For Visiting Professor Elisa New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, poetry is a communal experience, and one quickly gets the sense that for her a poem is more like an old friend, not simply words on a page.
“I am going to take this poem out for coffee, and what an hour I am going to have with this poem!” New said. “I’m taking this poem into my classroom. All of these people are going to read it together.”
This passion for poetry ran through New’s Master Class held at HGSE on Tuesday, October 6, titled “The Lecture/Discussion as Teaching Genre: Looking (and Loafing) with Whitman.”
The Master Class series, initiated by Dean James Ryan, was devised to “celebrate teaching and try to understand just what’s going on when a master teacher is at work,” as moderator and HGSE Senior Lecturer Steve Seidel explained in his introductory remarks.
New — a teacher of American Literature and American Poetry in the classroom as well as online through her edX series, Poetry in America — fashioned her talk around poet Walt Whitman and the ideas of selfhood. Beginning with a look at the first section of Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” — and good-naturedly recognizing Whitman’s seemingly overbearing personality — New acknowledged the interesting case that a poem about the self also raises the issue of what she calls the “problem of other people.”
“Whitman has an expansive self, that will take you in,” New said. But, she added, if those in the audience “were worried about Whitman the narcissist, you would have good reason.”
Whitman, who self-published his first book, Leaves of Grass, in 1855, immediately started sending copies of his work to literary luminaries in search of praise. He began writing reviews of his own work, and even included a glowing letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson on the front page of his second printing.
“These are not the moves of a modest man,” New said.
Despite all of this, Whitman’s self has stayed with us and with American literature for all these decades. The first portion of New’s lecture also talked about Whitman’s poetic inventiveness, and his work as a printer and journalist. These later experiences influenced Whitman’s desire to create a new form, in which a “poem could have the everydayness, the topical crunch and relevance of the newspaper,” New described. She also opened the forum up to discussion, welcoming audience input on a selection of Whitman’s poems.
New then sat down with Seidel to discuss the practice of her teaching. Seidel started things off with the deceptively simple question: What do you teach? New’s thoughtful answer went beyond simply literature and poetry.
“I teach thinking, and learning to think,” New said. “I think the hardest thing for a teacher is getting the wheels moving, modeling what thinking looks like, and helping people get practice in that activity.”
New discussed her experiences in the classroom, and her efforts to create an environment where students can think and engage with poetry. She talked about the varying strategies she uses to introduce students to each poet and how she seeks to find that aspect of a poem to hook her students.
“I’m always looking for the hold, what’s the hold that will, in 50 minutes,” capture students’ interest, New said. “What do I have to do, it’s an emergency situation, what do I have to do in this short amount of time to keep this poem alive?” New added amongst laughter from her audience.
She concluded her talk with questions from audience members expanding on topics of poetry’s place in culture, the craft of teaching, and even a bit about her experience writing her own poetry.
“I wrote poetry when I was young, and, it’s funny, I didn’t want to be a poet,” New said. “My talents and the opportunities I had to spend my days in really fun and productive and exciting ways, it just didn’t point to being a poet.”
The Master Class will continue in the spring with Martha Minow, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, on Thursday, March 24.