I think it was when Mary Oliver died.
I didn’t mean to sign up for the 8:30 a.m. teaching slot. I’d picked 11:30 and was quite pleased with the choice until I realized I had a standing meeting at noon on Tuesdays that I’d entirely forgotten to account for. By the time I realized, there were no other sections available, so I found myself starting class just after sunrise those January mornings, in a small, narrow room in Mason Hall.
It was hard to get up and get on the 7:17 bus and get to school, all in the dark, and class was still awkward those first weeks of term, as it usually is. We didn’t really know each other yet. And then Mary Oliver died, and I felt hollowed by that, as I have so often felt these last years. And the government was shut down and that video of the Catholic schoolboys harassing a Native elder was swarming the internet and Kavanuagh had been confirmed for months by then (doesn’t it all feel like centuries ago?). I was wondering, as I have so often done, why any of it mattered: studying English and education while the world warmed and burned, teaching a single writing class for fewer than twenty students in the dim morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was tired. I was also tired of myself. So I started class with a poem.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, Mary Oliver writes.
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do…?
I’m teaching at 8:30 again this fall, now on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the days are narrowing. This week I had to wave my arms and chase the bus driver down the block—he hadn’t seen me waiting in the shadows. And I’m still starting class with a poem.
I get to pick them, so we read my favorites: W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks.” Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” Mary Oliver, of course. Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” but only toward the end of the semester. Those are the ones I already loved. I found Hieu Minh Nguyen’s “Uptown, Minneapolis, Minnesota” on Twitter. Bob Hicok’s “A Primer” is on a bulletin board in the English Department. Someone shared Kerrie O’Brien’s “Notre Dame” on Facebook when the cathedral burned.
I don’t ask the students to do anything with the poems, most days. I just welcome them, and then I read the poem, and I repeat the title and the author, and I pause for a moment, and then I launch into our agenda for the day. And I always wonder if I should do more—if I should wait a beat longer to let the words settle; if I should ask them for a response, or to analyze the poet’s rhetorical choices, or free-write a feeling it offers. It’s awkward, usually, because it is the most earnest moment of a class in which I am usually cracking wry jokes and gesticulating and tripping over tables as I walk between small groups to butt in on their peer review discussion. I don’t think I want the poem-reading to be a task. I started doing it to jimmy my heart back open. I carry on doing it because it’s so hard to keep it that way.
On February 14, still early in this operation, I read Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” That time, and again last week when I started class with it, I asked everybody to share a line that they liked particularly. Somebody, I don’t remember who, picked the eighth stanza:
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.