This fall I’ve been given a rare, odd gift: an undergraduate Introduction to Poetry class full of eager, bright-eyed students. When colleagues ask me how the first weeks of classes have been I’m almost hesitant to tell them, afraid I will jinx whatever magic spell has fallen upon me. Students are coming to office hours to borrow books I offhandedly mention in class, they’re starting discussion about readings before I’ve entered the room, and some are continuing them after I’ve left. They’re, I’m afraid to even write it down, even snapping their fingers when they feel so moved.
And they say that poetry is dead.
Recently we’ve been talking about the impact of writing, how some writers are writing to save themselves, to dig themselves out of holes, caverns, generations of cursed luck, disease, or whatever cycle. Out of loss, out of heartbreak, out of abuse. Some are trying to write their way out of hatred, even self-hatred, while others are writing their way in, beyond.
The first full book of poetry we’ve focused on is Donald Hall’s Without, the well-known and well-loved book recounting the illness, death, and then loss of Hall’s wife and beloved writer Jane Kenyon. As I walked into class last week, though, a student named Hannah stared at me sharply. I’m mad at you. This book, she sighs, God. How can you do this to us?
I’m mad at you. This book, she sighs, God. How can you do this to us?
I’ve thought about that question a lot, more and more recently if I’m being honest. The power I’m given to choose what we read, who we read. For years I’ve been thinking about age, gender, ability, race, and sexuality when I sit down to construct my courses and select the texts. Yet, what I’ve been thinking about lately is the emotional impact, the cost, what it is that I am asking my students to explore in our short time together.
Hannah’s sentiments were shared. Some talked about crying while reading the book. Others how it connected to a loss they had encountered. Some felt ambushed by the content, that they needed to set it down and come back.
This may surprise some when picturing the millennial generation and the often too-far depictions of death, sex, and violence they encounter almost daily. Yet these upper-class students feel and feel and feel. And snap when they feel it. One student reaches out to her friend, seated next to her, when what we’re reading or talking about what moves her or even—dare I say it—hurts her.
Our next books don’t get any easier. Sharon Olds’ Stags Leap, a raw and naked telling of a dissolution of a marriage; Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, a demanding and riveting book of black womanhood in an America hell-bent on avoiding and silencing; Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities about family, being an immigrant in America, and the queer experience; among many other poems.
I don’t often head toward levity.
And that’s the thing: I am taking their hand and asking them to walk into pockmarked fields speckled with landmines—some I’ve placed there knowingly, and some I don’t even know that I will trigger for them. Asking them to explore the hurts of others, and, of course, by proxy exploring the hurts of themselves. I tell them, and myself, that my writing and teaching philosophy is based in discomfort: discomfort as a tool for growth, discomfort as a way into or out of the things we think we know.
I am taking their hand and asking them to walk into pockmarked fields speckled with landmines…
And I do believe this, I do. But I also am progressively more and more unsure and unsettled about the effect it can have. Especially, most concretely, when we stifle resources for mental health at colleges and in the world at large.
I want them to take my hand and “explore the wreck,” a la Adrienne Rich. I want them to, as per Mary Oliver, eschew caution as “There is nothing more pathetic than caution / when headlong might save a life, / even, possibly, your own”.
It is easy when people hear I am a writer and poet to think I am a sentimentalist, a romantic. It’s easy to think that, at first glance, especially when paired next to my bearded, flannel-wearing, butcher husband. Yet he is the sap, and I am the one who grumbles and struggles when people say that poetry—or writing, or any form of art—can save lives. Bread, I think, that saves lives. Water, that’s the ticket. But I want writing to save lives, I do. As we watched an interview with Donald Hall from Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People in class, I placed on the board his words of why he had to write Without: “I was writing to save my life”.
There is no student that I’ve ever had who wasn’t, truly, writing their way into or out of something. So many are trying to, as well, save their lives.
Hall also says, in the same interview: “In order, as it were, to forget the misery I had to write about the misery: and it worked”.
I want that, a success, for my students as well. I want them to find their way through. I think we should also be asking, though, as writers and teachers, what happens when it doesn’t work? What happens if it is just misery?
And, of course, we must dare to go to the source directly. In our most recent class, we spent our entire time together analyzing one poem. As we parsed through the lines, unpacking the nuances and complications, a student who had been speaking up suddenly fell quiet, hands at their face. Vibrant, forward, and sharp, the student’s turning toward the wall, shielding themselves away from us, was wildly uncharacteristic. Later on, I mentioned how I had actually printed out two poems that day and almost went with the other one, an entirely different author and topic. I wish you had, they responded. I sat back in the small desk across from them. Do you? I asked. It’s okay if you do. They paused and looked around the room, really pondering the question, pondering the exhausting, intricate conversation that we had just gone through together. No, they said. I’m glad it was this poem. We knew what we both were really saying: here in this classroom in the south (in a classroom anywhere), here surrounded by a progressively more diverse population of students who still use racist and sexist and hateful slurs against each other, here where the faculty—myself included—is still primarily white, where students are still disowned for dating outside of their race, for dating outside of the heteronormative, here and all over we need to dig in even if it hurts. Perhaps especially so. But there’s a cost.
Soon we turn to their own writing, and the door entering my students’ minds and hearts that I’ve stuck my foot into by delving into the work of others becomes progressively more and more pried open. Unlike in many other disciplines, where we head is not always linear nor neatly connected. What we might reveal, what past sleeping traumas we might awaken, or even what shifts in perspective can occur about themselves and the world around them is not something to be loosely gambled with. I want for myself and for all of us who teach in this field to both respect—the trust, the need for the creative outlet, the deep desire of our students to probe into their own lives and the larger world—and question our role in it. Maybe now more than ever.
Marissa Schwalm is an Associate Editor for The Flexible Persona. To read a longer forthcoming piece of Schwalm’s, focusing on what right we do or don’t have to tell certain creative nonfiction stories, preorder the latest issue of The Flexible Persona: The Passage Issue.