Within the last month, I had the honor of teaching a poetry class at Young Harris College’s Institute for Continuing Learning (ICL). I have been lucky enough to teach in this venue before, and I have to say that it fed me in the best possible way. This month-long class/workshop was titled The Many Faces of Tone, and we examined the function of tone in poems by Emily Dickinson, Louise Gluck, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rodney Jones, and Seamus Heaney, just to name a few. I think my students learned a lot, and I did too. In fact, I realized that teaching is an exchange, not just a delivery. What is both rewarding and challenging with ICL students is that all of them have more life experience than I do. Several have been writing longer than I have. All have something to offer in class, as they are already passionate about the written word, and that’s why they are there.
I was moved to write about my class because the exchange of knowledge went beyond just simple facts. As an example, one of my students ended a poem with the line: “the best of all possible worlds.” It was a fitting ending to his poem, and my mind began to churn as I realized this was an allusion to Candide’s Voltaire — something I vaguely recall reading in my sophomore English lit class. But then the philosopher/theologian in class took it a step further. He shared that this saying was actually coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Liebniz. So after class I went home and googled Mr. Liebniz (that sounds odd, no?). I learned that Liebniz, in his philosophy, was dealing with the problem of evil. I’ve not read Liebniz but dealing with the “problem of evil” is not just something philosophers tackle, it is also a subject matter many poets tackle. I’ve always felt that poets and philosophers are not too far apart from one other, although in different camps. Philosophers strip things down to their very essence, sometimes leaving nothing behind but a mathematical equation of sorts to apply to life’s situations (I think of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism). Poets, like philosophers, also want to understand. But we don’t strip things down, we layer them. We take what we see or feel, that which moves us, and put it on paper. But what ends up on the paper is not a philosophical position, it’s a scene. It’s an image. It’s an emotion. It can easily be all three of these. And when a poem is well crafted, as many of my students’ poems where, it turns out to be the best words in the best order (Coleridge), with several layers within. The images come with multiple connotations, the diction and lineation often come with multiple meanings, and the emotions related and conjured are often complex. But the poem itself appears so simple, so precise. It is this surface simplicity paired with the complexity of a good poem that makes my head spin and time slip away. I imagine a philosopher feels the same about his/her theories. Unfortunately, I find it excruciating to read philosophy (I hate to admit this), for it is not a systematic approach or argument that helps me to process life, it is poetry. Poetry takes the stuff of life and picks it up and looks at it at every possible angle, with nothing being ignored, no matter how unpleasant. Good poetry seldom attempts to explain, but it always attempts to put forward something that is worthy of being examined. So, I wish philosophers all the best, but I will stick to poetry for processing the world around me. Either way, we can all learn from one another, and I thank my class (Clarence, John, Ann, Joan, Janet and Pamela) for pushing me and allowing me to share my passion.