Crossing Paths

 
I am teaching a new course this fall semester, a section of Introduction to Humanities housed in the Appreciation of the Arts area of our new core.  And I really struggled with how to design the darned thing all summer, throwing out various ideas and formats until--long about mid-July--I had to kick myself and get something on paper. 
 
Here was the plan: I would divide the course into three units dealing with three different artistic movements.  I plumped on Romanticism, Realism and Modernism. Each movement would be explored through the lens of a different art form, respectively poetry, painting and architecture.  Moreover, each unit would try to move the students from the most basic level of aesthetic response (It sucks, it doesn't suck) to deeper levels of critical appreciation.
 
Here's how this worked in the first unit (just completed last week).  Instead of lecturing on Romanticism and having them apply the themes in their notes to ideas in the poems, I tried to come up from below. We didn't start with the poems.  We started playing with sounds and rhythms.  Then I assigned students to write a poetic manifesto declaring what good poems should be.  To help them along, I created a 10-question survey that got them to stake out positions on form, tone, subject matter, ambiguity, etc.  The survey questions (available here) were designed to highlight distinctions between Neo-Classical and Romantic aesthetics, which I called the Apollonian/ Dionysian tension in poetry.  Students then could analyze their responses and decide if they stood more to one side or the other in this divide.
 
I even had the students create poems that reflected their manifestos' demands.  The important thing was to get them playing with language, to get them to be bold in their statements and possibly to forget that they are supposed to be intimidated by poetry and secretly fear they aren't smart enough to get it.  
 
Only after all this low-risk play did we read Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, a Romantic manifesto for poetry.  Unsurprisingly, they could see that they already agreed or disagreed with parts of Wordsworth's ideas.  They had a dog in the fight, so to speak. Next we distilled his claims and tried to determine if he had been any more successful than we were in carrying out a program for poetry.  This went pretty well.
 
Next we read Emerson's Nature and got into Romantic theories of epistemology, all the while sticking close to some works by Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth.  Suddenly the fun of the first few weeks had turned into frustration and I began to wonder why in the world 21rst Century undergrads would ever find the Romantics worth their time and effort.  What had I been thinking when I put this course together? 
 
There was no turning back now.  I had the course mapped out.  So on we slogged to Whitman.  They didn't really grasp Song of Myself, no doubt because I rushed through it (had to stay on my bloody time table).  So, almost in desperation, I decided to slow way down with Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a favorite of mine. We moved the desks around to get all of the bad feng-shui out of the room and sat down to read it together.
 
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry recounts Whitman's crossing of the East River to Manhattan one morning in 1856, but in the course of the journey Whitman crosses time and even the distance between his imagination and the reader's.  The reader begins the poem imagining Whitman on that ferry all those years ago, and Whitman begins by imagining us in his future, with each shoreline--Manhattan/Brooklyn, Past/Present, Poet/Reader--standing almost in opposition to one another.  Then Walt slowly, almost slyly, begins to close the distance. 
 
He details the sights, sounds, and voices that he sees: his fellow passengers, the ebb and flow of the tide, the turning gulls in the sky, all the while entwining his experience to those who will make the same journey generations hence.  In other words, us:
 
I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water..
 
He even shares his secret fears, embarrassments and shames, assuring us that he knows we will carry these same same secrets in our time:
 
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting...
 
Then, after forging all of these human connections, he simply asks, What is it then between us?  If we have indeed reached this level of mutual understanding, of mutual empathy and shared confidences, does time or distance truly matter that much?  Are we not now standing face to face?  I still remember the shiver I felt the first time I read the following lines of the poem years ago:
 
What is more subtle that this which ties me to the man or woman that looks into my face.
What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?
We understand then do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish—is accomplish’d, is it not?
 
So last week the students and I went on this ferry ride together.  Before we began, I asked them to make three folds on a piece of paper.  On the first fold they were to write some favorites sensations or sights or sounds, things they love and experience in everyday life: a fan whirring on a hot night, the smell of clean sheets, the sound of scissors snipping hair.  On the middle fold, I asked them to put down some small fear or shame that they hold in secret (with the promise that this would a only be revealed anonymously).  Lastly I asked them to write some words of encouragement to a stranger 150 years in the future. I had them scramble the folded papers so sensations, fears and encouragements were safely detached from their owners.
 
As we read the poem we stopped from time to time to share what we had written.  When Walt described the joy of what he was seeing before him, we shared our simple pleasures.  When he confessed that the "dark patches fell on him" we went around the room and gave voice to our fears and shames.  And when he told us we were not alone and would one day share the glories of his mast-hemm'd Manhatta, we shared our words of courage and fortitude with those who will know what it means to be alive years from now. 
 
For the first time this semester  most of the students connected to the poem on a level beyond I just don't get it or it sucks. You could feel the difference in the room.  At the end of the class I suggested that if they liked the poem they should pen a little note to Walt expressing their thanks now that they had taken the ride.
 
Heck, it's always good to thank your ferryman.  So thanks, Walt, for the best single class so far.  I haven't told you this in a while, but you're a really wonderful guide. 
 
 
 

Comments

Anti-Dada said…
Hard to go wrong with Whitman ... and word play.

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