When a Poem Comes Their Way: Celebrating the Humanities

12/20/2013 09:18 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2014

Be surprised if you must, but I predict the Humanities to be the crown of our university curricula before too long. May be I am feeling high on finishing the teaching of my favorite literature course. But I have a good reason for feeling this way. And no I am not anti-science. In fact, I think science courses too will soon be taught in a more humanistic way. That is, by bringing the human into the picture. Let me explain why we have no other choice

In the semester that just ended, I taught a course called "Lyrics of Mystical Love, East and West" at the University of Maryland, College Park. The class focused on the writings of medieval mystic poets, looked at the way these poems work, and asked how (if at all) they were relevant to our lives today. But I feel we achieved much more than that. We put exploration and learning to the service of our well-being as people who want to understand their desire for a deeper meaning in life, people who want to be whole, healthy, and happy - and make a difference in the world.

Yes, we read plenty of intricate and beautiful poetry by great mystics of various traditions. We also read about the human cognitive abilities, the impact of language on our perception of the world, the diversity of silence, the nature of the poetic utterance and the role of apophatic discourses in expressing the inexpressible. On top of the dense reading, the students made class presentations, wrote book reviews, did in-class writing, and ended with a take home exam. Furthermore, everyone was expected to participation in the class discussion. In other words, this was no shortcut to an A. More to the point, everyone hung in there and argued passionately for why they preferred one interpretation to another.

Last Thursday, in our concluding class, we took stock of the semester. Where were we after four months of exploring these intricate writings? And, what had we gained if anything? I was working to make our discussion substantive rather than evaluative. "Just say something about the course" I said "anything that comes to mind. Don't think it has to be a profound statement, just express the thought that comes to mind." And the students said amazing things. "This course was about my life, about who I am, and the questions I have" said one. "In the discussions, I learnt so much from my peers. I had no idea they can teach me all this," commented another. "In my science classes, the correct answers are clearly defined. Here, we often had many different answers. That was fascinating," observed a computer science major. "I thought about material attachments, about life being cluttered with things. A lot of things were put into perspective for me," said one of the two graduate students in class. "Half way through the course I realized we are tackling some really complicated concepts. The readings were pretty complex and the undergraduates handled it really well" said the other and laughed merrily. The only complaint voiced by one undergrad was music to my ears "We read only some Rumi, I had hoped for more Persian literature in the course. It is called Pers. 398." Correct! And I will include more translations of Persian poetry in the syllabus next time.

But I am not writing about the content of Pers. 398 at UMD. Rather, I am asking why we are not more often proud of teaching in fields like literature that touch so many young lives. At a time when fear of being bullied, anxieties of competition, the weight of loneliness, and the spread of depression threatens campuses and students, education has to be more than proving equations, running surveys, and memorizing facts. Learning to live a wholesome life has to be included in the curriculum. And the courses in the Humanities are the place to do it. The great mystics we read in Pers. 398 did nothing extraordinary. They just made it their business to ask compelling questions about simple everyday things. Not how many degrees we have, but how happy and fulfilled we are at the end of the day.

Teaching lyrics of mystical love to a class of healthy inquisitive minds reminds one that these texts are about confronting who we are and what makes our lives meaningful. Mystical poetry is not about a mist on some distant mountain. It is often about life in the here and now, about the significance of hope, of conviction, of resistance to commodification, of tolerating difference... and much more. Above all, it is about learning that words do not carry the truth, the mystical meaning. We shape our own truth as we build our personal understanding of these poems step by step. These points were articulated beautifully by the class (all nineteen of them: thirteen undergrads, two PhD students, and four auditors). Knowing how awesome they were, I had gone to class with poem which I had written for them:

When a Poem Comes Their Way

I beg them to leave behind their imagined suitcases; to give up the thought that words carry pieces of meaning inside them,
The way one's luggage carries one's shirts, shoes, or underwear

I want them to play with meaning, as it comes at them from unexpected corners
The way kids play with their new ball without a single care about hitting the most respectable glass window in the neighborhood
There is a kind of oomph, a juvenile forbidden joy
In breaking things that mesmerize you with their wholeness

I want them to walk barefoot on the sidewalks of life
The way intoxicated dervishes walk on pieces of broken glass or burning coal
I want them to live as if every ray of light flows in their veins, as if every leaf falls at their feet, and every bird can pull them up to the sky.

I want them to listen as if every blade of grass is singing and talk as if the world is listening.

When a poem comes their way, I want them to run their fingers along the uneven edges of its concreteness, inhale its aroma, taste its bitter anguish and walk with its comforting flow
There comes a time when they learn to be hungry for listening
Why not swallow poems whole the way boa constrictors swallow their prey and
Live on it through the wintery "hunger games" of thought

Truth be told,
I want them to become pregnant with the poem
For a while,
For as long as they need
For what is their gestation period
Then give birth to their own meaning as if they conceived it
As if there is no other poet in the world

I want them to be the meaning
Maryland, Dec. 9, 2013