Free Verses


Arts & Culture

The online forum was empty when I submitted the essay, my first for Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. It was still early—a few minutes before the midnight deadline, when peer evaluators would then be assigned to post feedback. But not knowing who that peer might be, nor how their public evaluation might portray my work, made the quiet unsettling. Expectant, I awaited review on this naked, vertiginous stage.

Our assignment for ModPo, as this Coursera version is known, was to close read the Emily Dickinson poem identified by its paradoxical opening line, “I taste a liquor never brewed.” In the poem, ubiquitous intoxicants are absorbed literally out of the moisture in the air. They unhinge our debauched speaker, who before long is “Reeling—thro endless summer days—From inns of Molten Blue.” Describing the scene I invoked soaked clouds crossing the summer sky, befitting a heavy drunken stupor. “Clouded,” I titled the essay.

Since its inception this spring, Coursera, the interactive online education company founded by Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, has grown auspiciously—securing collaboration from the Ivy Plus schools and sixteen million dollars in venture capital funding—while its humanities offerings, noticeably, have been stunted. (They account for just twenty or so of over two hundred current course offerings.) Understandably, humanities’ characteristically endless trails of abstraction, revealing no discernible right answers, are poorly suited to the online environment. And before ModPo, it is likely those encountered in the study of Dickinson’s proto-modernism, Ezra Pound’s early imagism, or most Gertrude Stein would have proved no exception.

A sense of having contributed to a radical experiment in higher education crept up on me that night, growing more palpable as the essay deadline passed. Anxiously, my mouse tapped “Refresh” but extracted only a disappointing trickle of other peer evaluations. Although my critic was randomly assigned, judging by the hour it would be a student east of Iran—one logging in from Afghanistan, or India, or China, or Malaysia, maybe even Australia—who, if charged with my essay, had sunlight enough to critique it. Geography affected the relationship between writer and reviewer, potentially widening gaps in language or formal schooling. But I hoped seemingly divisive personal narratives could be transcended, at least if Aristotle was right in thinking that “poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.”

I finally discovered the critique a few days later. “An intriguing analysis,” wrote my reviewer. “And I must say that your writing, in a way, weirdly mirrors a drunkard’s babbling: at times zigzagging, at times circling patter (all in a good sense!!!).”

Within two weeks, reams of such reviews, along with everything from simple logistical queries to grand pronouncements about poetry and art, had thronged the forum, extending to over ten thousand posts. Evidently, canning such massive, open, online courses, then giving them a vigorous shake, creates something of a blast radius. But what did we expect?

Al Filreis, Kelly Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania, is ModPo’s instructor. Almost two decades ago, he established the Kelly Writer’s House, a serene sanctuary for Penn poets, essayists, and other wordsmiths to indulge their creativity. The Gothic cottage, built in 1851, is entered via a low wrought iron gate which opens onto a garden path inscribed with William Carlos Williams’s “The Quality of Heaven.” Guests may lounge on the front porch or drift into the reading room to thumb old books spilling from the shelves. The regulars are often nestled in the alcove or spread out on a soft green sofa, sipping tea between scribbles. Al told me it was intended as “a cozy little cottage—like home, not like rows of chairs with someone up front wearing a tie,” and indeed, it is without rows, ties, or even a discernible front.

ModPo was designed to be the cottage’s online extension, and it is, in some ways, just as welcoming. In one online video, Al tours the Writer’s House with a shaky handheld camcorder, often surprising TAs curled up in their favorite nooks. His intimate pedagogy shapes the course site’s very infrastructure: no lectures, which he considers obsolete, but instead live webcasting and video discussions that model the kind of informal but directed group conversations students should be having. “We’ve modified it a lot from the vanilla-flavored Coursera page,” he shared, adding that “virtual spaces can be cozy if they are created in such a way.” Part of the ambiance radiates from Al’s buzz, which is pervasive. Video discussions capture the bearded, bespectacled professor riffing off his teaching assistants as they parse Lorine Niedecker’s meta-poem “Poet’s Work,” and throwing his hands in excitement when they reached his favorite word, “this.”

Because the ModPo community can feel so close, it is easy to forget that Coursera, unlike the Writer’s House, has no walls. Over the summer, “Al would announce to us how many people have joined the course as the number was growing,” Kristen Martin, one TA, told me. The count reached ten thousand, then fifteen thousand, then twenty thousand, and then finally, on the first day of class: thirty thousand students. For Julia Bloch, the lead TA, “the sense of this being an experiment started to sink in.”

