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Finding the heat

Poet Joshua Bennett invites MIT students to gather around Black American poetry.
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Michael Brindley
MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Joshua Bennett, pictured in profile, is seated in front of a blackboard
Visiting Professor Joshua Bennett taught class 21L.004 (Reading Poetry: Social Poetics) this spring. Bennett will join the MIT faculty full-time in July.
Photo: Allegra Boverman
Joshua Bennett speaks to 9 students. They are all seated around an oval table in a small classroom with a blackboard.
Clockwise from left: Joshua Bennett, Margaret Yu, Lyne-Nicole Odhiambo, Alissa Kopylova, Ella Trumper, Yasmeen Shabazz, Stephen Andrews, Diego Swaddipong, Elizabeth Zhang, and Matt Caren, who is making a point in discussion about Stevie Wonder.
Photo: Allegra Boverman
Poet Ross Gay gestures to students while speaking in a classroom
Students listen closely to visiting poet Ross Gay during his April visit.
Photo: Allegra Boverman
Closeup of folded hands resting on two books of poetry.
Ramal Harris has two of poet Ross Gay's books with him.
Photo: Allegra Boverman

On a Monday afternoon, poet Joshua Bennett is chatting with early arrivals to his class, asking how they spent their weekends. The wistful chords of the 1979 Bill Evans jazz album “We Will Meet Again” play in the background. It’s a relaxed, convivial start to a new MIT Literature class that explores the relationship between poetry and the social lives of everyday people.

Bennett, a visiting professor in spring 2023 who will join the MIT faculty as a full-time professor of literature and Distinguished Chair of the Humanities this summer, designed class 21L.004 (Reading Poetry: Social Poetics) with an emphasis on Black U.S. poets — part of a group historically barred from literacy and many forms of ownership and belonging. The course explores questions like: What social function has poetry served for African Americans, then and now? How can readers from different backgrounds come together to learn from these writers about the Black experience and about themselves?

Once everyone’s assembled for class, Bennett switches off the music. He begins class like he always does, with an ungraded writing prompt; today, he offers eight minutes to write “a poem about the beginning of a world.” Then he breaks the comfortable hush to introduce a topic close to his heart: Black nature poetry. The ensuing dialogue touches on environmental justice, the democratization of open spaces, and a tradition of African American writers foregrounding the life stories of animals (a theme Bennett connects to the history of slavery in his first book of literary criticism, “Being Property Once Myself”).

The discussion changes gears when Bennett asks a student to read aloud Ross Gay’s poem “Sorrow Is Not My Name.”

…just this morning a vulture

nodded his red, grizzled head at me,

and I looked at him, admiring

the sickle of his beak.

Then the wind kicked up, and,

after arranging that good suit of feathers

he up and took off….

Bennett makes an appreciative noise when the poem’s final words, “I am spring,” hang in the air. He poses a now-familiar question to the class: “Where’s the heat in that poem? What’s strange? What’s familiar?”

Rising junior Matthew Caren, whose MIT studies focus on computer science and music, is among the students to volunteer his thoughts. With symbols like the vulture, he suggests, the poet recognizes that death has passed him by, for now. But the poem’s positive imagery — purple okra at the market, a basketball court down the block — evokes simple pleasures that, likewise, have yet to be realized. “That’s what spring is, too,” Caren suggests. “It’s only the promise of something good.”

“Yeah, yeah!” Bennett responds to Caren, getting excited. “He’s allowing himself to live in the subjunctive.” Gay is often misread as a cheerful poet, Bennett adds, but “this is a guy who’s wrestling joy from the jaws of defeat.”

Throughout the semester, Bennett will ask “Where’s the heat?” again and again. Later, Caren explains why he appreciates the refrain. “It’s not ‘What do you think?’ and far from the dreaded ‘What does it mean?’ It’s an invitation to share anything,” Caren says, “a presentation of a completely open slate.”       

