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Poetry Taken to Other Levels

After attending Washington, DC's Marine Corps Marathon to watch her New Jersey shore daughter-in-law finish in four hours and two minutes, the Dresser has a new appreciation of what marathon means to anyone who persists in any kind of endurance course. And especially after the news last night that the good Mayor Michael Bloomberg has bowed to the outrage of conducting the New York City Marathon when so many of his constituents are suffering after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. MCM-finish.jpg


The word marathon derives from a Greek village and plain northeast of Athens where the Athenians were victorious over the Persians in 490 B.C. The village name--Marathon--took on new meaning when a messenger from Marathon ran more than 20 miles to Athens to deliver the news of the victory.

For the Dresser, and perhaps for many of her dear readers, the world has changed recently in ways that will not allow return to what was. Moreover the scale of change is enormous. For the Dresser, who has been running a marathon of poetry this fall by participating in MOOC mania--more on this mind-expanding 21st century be in shortly--the refuge for all this unsettling change is poetry. On the weekend leading to the supersized storm Sandy, the Dresser attended two exceptional poetry events--a by-invitation-only symposium on Gertrude Stein and a performing arts center poetry reading to a large general audience. Both events seem to be a barometer of our time, measuring pressure experienced from accumulated conditions not entirely understood.

In September 2012 as a beta test, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) through a company calling itself Coursera began offering Internet readership a without-tuition-cost opportunity to take University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis' ten-week Modern Poetry course. ModPo.pngThe Dresser signed up immediately last spring (the course will remain open for registration probably until the next offering begins in September 2013) but had no idea how groundbreaking this educational opportunity would be. She had no concept of attending a class with 35,000 classmates, some of whom make themselves known in the discussion forums of Filreis' ModPo, as the class has come to be known. She had no concept how one teacher could make a class of this size seem intimate.

The technology has been remarkably dependable, even during Hurricane Sandy for those who still had power to partake. Yes, Filreis has teaching assistants whom the ModPo devotees know by face, name, and literary preferences as each week the professor rolls out videos where he and his TA's push back their sleeves and do "deep reading" discussions of selected poems. On designated weeks, live web session take place where students from all over the world can call in, tweet, or write into the discussion forum set up for this ModPoLive session. Furthermore, students are invited to the University of Pennsylvania campus and the Kelly Writer's House to participate in the live session. The TA's are as agile as the professor in making the live sessions work. The student body defies expectations and is amazingly active whether late at night or early in the day. Time worldwide has not gotten in the way of students coming together to share this experience.


On October 26, 2012, the Dresser attended "A Symposium on the Work of Gertrude Stein" organized by the Gertrude Stein Society with the collaboration and support of the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut. The informative program addressed the corrected edition of Stein's Stanzas in Meditation recently published by the Yale Beinecke, approaches for teaching Stein, and Stein's writings on war. The small gathering of about 60 people was a mix of academics (teachers and students) and independents (scholars and fans). In the world of Stein study, the range of subject matter was timely and perfect for engaging any participant of any current day proceedings on Gertrude Stein and her work.

SteinSymposium.jpgNow, Dear Reader, step into this picture with the Dresser to get the full effect. At this high-tech library where live cameras watch researchers use original resource documents from such writers as Gertrude Stein and researchers are told to make copies of what they are looking at with their cellphones and do their documenting with their laptops--no pens allowed (If you must handwrite, bring loose sheets of paper and pencils), a low-tech symposium takes place. Most of the presenters choose to stand behind a podium and read their papers word by word. An occasional presenter managed to get a text-heavy slide projected and one of the educators talking about teaching Stein wowed the assembled--he was praised as a "rock star"--with a recording of DJ Spooky's remix of Stein's "Portrait of Picasso."


On October 28, 2012 (same day as the Marine Corps Marathon), the Dresser attended a poetry performance by former United States Poet Laureate (2004) Billy Collins and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mary Oliver at the Music Center at Strathmore Marriott Concert Stage in Bethesda, Maryland. It was a full house (not every seat taken but certainly well attended) where the tickets sold for $45-$75. While the Dresser believes that some significant portion of the house was occupied by people who had been given the seats at no cost, the fact that people were there late in the afternoon while storm warnings were blaring from the media says something positive about the state the poetry.

