ModPo Communities: On “The Difference Is Spreading”

May 16, 2022   •   By Jacquelyn Ardam

The Difference Is Spreading: Fifty Contemporary Poets on Fifty Poems

Al Filreis and Anna Strong Safford

THE DIFFERENCE IS Spreading: Fifty Contemporary Poets on Fifty Poems is an idiosyncratic and fun collection of short essays on modern and contemporary poems. Edited by Al Filreis and Anna Strong Safford, the book is a companion to ModPo (Modern & Contemporary American Poetry), a massive open online course (MOOC) in which more than 415,000 participants worldwide have enrolled since its beginning a decade ago. MOOCs are online courses, open and free to the public, which use platforms developed by tech companies such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity, and are often housed and staffed through traditional universities. Filreis is a professor of English and faculty director of the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, and Safford is an instructor and curriculum specialist and ModPo’s course coordinator; ModPo, hosted on MOOC Coursera, is their shared endeavor. To create The Difference Is Spreading, Filreis and Safford drew 50 poems from the ModPo syllabus and asked 50 contemporary poets to write 1,000-word essays about them.

The Difference Is Spreading is not a collection of essays about famous or influential or frequently taught poems that you might find in a Norton anthology. Instead, Filreis and Safford have collected a corpus of poems — in ModPo and in the book — that bend toward the experimental, or what they call “open” poems that, in their words, “ask the reader to participate in making the meaning they mean.” The essays are not meant to be definitive readings of poems, but instead more akin to the conversations that mark the ModPo course and the Kelly Writers House at UPenn. The community of writers and readers that frequent the Kelly House in Philadelphia and the ModPo MOOC is unusually diverse for an institution funded and based in an elite university; Wai Chee Dimock has written that the Kelly House’s form of “education populism […] proceeds not by building walls and banning out-groups but by insisting that no walls are necessary, that everyone is ‘in.’” At any given reading at Kelly House, about half of the audience members are not associated with UPenn. Having been to a lot of college and university poetry readings, this seems significant and also bolsters the claim that Kelly House and ModPo are unusually “open” institutions.

In their introduction, Filreis and Safford share that the poem/author pairings are sometimes a matter of direct influence or affinity, while others are more “resistant, skeptical, or oppositional,” and they write that the work of making these pairings was an inherently creative act. The book begins with essays on poets likely familiar to anyone who has taken an American poetry class — Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, whom the editors classify as “proto-modernists” — and then Gertrude Stein (whose words gives the collection its title), Robert Frost, H.D., and Ezra Pound. The editors — and the ModPo course — omit some of the biggest names of modern poetry (T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, to name a couple) and instead focus on poets (and some writers and artists not usually classified as poets) such as Marcel Duchamp, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Erica Baum, and Lydia Davis, who create “open” works.

The first, and exemplary, essay in the book is by Divya Victor. Victor reads Canto 11 of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855), in which the speaker of the poem, a figure of Whitman, imagines a young woman hiding behind opulent window blinds while watching 28 young men bathing in a stream. Victor’s essay is a glorious close reading of the poem, attuned to the complexity of the poem’s voice, diction, and form. She carefully teases out the reversal of the usual male gaze — the poem’s voyeur is a lusting woman, not a man — and traces the young woman’s metaphorical splitting in the poem as she remains at the window and also becomes the “twenty-ninth bather” who joins the men and brings them to orgasm. Victor, alluding to Whitman’s famous line “I contain multitudes” that appears later in “Song of Myself,” writes that the woman is “transformed by her desire, splits herself in two, projects herself to be with bathers. Her desire makes her ebullient; she multiplies herself. […] Her desire makes her visible to herself and exposes her to us.” Victor connects the expansive accumulations of Whitman’s form to the content of the poem, writing that:

There is a proliferation here — twenty-eight bathers and a twenty-ninth and a reader and a speaker. A crowd is gathering around the wet, warm, and shimmering scene. It is an erotic community building around homosocial conviviality, a splash into the selfsame, an othering frisson in an element as primordial as life itself.


