When the Coursera online course in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo for short) I took this fall ended a couple of weeks ago, I instinctively took a decompression break. The course was immersive, and although the actual reading load was not heavy, the readings and video discussions spun off so many new ideas and directions to pursue that I needed some time to digest it all. The pile of auxiliary reading was growing on my desk, and inside my head it felt like the big bang had occurred. How was I going to clean up this mess?!
I took the course on a whim after seeing it promoted somewhere online, having been out of academia for nearly 40 years, since I finished graduate school (in English) at Emory in 1975. The only previous online “education” I had had was work-related training videos and PowerPoint sequences, so my expectations were really low. What were they going to teach, and more importantly, how were they going to teach it? I got my first clue when I started following the instructor, University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis, on Twitter. He was talking about Gertrude Stein. Did Gertrude Stein write poetry? Apparently, yes. And what poetry it turned out to be!
This was the beginning of what became one of the greatest intellectual and emotional adventures of my life. That sounds a little overblown, I know. I have a great marriage, children, grandchildren in increasing numbers. I have a satisfying photography hobby, and run several websites on the side. But ModPo broke something open in me that had been locked tight in a chrysalis for decades. I wrote and published poetry in small magazines in the 1970s and ‘80s, and studied with Charles Wright and Donald Justice. Eventually, though, I fell silent, both from the pressures of family life and from my inability to imagine my way out of the traps of self-expression. I grew up in the era of Lowell and Plath; confession was a synonym for poetry. The Beats, whom I admired, were also at their core romantic, self-absorbed, and often sentimental. I tired of the artistic ego, and the felt conviction that in order to write poetry I had to manifest one. Besides, what I was writing was old-fashioned, traditional, out of step. So I stopped. For twenty-five years.
Then ModPo ambushed me. It was not, as I expected it might be, a rehash of the old chestnuts of modernism (Eliot, Stevens) or a revisit to the poets of my coming of age. Instead it pointed at the heart of radical experimentation and rebellion against the poet as sage, myth-maker, prophet, tortured soul. Its selection of poets was designed to show a way, multiple ways, of using language for art largely in the absence of direct self-expression. Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers? This probably sounds dry to someone who has not experienced ModPo, but the introduction of this simple idea broke down all the barriers that had built up in me, and gave me permission to not worry about poetic fashion, or even whether what I was writing was “good,” “bad,” or even poetry. Let somebody else decide that, it said. Just write.
From what I read in the class’s discussion forums, and in its Facebook group, ModPo had this effect on a lot of us (there were nearly 34,000 students enrolled in the course, of all ages and from all over the world). I don’t think it was Dr. Filreis’s primary intention to unleash so many would-be poets on an unsuspecting planet, but that was what happened. For others who do not write, experiencing this literature was a reward in its own right.
The primary reason for the course’s great success, however, was not its particular curriculum, but the teaching methodology that was used, something Filreis calls “meta-pedagogy.” A firm advocate of the death of the lecture, he structured the course around short videos which featured class discussion with a group of very smart and articulate undergraduate and graduate students from Penn. Filreis was their cheerleader, coach, sometimes bully, but always a caring and inspiring guide through material that was not as difficult as it at first seemed. The professor and the students together “close-read” each poem, examining its form and content and discussing its implications. There was no prescribed “meaning.” Every reader was encouraged to come up with his or her own interpretation, informed both by factors in the poems and external context. This approach put the lie to the common misapprehension that online courses are dull and boring by nature.
Now that ModPo is over, it’s not over, which is why I refuse to declare any “final” thoughts about it. The Coursera platform will, through the generosity of the company (and to serve their own business goals), continue until September 2013, when the next offering of ModPo is expected to begin. In the meantime the community that ModPo spawned is living and thriving in all sorts of places all over the web. Close readings and listenings and discussions of poems continue. And some of us can’t stop writing poems of our own, God help us.