For the past two weeks, I’ve been teaching a continuing ed course about poetry. The program, an “institute for lifelong learning,” is designed for individuals age 50 and over. The catalog describes its participants as people interested in keeping their minds active and engaged.
It’s a little odd that I’m doing this. Poetry has never been at the forefront of my graduate work; I’m lazy and prefer narrative’s instant gratification. But I’m also unemployed and not in a position to walk away from any place that will have me. The director warned me that the students were willing to do little or no work outside of class, so I had to abandon novels immediately and plan to work with more contained entities, like poems. I chose romantic love for a theme, and “Verses Interrupt Us” was born.
After I had beaten my Imposter’s Syndrome into submission, I searched for material that would be accessible but not without complexity. We started with Keats’s "When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be.” The class as a whole liked it; some of them think frequently about mortality. In the sardonically jovial words of one older man, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t buy green bananas anymore.”
With a few age-sensitive modulations, a variety of recognizable student types emerged: the Chronic Hand-Raiser, the Skeptic, the Mistress of Non-Sequiturs. Ms. Non-Sequitur is about 90 years old. She wears giant glasses, gold costume jewelry, and 70s-era pantsuits. She tells us about her granddaughter’s German shepherd and how the Evangelicals want to send all the nonbelievers to hell.
One guy sits by himself in a row’s most interior seat. He scowls—at me and at everyone else. His sourpuss is only visible, however, when he lifts his eyes from his Wall Street Journal, which is not that often. Defensively, I wonder what makes him stay in a class that he appears to hate so much. Then I remember that I don’t know what his life is like outside, and I’m glad that he’s around. His attendance suggests an honest, if meager, effort.
After the Keats sonnet, we read Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress.” This is when the thematic choice of love really began to pay off. Initially, the students resisted the poem’s antiquated language, but they persevered. In the poem, a man pleads with a woman to succumb to his amorous advances. Time’s winged chariot is at our backs, he argues--life is short. Smiles spread across the room as we proceeded through the text. We’ve all heard this from men before, one wizened woman rejoined. I heard a lot of giggles when we reached the section about the “youthful hue” that glistens like “morning dew” on the young maiden’s skin. You can forget that, someone in the room chuckled.
When I asked what the poet could have meant when he recommends that he and the mistress “tear our pleasures with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life,” an avid participant gleefully exclaimed, “He wants rough sex!” His blue eyes, though deeply set in a coronet of creases, were radiant.
Next class, after an all-too-brief exploration of Emily Dickinson’s "Wild Nights!” (With scansion! My professors would be so proud), I gave them Margaret Atwood’s "Variations on the Word Sleep.” I considered this a happy poem, one that could represent for us a transition from seduction to contentment. But the class found it cloying, patronizing, and chimerical. Many did not respond well to the speaker’s earnest desire to protect her vulnerable lover from harm. They had learned, perhaps, that such protection is impossible, and that wishing would not make it so.
I would love to shelter the people I care about from terrible things, I told them. One of my master students, a keen reader and critic, asked, “But can you?” I answered no. Then he asked, “What if my son’s a drug addict? I can’t do anything about that, can I?”
A number of people pulled the poem away from itself (as all readers will sometimes do) and rewrote it. Their “Sleep” was different than mine—theirs was brined with the salt of their experience.
One class remains. The course should have been four weeks, but the final Wednesday falls on July 4. It’s a shame that we don’t have more time.