At the time of this writing, halfway through the ten-week curriculum, some thirty-three thousand have registered. With this legion of students, even sporadic activity summons ten thousand to log on weekly. They have tapped a bottomless well of bits and bytes for over one hundred fifty thousand video streams and nearly five hundred thousand discussion views, sustaining a torrent of commentary in tens of thousands of forum posts. “Poetry,” David Poplar, another TA, tweeted, “ain’t dead.”

Throughout it all, Al seems somehow ubiquitous, addressing our every trifle, from assignment clarifications to plagiarism concerns to special orders for Writer’s House coffee mugs. “The main thing is to be active,” he said of his solicitous forum responses, which include even those to correct for earlier typos. “If you create a sense of presence, and of interest, then everything else will follow.” (His response time varies from minutes to, at most, hours, which likely explains a student’s creation of this discussion thread: “I can feel a warm feeling from the teacher (Al Filreis).”) To gauge the class’s comprehension, something apparent on students’ faces in a physical room, this practice demands endurance and, beyond that, patience. It’s not uncommon for a student to log on days behind and inquire unabashedly: Can someone tell me what modern poetry is? “But it’s surprising how little of that we get,” Filreis admitted, “Compared to what it could be.”

At present, there are few other ways to soften the sharp clicks of computer keys and breathe life into a flat, pixilated screen. Daphne Koller, Coursera’s co-founder, affirmed that “the online format is an entirely new instructional medium and calls for the development of new pedagogy across the range of disciplines.” Nowhere is this need more pressing than in the humanities, where Al—teaching works among the most abstract and obscure in cyberspace—is in the vanguard. “This is exactly what hesitation I had joining the Coursera team,” Al recalled, of his worry that “they wouldn’t be ready for arts and humanities, where there is no easy right answer.” Before ModPo reconceived the standard lecture and quiz format, and buttressed its discussion forums, “It looked like a place where people could use twenty-first century technology only to step back into nineteenth-century pedagogy,” he said.

Al’s intention “to recreate the organic environment of a classroom,” Poplar explained to me over several tweets, “has been key … b/c it’s not just about teaching the material to the students, but really showing them the process of how to learn it.” This became clear as we followed the scent of Dickinson’s whimsy, inspiring nearly four thousand dizzying close readings by students. In “I taste a liquor never brewed,” the speaker imbibes some divine concoction freeing the central conceit—perhaps a taste of Mother Nature herself—to wisp round Dickinson’s trademark dashed lines, refusing to solidify. Reading closely felt something like taking a Rorschach test of rain puddles, in the rain.

Students whose essays began, as one did, with Dickinson’s “absorption in the sublime … to extract joy from the most mundane things,” gave way to others gripped by carnal fixations, burning amid “feisty females … of this sensual, delicious morsel of writing.” While a reading of “celebration … in solitude and introspective” rejoiced in the poet as recluse, another revered her as liberated, voicing a “declaration of freedom … [a]gainst the image of Emily locked up in her head, in her room, in her own reality.” Among our varied responses, what little consistency there was found predictability in flux, where “clinical precision … frequently yield[s] only the obscurest of meanings.”

Movement is crucial to how we learn in ModPo. There is, for one, the chronological progression of the syllabus: starting from proto-modernism, beginning with Dickinson and Whitman, and winding through modernism and post-modernism to the present day. Tracing this narrative, Al remarked half-jokingly at the onset, would be “good cocktail party conversation and terrific for SAT scores.” But it will “pale in comparison,” he continued, to another kind of movement—that undertaken by each student “to undo the way we learn to read … [and] re-socialize ourselves into shifting our attention with language.”

This may be, after all, just the way to learn. Billy Collins has advised teachers of poetry to “substitute for the nagging and ultimately pointless question, ‘What does this poem mean?’ the more manageable question ‘Where does this poem go?’” There is more to be gained from tracings of poetic movement, he suggests, than from sweeping explanations. This shift entails treating the form—where a poem goes—as content. “[F]or these other poets as you’ll see, the ‘how’ of what they’re doing is the ‘what,’” Al offered. “How you say what you say, is what you say. How you say what you say, is more important than what you say.” Not mere symbolic tools, words carry inherent meaning simply fitting together on a page, so long as we see them that way.

These developments in reading (for form), experiencing poetry (with thirty three thousand other students), and studying online (with cozy collaboration and feedback), may have thrown into flux ModPo students, Coursera, and the higher education community at large. But according to our modern and contemporary American poets, that seems more or less right: to heed the words of Ezra Pound, and make it new.

Dorian Rolston is a Canadian-born writer in Princeton, New Jersey. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic (online), Next American City, and other places.