She concludes her essay with a poet’s attention to detail with a perfect semicolon: “The woman, once ‘so lonesome,’ finds a kind of community in mutual privacies; we leave them to it.” Victor’s voice carries us through this close reading. You can tell she feels the frisson of the poem, and wants us to feel it too.

Other essays in the collection are as concerned with context as well as content. Herman Beavers reads Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “Boy Breaking Glass” (1967) as a work that “bridge[s] Modernist aesthetics with a more radical, non-Western aesthetic sensibility” and as an “audition” for the more overtly political poets at the helm of the Black Arts Movement. In Fred Wah’s essay on Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man” (1962), which features the line “why not, buy a goddamn big car,” Wah puts the poem into a more biographical context; Wah studied with Creeley, and both Creeley and he drove a Volkswagen, which are definitely not “goddamn big car[s]” and Wah reflects on Creeley’s interest in cars as metaphors for poems and their mechanics. Sina Queyras, meanwhile, writes about their own investment in Plath as inspiration for their book My Ariel in an astute reading of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” (1965), while Lyn Hejinian’s essay on Lydia Davis’s “A Mown Lawn” (2001) (usually categorized as flash fiction, not a prose poem) does an extraordinary reading of sound in the poem and in doing so, places Davis in a lineage of US American writers concerned with grass and lawns from Thomas Jefferson to Whitman to William Carlos Williams to Robert Frost. It is a tour de force of a tiny essay, as worthy of close reading as Davis’s poem.

I enjoyed reading The Difference Is Spreading most when reading essays about poems already familiar to me by poets familiar to me; it was pleasurable to read Rae Armantrout on Emily Dickinson and Charles Bernstein on Hejinian. I also valued the experience of reading essays on poems totally new to me; I made a list of poets, especially contemporary ones, to check out after reading the book. I suspect that many of the essays of the collection would teach very well, especially those focused on close reading. The best essays made me think back to when I was an undergraduate student in poetry classes, listening to someone who knew more than I did tease a poem apart and then put it back together, revealing something previously unseen.

As a scholar of poetry, I would have appreciated a more comprehensive introduction to the book that put the ModPo MOOC into more context. As many of the 50 contributors writing on the poems have been professors, grad students, teachers, and TAs at UPenn and in the ModPo course (in addition to being poets), a robust articulation of the course’s aims, from the selection of the poems in the syllabus and in the collection, as well as more significant theorizing about what “openness” means would have enhanced the collection. Is the openness of a MOOC the same thing as the openness of a poem? Filreis and Safford seem to want to say yes. But I am more skeptical, both about MOOCs in general (only a small fraction of their enrollees actually finish the courses that they begin, for starters) and about the easy alignment of a poetic ethos with the MOOC giant Coursera, which is backed by millions in venture capital. While the editors have put together a solidly diverse anthology of essays and poems by many metrics, the contemporary poets commenting on the poems in The Difference Is Spreading seems to spread, well, not so much outside of UPenn. Despite its claim to openness, this book is very much a community speaking to itself. As someone outside of this particular poetry community, I am aware of its historical connections to the Language poetry movement (an experimental poetry movement that has been very much institutionalized in higher education), and I have questions about the idea that the formal “openness” of certain texts can be quite so easily aligned with a Coursera MOOC housed at the University of Pennsylvania, which has had such a hand in the institutionalizing of Language poetry. Hundreds of thousands have enrolled in the ModPo course and yet the essays are by those in the inner circle of ModPo, which is also to say, the Language poetry community. 

Nonetheless, the essays of The Difference Is Spreading are fun to read and highly teachable. Many of them are written by poet-scholars, who often bring a theoretical or historical weight to their essays without ever getting caught in the scholarly muck that can exclude readers. If you like poems, and like reading smart people writing about poems in bite-sized essays, then The Difference Is Spreading is the kind of book you might like to leave on your nightstand and dip into here and there. It is, as Gertrude Stein might tell us, both “a spectacle and nothing strange” to encounter all of these wonderful poems through the eyes of our contemporary poets.

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Jacquelyn Ardam is the author of Avidly Reads Poetry (NYU Press, 2022) and the assistant director of the Undergraduate Research Center for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UCLA.