A social medium

In framing the course around a working theory of “social poetics” — a term borrowed from writer and labor activist Mark Nowak — Bennett is seeking, as he puts it in the syllabus, “a new way for us to be together in a cultural moment marked by distance … using the instruments left to us by luminaries both dead and living, a cloud of witnesses beckoning us toward a future with room enough for all of us to flourish.“ Bennett’s own poetry collections, “The Sobbing School,” “Owed,” and “The Study of Human Life,” are energized by references to such luminaries. He finds heat in the echoes of other artists’ words, just as he does in the quotidian moments that propel his own compositions.

Bennett’s teaching, too, models what he calls “a practice of joyful citation.” He invokes the writers he loves so often in class discussion that they seem present in the room: Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Camille Dungy, Sylvia Wynter, Jericho Brown, Nikki Giovanni, and numerous others. The syllabus also includes musicians, from the legendary Stevie Wonder to rapper MF DOOM to rising R&B star SZA. And Bennett doesn’t hesitate to reinforce a pedagogical point with references to one of his favorite ’90s romantic comedies (“Love Jones”) or the picture book he read his 2-year-old son that morning. “I want my students to think about how poetry refracts all of these other genres and animates them,” he says.

For rising senior Lyne-Nicole Odhiambo, the class’s approach resonates with their own experiences writing and performing poetry since high school. “I’m largely influenced by Audre Lorde’s tradition of using poetry as a mode to tell the truth about our lived realities,” says the physics major. “She has this essay, ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury,’ where she explains how there’s this misconception of poetry as something that’s reserved for highbrow intellectuals, when it really is a political tool in the sense that it brings regular people together to talk about the conditions we’re living in and to realize that we can build community with one another. I think I found exactly that kind of community in this class.”

Like Odhiambo, Bennett has performed his poetry from a young age; as a 20-year-old slam champion, he presented work at the same 2009 Obama White House event where Lin-Manuel Miranda famously debuted a song from “Hamilton.” Bennett’s newest book, published in April, is “Spoken Word: A Cultural History.” To bring a taste of that rich tradition to MIT and supplement the small-group discussions at the heart of this course, Bennett organized a public event series called “The People’s Poetry Archive.” Students’ grades are based not only on class participation and written responses to the texts, but also on attending at least one of these evenings. The third and final event of the semester, featuring Gay, took place in the Media Lab's Bartos Theater on April 26.

“I want my students to have the feeling of being in a venue as a beautiful poem is read,” Bennett says, “hearing the way other people react — not just reading the poems on the page, but meeting the living, breathing, flesh-and-blood human being who created that thing.”

Relating to poetry

Among the class’s assigned readings is a speech by the late Jamaican-American writer June Jordan to a group of middle-schoolers. She urges them always to measure the education they’re offered against an essential question: “How does this study, how does this subject, relate to the truth of my life?”

Students enrolled in the course say the subject is transforming more than their future reading habits.

“Central to our discussions in class is the idea of poetry as a way to remember, as a historical and social record,” says biological engineering major Ella Trumper. “This concept allowed me to see the poems we read in a new light. I see them as conversations between past, present, and future and as a way to understand one’s self and circumstances.”

Rising sophomore Elizabeth Zhang, a brain and cognitive sciences major, says the class’s recurring motif of power has gotten under her skin. “It’s made me think about the things I have power over — the animals I eat, the grass I step on, all part of an earth that ultimately holds power over me. It’s made me think hard about the educational power I have as an MIT student — the ways I use that power now, and the ways I could map my MIT trajectory to fight for or create something meaningful in the future.”

“Personally,” says Odhiambo, “I’m going to be a better listener after taking this class. It’s really good practice in reading between the lines, not just in poetry but in conversation. Once you’re trained to see the underlying meaning of things, you can start coaxing out the truth and bring it out in the open. I think that’s a beautiful way to live.”

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