impossible". And then explains the concept:

"The rules of the game for A History of the World in 100 Objects were set by Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, and they were simple. Colleagues from the Museum and the BBC would choose from the collection of the British Museum 100 objects that had to range in date from the beginning of human history around two million years ago and come right up to the present day. The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally. They would try to address as many aspects of human experience as proved practicable, and to tell us about whole societies, not just the rich and powerful within them. The objects would therefore necessarily include the humble things of everyday life as well as great works of art." 

The author of the book is Neil McGregor, the director of the British Museum. Reading the rules brought me right back to walking into the halls of the musuem. They have the rosetta stone there. Egyptian mummies, too. African masks. Buddhists statues. Everything, really. Where would they start?

When i read on, i expected more background information, a timeline, a map with continents and places the object relate to, the story of how the book came together. What i didn't expect, though, was the next chapter title. Right on page 4 of the text:

The Necessary Poetry of Things
Thinking about the past or about a distant world through things is always about poetic re-creation. We acknowledge the limit of what we can know with certainty, and must then try to find a different kind of knowing, aware that the objects must have been made by people esseentially like us.  ...  Can we ever really understand others? Perhaps, but only thorugh feats of poetic imagination, combined with knowledge rigorously acquired and ordered.

More about this book, at a later point (or if you want, there is a short excerpt online here, and a longer one available at Amazon). i plan to read it at the pace of 1 object a day. Which also goes well with the 1 poem + poetry video a day. It almost feels a bit like being back at school, or at university. And the season is fitting for it, too: school started here last monday again, after the summer pause.

Looking forward, both to the poetry and the history.


It's Monday! What are you reading?

this blog post is inspired by the blog series "It's Monday! What are you reading?" which is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. it's a blog initiative to share ones own reading and to see what others are currently reading. participating blogs are listed in this Linky Book List


Previous reading blog entries 
are collected here: bookshelf + monday reads
there also is a visual bookshelf, just click it to get there:


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Hang in there. Poetry is very elusive but oh-so rewarding. Take your time. Read the poem once, twice, and then later a few times. Let the poem linger in your brain.

It will all come together.

Katya said...

Fascinating. I also grew up in a culture that encourages (umm... mandates) the memorization of poetry -- my parents are Russian and made me memorize dozens of poems.
I always attributed my ease of understanding poetry (compared with my US classmates) to the huge volume of poetry I had memorized and internalized. It never occurred to me that you can memorize a poem and still not 'feel' it.
It sounds like you are taking an amazing class.

Katya said...

I know this is going to sound strange... but I think if you try to force meaning too hard on a poem it sometimes slips away from you. Sometimes you have to zen it -- let the feel of the poem lead you to understanding it.
And there's no wrong answers.
I love teaching poetry to 5-7th graders. They haven't learned yet that poetry is supposed to be 'hard' so they find the most fascinating imagery and meanings in poems.

Dorothee Lang said...

thanks for sharing your thoughts and advice.

Katya, this is so interesting: "They haven't learned yet that poetry is supposed to be 'hard' so they find the most fascinating imagery and meanings in poems." - i guess that's true for my stepping into poetry via installations, too. if someone told me: "write a poem", i would have handed back an empty page. but the approach of moving words, and without the "this is POETRY" opened it up from a different, playful angle.

Jennifer Hartling said...

I'm one of the 30,000 taking this course. I'm watching the videos and haven't as of yet joined in on the discussion forums. I've always been so intimidated by poetry. That's the reason I'm taking this course, I want to face my fear!

A History of the World sounds like something I would thoroughly enjoy. I'll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on it!

Happy reading :D
The Relentless Reader