Because the Dresser is unlikely to write about the Collins-Oliver reading again, she offers these details about this popular culture, poetry-the-for-people event. First, the Dresser will say quietly that most academics are not fans of Billy Collins and Mary Oliver. Second, the Dresser who always runs into other poets at poetry readings did not see anyone she knew and this is not to say there were no poets of note in the audience but more to say the audience was not the usual audience for poetry. Third, the person introducing this program asked the audience to "welcome these icons of the poetry world" as if they were not living, breathing, working writers.

If the Dresser were pressed to the wall and asked to give a sound byte for the media she might say this reading was Jon Stewart meets Grandma Moses. Billy Collins can hold his own with any standup comic. billy_collins_1.jpgIn introducing himself, he said he was so pleased Mary Oliver asked him to open for her. Then he immediately launched into his poem "You, Reader."

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you,

that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen

the rain-soaked windows,

This was followed by dog poems that he said would cut straight to the chase since he knew Mary Oliver would also be reading her dog poems. His "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House," "A Dog on His Master," and "The Revenant" created waves of deep belly laughs, giggles and guffaws. Should the Dresser mention that "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House" has been sung, granted recitative fashion, but definitely in the operatic style of singing. Here are the opening irreverent lines from "The Revenant."

I am the dog you put to sleep,

as you like to call the needle of oblivion,

come back to tell you this simple thing:

I never liked you--not one bit.

However, "A Dog on His Master," which ends "if only I were not her [the dog's] god," created a sigh in the audience for which Collins expressed satisfaction while at the same time letting the audience know he expected this reaction and somewhat distained it at the same time. Despite Collins' clowning, his craft of poetry always shows through (full disclosure: the Dresser has heard Collins perform many times) as he can agilely wield polyptoton and parataxis, form--old and new--holding his own with poets writing today. Critics will be quick to say he lacks depth and staying power, but he knows his audience and what folks listening can understand. After delivering his poem "Forgetfulness"

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,


he remarked about the risk he was taking with this poem, that is, who would know the name of that Greek mythological river in Hades (Lethe) but he could hear this audience was with him.

Quite frankly, the Dresser has less to say about Mary Oliver. MaryOliverColor.jpgThe pairing with Billy Collins in the Dresser's mind was unfortunate. Collins set the tone and Oliver's nature-infused folk wisdom did not stand up to the antics of irony and perversity that Collins can turned on dime with both inside and outside of his poetry. She should have gone first. However, the audience at Strathmore was unfazed. They were noisily appreciative when she read her poem "Wild Geese,"

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

chuckled over her poems about her dog Percy especially when he ate her copy of the Bhagavad Gita and sympathized when she read her take on Christopher Smart's "For I will consider my cat Jeffrey" (substitute "my dog Percy").

For he was made small but brave of heart.

For if he met another dog he would kiss her in kindness.
For he came to me impaired and therefore certain of
.......short life, yet thoroughly rejoiced in each day..."
For he was a mixture of gravity and waggery.

Perhaps the Dresser is jaded (how could anyone not love this loving poetry of Mary Oliver?) or the Dresser loves more Edward Hirsch's poem "Wild Gratitude" that makes reference to Christopher Smart's love for his pet Jeffrey while meditating on the human condition via his cat Zooey. More interesting to the Dresser was hearing Mary Oliver speak in the talkback session after the performance ended. Her humanity appeals and certainly the Dresser will read Oliver's poetry from the page in a quiet place during a quieter period.

However for now, the Dresser will move back to the remaining syllabus of ModPo where the focus is on L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, chance, conceptual and unoriginality poetry. The Dresser hopes to run the rest of this course without interference of weather and without falling down.


Comments (1)


Front page of the Sunday Nov 4, 2012, Washington Post is an article on MOOCs focused on Coursera with mention of U Penn professor Al Filreis' Modern Poetry course. The journalist says ModPo has 33,000 students but when I interviewed the good professor on Nov 1 he said there were 35,000 registered.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 3, 2012 6:00 PM.

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