Snow in the Suburbs

Several years ago I began starting my classes with a poem.  I don't do it every day or it would get old.  Still I do it enough that the students are used to it and even come to expect it.  I try not to select anything particularly relevant to the lesson I'm teaching that day.  Thanks to the miracle of Google, I can pull up anything that strikes my fancy.  

This past week, for instance, it snowed for the first time. Walking across campus  I found myself thinking of Thomas Hardy's Snow in the Suburbs. So I found it on-line, put it on the smart board and read it.  We talked afterward for a few minutes about the way snowfall mutes a landscape and how much fun it is to watch the flakes swirl around. 

Reading a poem to begin a class lacks much pedagogical justification.  I suppose it does burn a little clock as you wait for the persistent late arrivals to wander in (no sense beginning on the hour when a third of the class will need everything explained a second time).  I also like that it embarrasses the late comers, who must stand awkwardly in the back like tardy parishioners waiting for the prayer to conclude.
In the end, my motivation for starting a class with poetry is mostly selfish.  I would just rather talk about poetry on most days.  Randall Jarrell once remarked that he would actually pay somebody to teach poetry to young people if he were rich enough.

This semester one of my students—a baseball player—was inspired enough by the poetry reading that he actually sent me one he had written about his hometown, Austin, Minnesota.  I asked him if he had ever written poetry before and he said no.  I rather liked that he'd taken a risk and encouraged him to write some more.  I don't know that he will, but I sure like that he once did.  In fact, I wish all of my students would write and memorize their own poems.  If nothing else, it would give them something to do in prison (or whatever variant of prison everyone eventually lands in).

Reading Hardy's Snow in the Suburbs the other day actually called to mind W.H.Auden's great elegy for William Butler Yeats, which describes the moment of the poet's death with the line "Silence invaded the suburbs."  Oddly enough, Auden's elegy also concludes with these lines:

In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

That's not a bad university mission statement.   I'd pay to teach there.


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