Like many American poets, I teach literature and creative writing at a university part time. This semester, along with a poetry writing course, I’ve been teaching Introduction to Poetry to thirty undergraduates, most of whom are in my class to fulfill general education requirements. I’ve got undeclared sophomores, junior physics majors, education and criminology majors, and pre-meds and even a couple of students who might want to take more English courses. Part of the Connecticut State University system, my classes are mostly made of students from Connecticut, but contrary to the image of Nutmeggers as rich, white, and spoiled, my students are as diverse as students in any college classroom in the U.S. And what moves me the most is that many of them are the first in their families to get a college degree. These students hold down fulltime jobs, raise children, care for extended families and have recently returned from serving the country in the Armed Forces. Many commute often an hour or more to get to class.
It became clear to me very quickly that I’d have one shot to pull them into that well of poetry that I leapt into years ago, one chance to be upended and surprised by what beautifully-arranged language can do to a person. So I went the way of the ancients: I had them commit a poem to memory, to carry it in their bellies, to say it, loudly, proudly, and standing.
My students chose which poem they’d recite-- an eight-line minimum. They were graded on memorization, depth of conveyed feeling, and vocal strength. Some students, the more introverted, had trouble saying their poems in front of the class. (I know that public speaking is a widely-held fear.) Others rushed through a well-memorized poem, dropping the ends of lines as though speaking into the wind. But the majority of my students surprised themselves, settling into the poem’s rhythms, tasting the language, enjoying the message. And the rest of us, snapping our fingers in the Beat tradition, shook our heads at what we were hearing: real living poetry.