FOR THREE SEMESTERS, I had the pleasure of teaching an undergraduate creative writing class. My charges were mostly freshmen, whose prior engagement with literature consisted largely of a) whatever part of their assigned high school reading they hadn’t consumed in Clif’s Notes form, and b) the entire oeuvre of J.K. Rowling.
Not that my students were a bunch of sticks. To the contrary, I taught some really bright, talented kids, some of whom had read more than Harry Potter. But generally, they didn’t know what to read, not because they didn’t want to, but because no one had told them. Which is part of what brought them to college, and my classroom. Part of the job, as I saw it, was to introduce them to literature that they might not otherwise be aware of.
Certainly that was my experience in college. More than anything, my professors pointed me in the right direction. One of them suggested that, if I wanted to be a fiction writer, I should really get a subscription to The New Yorker. At the time, I’d never heard of The New Yorker. Professors helped introduce me to, and navigate me through, two of my favorite works of English literature: Paradise Lost and Ulysses. And most of what (little) I know about poetry can be attributed to my Introduction to Poetry professor, the late, great, and wonderfully-named Roland Flint, who gave us extra credit for memorizing poems.
I’m not a poet. I’m not even a student of poetry. I’m not conversant in the patois; I wouldn’t know my ass from my enjambment. But I love poetry, particularly British poetry, and I love to teach it. I’m of the Francine Prose, read-aloud-slowly-parsing-every-word school of teaching, so poems, by virtue of their brevity and depth, lend themselves well to classroom discussion. Even if students had forsaken their required reading, it didn’t matter—they could still participate in the discussion.
Generally, my students dug Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which I’ve known by heart since I memorized it for extra credit in Flint’s class (and which rote recitation never failed to impress them); Browning’s “His Last Duchess,” which is basically an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter; and John Donne’s masterful and moving “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” For that one, I’d take two pens and use them as a compass, showing them exactly what Donne meant by “stiff twin compasses”; the resulting gasp of collective understanding was always a highlight of the semester.
One poem they never liked is “Ode to the West Wind,” by Percy Byssche Shelley. But I always insisted on discussing it, because, as I told them, “You cannot graduate from college without at least understanding why this poem is good.”
I get why they didn’t like it. There’s lots of fancy-pants wordplay, difficult sentence construction, unusual imagery, and, oh yeah, it’s kind of long: five verses of 14 lines each. It’s almost like a five-pack of sonnets. But “Ode to the West Wind” is one of my favorite poems; it goes places other poems don’t. To fully appreciate its power, it must be read aloud. Preferably in your best Orson Welles/Richard Burton (or Maggie Smith/Judi Dench) voice. (I like to do this every year at the autumnal equinox, a ritual I started when we moved upstate seven years ago).
Right off the bat, “Ode to the West Wind” is not an ode, at least not how I understand odes. There’s nothing ode-ish about it. An ode, to me, is a poetical meditation on a given subject, a singing of its praises. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a good example; Keats contemplates the urn, and the poem results from where this contemplation takes him. But “Ode to the West Wind” is not about the West Wind, per se; rather, it’s a summoning of the West Wind. It is, as Shelley puts it, an incantation. The poet is at a low point, a moment of weakness and sapped energy, of despair and creative block, and is calling on the awesome (in the Romantic sense of the word) power of the West Wind to help him.
In the first three verses, Shelley marvels at the might of the West Wind, noting its effect on leaves, clouds, and ocean waves. He starts small, with an image of dead leaves “driven / Like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,” establishing early the metaphysical (or Harry Potterish, if you will) element, and then builds. In the second verse, the leaves are compared to “loose clouds,” from which, by the power of the West Wind, “Black rain, and hail, and fire will burst.” By the third verse, even the “Atlantic’s level powers / Cleave themselves into chasms” as the wind fiercely blows; even the plants at the bottom of the ocean fear his might. There’s so much imagery of swirling, of rising, of crescendo, that it feels as if the poet himself is causing all this movement; imagine one of the parade of Dark Arts professors casting a spell and making it grow, building it like a fire.
The last two verses are the most important. Here, Shelley introduces himself into the proceedings, calling upon the West Wind to do to him, metaphorically, what it literally does to leaves, clouds, and waves. He wants the West Wind to possess him. Be thou me, impetuous one!
When I read the poem out loud, I can feel the power he summons coursing through me. I can feel the raw energy of these words, these “dead thoughts,” written by a man who died almost 200 years ago. It flows through me, like one of the spells in the Harry Potter books. (At this point in the discussion, the students generally look at me like I’ve lost my mind, and then resume texting).
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!
The relentless optimism of the famous last lines of the poem never fails to give me chills. It is about revolution, about positive change, about indomitable will, and ultimately about success after weathering the storm:
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
His “incantation” has worked! The poem itself is proof.