“I really believe in this course, and I really believe in people making meaning together,” said Elisa New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Poetry spreads its web

4 min read

Elisa New will offer a HarvardX course spotlighting the literary art in America

“It’s funny that I’m this ‘online’ person now, when I’m so backward,” said Elisa New. In her Barker Center office, shelves of antique books — many of them first editions — sat everywhere. An early hardback issue of Poetry magazine poked from a glass case.

Still, New is no novice at using digital resources to access the past. Those antique books? “Mostly from eBay,” she said. And now New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature, is on the cusp of launching “Poetry in America,” her first digital course via HarvardX.

“I wanted to do this course using all of the resources of Harvard, its libraries, archives, museums, its students on camera, experimenting with making this a course that uses what the University offers, but for a reason — and that reason is that the history of American poetry and Harvard’s history are so completely intertwined,” she said.

“There are some major poets who didn’t spend time at Harvard, but the list of major American poets who did spend time at Harvard is very, very long. We have their manuscripts. They taught here. Buildings are named after them. So this is a perfect place as a base for the course.”

When “Poetry in America” goes live on Oct. 31, close to 7,000 students will get a taste of verse in the 17th century. The course is broken down into modules, and will eventually culminate in contemporary American poetry. The course combines interactivity, video, traveling, and an element of surprise, said New.

“We filmed here at Harvard, in Cambridge, on Cape Cod,” she said. “I’ll be filming in Washington, D.C., Manhattan, California, even Vermont to talk about [Robert] Frost.”

Along the way are some exciting guest “interlocutors,” New said, including her husband, Charles W. Eliot University Professor Lawrence Summers, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, “The Vagina Monologues” playwright Eve Ensler, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan (“I gave him a poem about corn to read,” said New), and other guests whose identities New is guarding for now. While celebrity involvement is undeniably unique, New is most excited about opening her course up to local high school teachers and students.

“I’m drawing in teachers and students in a variety of ways,” she said. For the course’s second module, on Walt Whitman, New utilized discussions with local teachers. On Nantucket, she filmed a group of local high school students reading William Carlos Williams’ poem “Nantucket.”

“Poetry in America,” taught by Professor Elisa New, will cover the full chronology of American poetry, from the poetry of early New England to contemporary spoken word and hip-hop. The first module, a four-week course on the poetry of early New England (AI12-1X), will launch on Oct. 31. Visit edX.org to sign up.

“I’m also negotiating with two classes at Brookline High to do some on-camera tapings in the spring. And all of these classes, I’m hoping, will be testing these modules, telling me what works and doesn’t work,” she said.

Communication will be essential, New said. “This is a course about conversation between people about poetry. It’s not just about me lecturing. It’s about how you can huddle around a poem with a bunch of other people and get to know them, and the poem better. For me, that’s the center of what humanistic inquiry is,” she said.

Saying she learned about HarvardX later than others, New quickly recognized and wanted the kind of reach an interactive poetry course could have.

“I’m hoping there will be communities of readers and students who develop in far-flung places, that high school teachers who take the course will want some involvement, that we will all be connecting. Why not partner a class in Boston with a class in Bogotá?” she asked.

“I really believe in this course, and I really believe in people making meaning together.”

On Nov. 14, New will lead a panel discussion on the power of poetry and its rich tradition in New England. The event will also be available via livestream. To attend in person, RSVP here.