Classes do not start until for a week, but today I went to school to begin organizing things for the semester. My office was as I left it on December 19th, the desk tidier than it will be until May. I needed to look at the texts I would be using. I needed to begin plotting out the term. I enjoy this part of the process almost as much as I enjoy the teaching itself. I decided to begin my English Comp II class with poetry, and scanned the table of contents in the reader I had chosen, putting a little check next to the poems I wanted to teach. By the time I was finished, (and oddly enough this anthology is organized alphabetically so that Anonymous and John Berryman near the beginning and Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas near the end) I had checked about three quarters of the poems, enough for an entire semester, not just one third of a semester. (And now that I am typing this, I wonder if there’s anything in the common course syllabus that would disallow such a thing. I will have to think about it.)
But before I was working through this table of contents, a friend of mine who works in the financial aid office, but whose real love is theater, brought his lunch to my office so we could catch up on how our Christmas vacations had gone. As these conversations tend to go, we got discussing the purposes of art. I said that I think one of the purposes of art is to organize the chaos we find around us. He said that one of the purposes of art is to teach us how to be human. I do not think these are conflicting definitions. I think art does many things. It does organize the chaos. (Robert Frost famously said that poetry is a momentary stay against chaos.) Music takes chaotic noise and organizes it into something that is interesting and often uplifting to hear. Visual art can make us reconsider the shapes, colors and relationships we see around us. Poetry often takes difficult situations and renders them in such language that they become tender and heartbreaking because of the poet’s use of language, sound and meter.
And so, as I was reading the table of contents of my textbook, I found favorites. Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” that begins “Sunday, too, my father got up early in the blue black cold/ and made banked fires burn./No one ever thanked him.” Or Frost’s “After Apple Picking” in which he says “I am tired of the great harvest I, myself,desired.” These poems not only organize chaos, but as my friend said, they also tell us something about being human, about how bad we are at thanking those who do things for us or how easily we become bored with what we thought we wanted.
However, art also reaches across time. The two poets I quote above wrote in the 20th Century, but once, in 1999, I stood in front of a Botticelli fresco that hangs in the Lourve with tears rolling down my cheeks. Painted in the late 15th Century, it seemed as fresh as the day it was painted, the colors bright and arresting, the expressions on the people something I could recognize. Nothing in the painting connected to the century in which I was living, and yet, it spoke across time to the point that it brought me to tears. Botticelli had painted a hymn to spring that made me, an American woman, from a place he could not have imagined, feel like I had seen something miraculous. This is what great art, whether it’s theater, painting, sculpture or literature, does. We see beyond the mundane, we see beyond the commonplace, even when it is the common place that the art is depicting. We are led deep into the best parts of the human soul.
Whether or not I spend the entire semester on poetry ( I suspect that my students will thank me if I do not), I hope that each one of my students finds at least one poem that he/she carries with her as a talisman against chaos or as touchstone for what it means to be human.