Teaching literature, I’ve always felt that poetry was a bit like the red-headed child, a bit of an outsider in the literary family, which is somewhat strange because I genuinely love listening to songs, which are essentially poetry set to music. Weird isn’t it? A small part of an American Literature course I am involved with however, includes the poetic diverse of Walt Whitman, who celebrated nature, life, and love, while at the other extreme is Emily Dickinson, the reclusive, eccentric young woman, who dwelt at
length in her idiosyncratic manner with death and dying.
I must admit that both, in their way intimidate me, personally, and as a teacher, as both could not be further from the poetry of my youth, full of joy, romance, structure, rhythm and rhyme. Edgar Alan Poe too was fascinated by the ‘dark side,’ yet he described poetry as, “The rhythmical creation of beauty in words,” as I believe he saw clearly evident as in these classical lines from Shakespeare: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath too short a date.”
This week though, I found inspiration, yet again, in the young women of Oman I am currently teaching. We came to a moment when, having completed a literary analysis of some stanzas of the iconic Whitman offering of ‘A Passage to India,’ I sensed an opportunity for something more, so I took my 40 students to the open air amphitheatre on campus, and invited them, in their small groups, to recite and perform two of the more significant stanzas of the work.
Learning a second language is always as much about the fear of making mistakes as anything else, and yet here, these young women had space, room to move, an anonymity of sorts, and immediately responded to Whitman’s instruction to, “Do anything, but let it produce joy.”
They could be seen gesturing laughing, speaking, performing, and were clearly engaged, as they sought clarity and advice on pronunciation, and having fun.
Bringing them all back together, and heading towards the classroom we had to pass the stage, and one student said to me, “Can we please do it on the stage?” Never one to pass up an opportunity, another Whitman quote sprang to mind, “Define the moment, or it will define you,” so I called the class back and seated them while that group of four produced a wonderful performance of the work, their classmates applauding wildly at the end.
It was an excited, noisy, invigorated ‘gaggle’ that returned to the classroom, where I decided to continue in the same vein, and asked them to create their own piece of ‘Whitman styled,’ poetry, in praise of Jabal Akhdhar, giving them the first line as a guide. Here is their combined effort, with a minimum of vocabulary and structure guidance from myself. I think you’ll agree it signposts genuine enthusiasm: “O’ mighty mountain O’ mighty green mountain! Aged, yet strong, for centuries unchanged lofty, your summit rises from the earth, crowned, embracing the sky. Majestic! The scent of your roses, as romantic as Qais and Laila.
Your bounteous fruits and floral delights, fitting bouquets for the young beauties of Oman.”
It’s not perfect I know, but my goodness, the commitment to task, the enthusiasm they brought to this most unusual task revealed again, the potential of these young Omanis, and I must stress, yet again, all young Omani women. I’m sure these are, echoing David Lodge’s praise of Whitman’s ability to “lay end to end words never seen in each other’s company before...’’ Neither teaching, nor poetry are for the faint hearted, but both take us on a journey of joy, where in the best Whitman traditions, if you “keep your face towards the Sun, the shadows will fall behind.”