I taught them Mark Doty, Mercy on Broadway and Description. These are poems, and it was a short fiction class, but they got it. There are stories that can be told in a line. There are stories that have no plot but that open a window to somewhere else. Can you tell me, I asked them, what is the line in Description that made me choose to teach this poem? Which line reminds you of everything that I have been on about, for ten weeks?
They were silent for a long time. One of the first things I learned about teaching at the college level — from my first course director at the university — was to count to thirty in my head and wait.
One of my students, a tall and thoughtful athlete, raised her hand. “Is it the line about the, um, particular being the way to the universal?”
Bing bing bing!!
I made them guess about another line. When Mark Doty writes,
Somebody’s going to live through this
Suppose it’s you? Whatever happens to me
to us, somebody’s going to ride out
these blasted years…
What are the blasted years he’s talking about?
Remember, he is a gay man, and this is New York, and the poem was published in the nineties.
This one was harder. Remember, they don’t know a time before the War on Terror. They were born in the nineties. But they took some shots: A war? A recession? The time when his partner was dying?
“Oh wait,” one of them said, “Is it HIV?”
Yes. For Mark Doty, it’s HIV. But of course, part of the reason we read his poems is that by the time we get to Broadway with him, by the time he is walking through the din of house music samples sold on cassette tape and buying a turtle from a plastic tub, we are riding it out with him, whatever it is, just because we want him to stay. We want him to survive to train his eye on whatever comes next, his brilliant perception.
Teaching fiction made me want to read poetry, and I have been reading all these poems about grief, from Mark Doty, from my MFA cohort Collier Nogues.
Can you cease to be an exile by ceasing to remember
the country you’ve been exiled from?
The poems about grief are about love.
The poems from Tony Hoagland about love are about regret and being a jackass. His donkey soul.
The poem from Mary Ruefle about snow is about sex.
At the end of the quarter, I fed my students guava cheese pie and thanked them. Don’t normalize, I told them for weeks. There is no one way to be a ten year-old or a blind girl or a quarterback. Accept the character’s actions first, and then ask for the details that you need to better understand her. Try radical empathy.
And they did.