This generation of students came of age after 9/11, and there’s a gloomy aspect to their world view that’s perfectly realistic. But I want to undercut it with great poetry because there’s that, too.
One of my favorite poets to teach is John Donne. ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,’ from 1611, is about a man who’s leaving behind a loved one and going to France—which wasn’t just a hop on a plane back then. Donne uses the most wonderful metaphors for separating; there’s a line about gold stretching and stretching, but it doesn’t break. My Jewelry Design students love that. He also compares himself to the arm of a compass that circles its fixed point and then ‘grows erect’ when he returns home. I tell the class that any double-entendres are not accidental. By this point, the students are silent—not because they’re texting, but because they’re connected to someone from another time and place.
When we’re studying the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that begins, ‘Glory be to God for dappled things….,’ I ask the students to look at the sky. I say, ‘Is it dappled today?’ I want them to look at the sky. I want them to remember to look up. That’s what I think great poetry does. It causes people to look up from their feet, from their work. From their fretting.