Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

An Exhilarating Affair

November 27, 2012

Just got back together with my blog. We agreed to a trial separation while I had a romantic fling. It’s over now and we’re trying to work things out.

My 10 week affair with Coursera definitely made me feel young again. We found every excuse to spend time together – priorities be damned.

I was introduced by chance through an intriguing NYTimes article about a consortium of 33 Ivy League schools, prestigious colleges and international universities from Jerusalem to Melbourne, offering FREE online courses. I immediately clicked the link, evaluated the candidacy of potential suitors and found my dream match – MODPO.

Taking an online college course in Modern & Contemporary American Poetry far exceeded my expectations, and definitely rocked the world of the U Penn professor teaching it. To everyone’s amazement, over 30,000 students of all ages and nationalities enrolled. Like people downloading e-books they prefer to read undercover, there are clearly leagues of closet poetry lovers craving a chance to share their passion with like-minded souls.

Nothing like total poetry immersion for reanimating the creative spirit. It ignited intellectual euphoria I hadn’t felt since senior year at Middlebury College preparing for English Lit comprehensive exams reading Shakespearean sonnets, Milton, Yeats, Hopkins and T.S. Elliot. But that was three decades ago and poetry has evolved.

MODPO was created and led by the amazing Al Filreis – with the invaluable assist of a group of nine young grad student TAs. Filreis’ Wiki bio describes him as: “…Kelly Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House, and Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.” It doesn’t mention his sense of fun, warmth and intellectual generosity. That he is wise, with a brilliant command of the subject didn’t surprise, but what did is his indefatigable curiosity and delightful lack of posturing or condescension.

There were hitches as with all experiments, but everyone (on screen and behind the scenes providing tech support) did their utmost to make it a satisfying communal learning project. Filreis is now a confirmed advocate of collective wisdom. He’s taught Modern Poetry for 30 years, but was blown away by interpretations he’d yet to consider coming from “non academics”. He admitted to Googling people who made particularly astute remarks on forums or in essays, suspecting they were poetry ‘insiders’, only to uncover a retired engineer or high school senior.

The syllabus covered more than a century of American poetry from proto-modernist icons Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, through the conceptual appropriation and unoriginality practices of Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bok, and Tracie Morris. By week 10, re-reading Gertrude Stein poems encountered in week 4 was like rediscovering Wordsworth in a beloved anthology. In poetry as in most worthwhile endeavors, today’s shocking becomes tomorrow’s consensus.

Coursera lets you head back to school without the lifestyle upheaval it once engendered.  I was able to participate in a real time course at UPenn while living on a farm in rural Touraine, traveling up and back to Paris every week as well as much further afield.  The only transit and time zone snag involved participation in life webcasts. They were scheduled when I was was either traveling without a wifi connection or asleep in the wee hours of the morning.

From testimony heard in webcast sessions and read on forums, it seems I was one of thousands profoundly affected by the ten week journey. In a labor of love the carrot of grading isn’t necessary, and might have crimped the freedom of discourse and risk taking poetry demands. For the moment, completing assignments (weekly quizzes, four essays and mandatory critique of classmates’ essays) earns you a virtual gold star rather than tangible course credit. Not bad for high calibre, yet free education.

The most valuable lesson was reaffirmation that rules about language are an ever shifting construct. Poets are on the frontier of language exploration – misunderstood, ridiculed and eventually belatedly celebrated. Among the reasons poetry remains relatively uncorrupted and radical is because there’s no money in it. While the world of poetry intersects with those of visual arts, music, theater and technology, there are few corporations lining up to sponsor living poets.

So I’m back to blogging. Less conflicted about the merits of the internet.

I’d love to know what your favorite poems or poets are – so PLEASE share in comments!

Note about photos: Taken when I coincidentally visited Philadelphia in late September and discovered Reading Terminal Market. I was as taken with the crazy poetry of the signage as the fabulous range of food on offer.

Hes said

December 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm

One of my favorite poems is
In time of daffodils
by E.E. Cummings

Casey replied

December 3, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Thanks Hes. A lovely pick me up for a grey and blustery December day.

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