On the first day of the new year, promise shines, but on the second day, it begins to dim. Returning to teaching, although it’s a new semester with new courses, isn’t accompanied by the start-up glow of the fall term. For me, and maybe for some of you, the Eastern Standard Time of a Mid-Atlantic winter not only means early dark and late light, but a downward slide into ordinary time, the standardized minute-tick of day-to-day life, and the sense that something within has shrunken down to its hard, tart core. In his poem, “The times are nightfall,” British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says it all:
“The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:”
And then he proposes a counter to the nightfall: “Or what is else? There is your world within.”
So in early January, I turn my attention to cultivating my inner life with a brief yet leisurely retreat at the Jersey shore where the order of the day is read, write, eat and walk on the beach. The focus is to keep poetry alive within me for another year, the same goal that prompts my participation in the Dodge Poetry Program’s Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain sessions each year, sessions that are mini-retreats in their clarity and simplicity.
Why poetry? Because it’s slow. It’s unpredictable. It’s non-linear. There’s no right answer, but there’s clarity. The poem never asks more than I can give because reading a poem is a collaboration between the poem and the reader. I can return to the same poem every day and find something new in it, and in me because I’m seeing by the light of the poem. Or maybe the poem strikes a spark in that flinty winter core, and I’m the one who lights the poem in a new way. Either way, it feels symbiotic and surprising, as a good friendship does.
During Spring & Fountain, reading poetry isn’t forced: I’m not retooling a syllabus, searching out information for a report or required to learn anything. There’s no purpose except the doing of it, no rubric or anticipated outcome, no quantifiable result. When I share a poem, I don’t have to read to the end of poem, or even to the end of a line. As I listen to a poem being read, my attention can flit like the piping plovers I pass on the January beach at sunset, lifting and wheeling off, a delicious form of seasonal ADD that loosens the internal strictures developed from decades of studying, teaching and writing.
Why is this loosening necessary? Like stretching before exercise, flexibility. As a teacher and writer, language is the tool through which I practice my art and craft; if my use of it becomes rigid, my life-work is in trouble. I could endanger the art that keeps me awake in the world because, for me, poetry is the purest source of discovery and refreshment. And so this symbiotic relationship with poetry is not unlike that of humans with the endangered piping plover. When I create a protected space for poetry during Spring & Fountain, I develop practices that protect my own survival as an enlightened being.
Now I’m back in the classroom knowing winter’s long dark will continue for weeks. One solace is this year’s Spring & Fountain session where I’ll be with a group of educators, each of us making discoveries as we read and listen to poems. Like a walk on the beach, our collaboration with poems may be unpredictable and invigorating; there’s no telling when we’ll change direction, where we’ll wade in or wade out, or what the poems will toss up that we’ll want to look at more closely. Our Spring & Fountain mini-retreat will strike and fan a spark. When we leave, its protected space will remain a world within, a sanctuary that keeps giving light.
J. C. Todd currently teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rosemont College after many years of teaching secondary English and leading Artist-in-the-Schools workshops. Widely published in journals such as The Paris Review, The American Poetry Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, her most recent collection of poems, What Space This Body, is published by Wind Publications. She’s had a happy affiliation with the Dodge Poetry Program for more than 20 years.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Rutten Photography