By Robert Pinsky
Boston, MA, USA
Here's a confession: there are ways I find the MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] format more congenial, more my style, than the actual classroom. The large scale of the Web, counterbalanced by the personal scale of access and timing for each student; the fluidity of parts (lecture, discussion, video, prose) ordered by each user's whim, counterbalanced by the permanent, digital record; that record in digital memory counterbalanced by the MOOC's spontaneity (I didn't write out the lectures, and the people in the video conversations did not have fixed instructions). All of those turned out to suit me very well.
"The Art of Poetry" is based on my lifetime of teaching, but it is definitely not a filmed classroom course. The black background, the rather cinematic look and format, reflect something in the course's nature. More than any university course I've taught in my years at Berkeley or Boston University, my "outside" projects have shaped "The Art of Poetry." The MOOC has its roots in the Favorite Poem Project, in my online editing work at Slate and in published books like Americans' Favorite Poems (an anthology), The Sounds of Poetry (a brief guidebook) and Singing School (a combination anthology and guidebook, and the main source and model for the MOOC).
The Favorite Poem Project began as my main undertaking while serving as U.S. Poet Laureate. The videos at favoritepoem.org (a construction worker reading Whitman, a Cambodian-American young woman reading Langston Hughes, etc.) demonstrate the spirit of the FPP: democratic, intellectually rigorous, combining high standards of art with a welcoming approach. That is the spirit that I hope will be extended and developed by "The Art of Poetry."
At the outset of creating the MOOC I decided not to have contemporary poets discuss contemporary poetry—that might have some value, but I was not interested in creating "The Art of One Another's Poetry." I was more interested in readers and poems, as in the Favorite Poem Project anthologies published by Norton: Americans' Favorite Poems, now in its seventeenth hardcover printing, and An Invitation to Poetry. In these books, every poem is accompanied by comments from participants in the FPP, people of many different occupations, ages, regions, kinds of education. Those comments and the many Favorite Poem Readings held around the country (including one at the Clinton administration White House) helped inspire the idea of this MOOC.
Together with Boston University's School of Education, the Favorite Poem Project conducts an annual one-week Summer Poetry Institute for K-12 Educators. Poets including Mark Doty, Louise Glück, Heather McHugh, Major Jackson, Gail Mazur, Carl Phillips and I have talked about poetry with teachers and administrators from around the country, and some from other countries. Fourteen years of the Institute, listening to teachers' experiences with poetry, have also contributed to my design of this MOOC. As poetry editor at Slate, I conducted a monthly "Classic Poem" discussion with readers, and those interchanges, too, have helped form my thinking about poetry and readers. Please understand—I love teaching students in classrooms, face to face. What I've tried to describe is the particular thrill of experimenting with this different, though related, kind of work.
I hope the MOOC is rich in information, but beyond that, and even more important, I hope it offers an exhilarating, compact way to study a fundamental art. From my own point of view, the course is my attempt to put into a single, compact form everything I think I know about writing and reading poetry.
Header photo credit - Courtesy of Boston University