I teach a required general studies course called Introduction to Literature. It’s a standard course at most universities. When I teach it, we spend the first seven weeks looking at poetry. I have a step-by-step method of analysis that I teach them: I take all the usual stuff like metaphor and rhythm patterns and onomatopoetic language and put them in a simple sequence to help students know what to do when they are trying to make heads or tails of a new poem.
It’s a great course, and I have great students. Our final activity for our poetry unit is this: I ask students to bring a copy of a poem that impacted their life in some way, and share it with the class. I sit in the back of the classroom. One by one, they stand and talk about their real lives: loss and confusion and loneliness, death and pain, the splintering of their hopes and fading of their dreams. I hold my breath. They tell me that a poem helped them make it through their brother’s funeral, a song gave them courage when they wanted to quit, a chorus repeated through their head again and again and helped them put their feet back on the floor.
It is for me one of the greatest privileges of my life: that my students lift the veil and let me catch a glimpse of the shadow-part of their daily lives. For one hour, we are not a class in a classroom. We are ordinary people, doing the best we can as we try to make sense of our lives. And it is absolutely certain to all of us in that sacred space that poetry really means something.
I do not participate on that day. It is their class, and they take us to unexpected places of joy and tears. But this morning, as I woke up and thought about what they taught me just yesterday, I realized that if I were called upon to share a story, this is what I would say.
In the early 1990’s, I got a job offer from a little school in southern Missouri. At the time, I couldn’t have told you where Missouri was on the map. But it was a season of “retrenchment,” and my own job was next on the line, so I moved.
It was a ghastly time of transition. I didn’t know a soul. I’d drive around in my car going nowhere in particular. I’d put on my favorite James Taylor’s album, “New Moon Shine,” and I’d crank the volume. High.
There was one song I’d play over and over and over. It’s called “Like Everyone She Knows.” The chorus goes like this:
Hold tight to your heart's desire Never ever let it go Let nobody fool you into giving it up too soon Tend your own fire Lay low and be strong Wait awhile Wait it out Wait it on out Wait it out It'll come along
That time in Missouri turned out to be one of the best times in my life with some of the best best people I have ever known. But at first, I was just miserable. It was so hard to hang in there, holding tight, waiting it out. If I could share a word with my students, that’s what I would tell them. “Hold tight to your heart’s desire. Never ever let it go. Let nobody fool you into giving it up too soon. Wait it out. It’ll come along.”