Student proposals should prioritize poetry in CIE

Photograph courtesy of Grizzly Staff

Paige Szmodis

paszmodis@ursinus.edu

The CIE Syllabus Change Committee is calling for student proposals to add or remove a text from the CIE curriculum. With a faculty partner, students can propose any text, film, art, or performance piece. While last year’s changes to the curriculum provided new perspectives and genres, I would like to see new changes that introduce more contemporary poetry into CIE.

I didn’t recognize the glaring lack of contemporary poems in CIE until I attended a panel at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) titled “Remembering Gwendolyn Brooks” last semester. There, poet Sonia Sanchez, most associated with the Black Arts Movement, reflected that Brooks allows us to become more human simply by posing the question “What does it mean to be human?” through her poetry.

Most upperclassman at Ursinus may groan at this clichéd question from CIE, but Sanchez’s statement still rings true when applied to all poetry. Even though the CIE questions have changed, I still feel as though this question is the root of CIE because the process of questioning what it means to be human through poetry is how we become better humans.

Sanchez’s comment made me realize that CIE should focus on the content of poetry to question how we can understand our lives and the world. Therefore, students should take advantage of the opportunity to influence the CIE curriculum by proposing more contemporary poems that they identify with as texts.

Part of this insufficiency of poetry in CIE seems to be due to Ursinus’ tendency to shy away from describing CIE with any preference for literature or the humanities as a way to distinguish our institution from other colleges that require an English or writing seminar as a first-year learning experience. I do not think CIE should be limited to an English curriculum because of the importance of an interdisciplinary education. However, this emphasis causes the curriculum to fall short of teaching students how to read, analyze, and most importantly, relate to poetry.

In CIE 100 and CIE 200, there is only one poetry section per semester: Sappho in the fall and Romantic poetry in the spring. I like these poems, but the way they are used in CIE often relegates them to one or two class discussions about their socio-historical context.  This basic analysis often causes us to overlook the emotional connections we can have with literature, which is what can actually impact students the most.

From CIE 100, I recall Sappho’s haunting declaration that “someone in some future time will remember us.” However, I do not remember her poetry because of class discussions. Rather, students learn to appreciate poetry through finding relevance to their lives. In high school, I did not enjoy poetry until we read Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, because we focused more on the poem’s meanings rather than structure, devices, and historical context.

Like most of my high school education, many first-year students have probably been taught to read poetry like they would a riddle: to find the hidden metaphors and cryptic meanings. CIE provides an opportunity for students to re-evaluate how they approach poetry. The point of studying literature in CIE is not to identify literary devices and structure. Analyzing such elements is meant to help the reader reach a better understanding of the poem’s meaning; this activity is not a substitute for actually grappling with the content itself.

During the panel discussion at the AAMP, Sanchez also emphasized how even some English faculty fail at teaching poetry beyond basic literary analysis, and I think her critique may also apply to professors who have to teach poetry in CIE. She told stories about how in the case of national tragedies, people would ask her what poems she would recommend to survive trauma. Certainly fiction, philosophy, and nonfiction can be meaningful in shaping someone’s world views, but poetry often contains the potential for deeper emotional connection. Similarly to the literature that people look to during tragedies, the texts that students will revisit at Ursinus and beyond are the ones that have a personal impact.

The addition of contemporary poems could help students relate and understand how a poem’s meaning can impact our daily lives. For example, when Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” directly asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, the poem allows the reader to contemplate the  CIE questions without pretending to know the answers.

Like Sanchez shows us, what it means to be human can become a serious question by reading and relating to poetry. The poetry selections in CIE shouldn’t be limited to canonical Greek or Romantic poetry, but should extend to contemporary works that illustrate more ways of understanding ourselves, others, and the world. As a result, I encourage students and faculty interested in contemporary poetry to submit proposals to the CIE Syllabus Change Committee by March 15.