Finding the Heat | Reading Poetry: Social Poetics
Written by Nicole Estvanik Taylor
“On a Monday afternoon, poet Joshua Bennett is chatting with early arrivals to his class, asking how they spent their weekends. The wistful chords of the 1979 Bill Evans jazz album “We Will Meet Again” play in the background. It’s a relaxed, convivial start to a new MIT Literature class that explores the relationship between poetry and the social lives of everyday people.
Bennett, who will join the MIT faculty as a Professor of Literature and Distinguished Chair of the Humanities this summer, designed 21L.004 Reading Poetry: Social Poetics with an emphasis on Black U.S. poets — part of a group historically barred from literacy and many forms of ownership and belonging. The course explores questions like: What social function has poetry served for African Americans, then and now? How can readers from different backgrounds come together to learn from these writers about the Black experience and about themselves?
Once everyone’s assembled for class, Bennett switches off the music. He begins class like he always does, with an ungraded writing prompt; today, he offers eight minutes to write “a poem about the beginning of a world.” Then he breaks the comfortable hush to introduce a topic close to his heart: Black nature poetry. The ensuing dialogue touches on environmental justice, the democratization of open spaces, and a tradition of African-American writers foregrounding the life stories of animals (a theme Bennett connects to the history of slavery in his first book of literary criticism, Being Property Once Myself).”
The discussion changes gears when Bennett asks a student to read aloud Ross Gay’s poem “Sorrow Is Not My Name.”
…just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off….
Bennett makes an appreciative noise when the poem’s final words, I am spring, hang in the air. He poses a now-familiar question to the class: “Where’s the heat in that poem? What’s strange? What’s familiar?”
Matthew Caren ’25, whose MIT studies focus on computer science and music, is among the students to volunteer his thoughts. With symbols like the vulture, he suggests, the poet recognizes that death has passed him by, for now. But the poem’s positive imagery — purple okra at the market, a basketball court down the block — evokes simple pleasures that, likewise, have yet to be realized. “That’s what spring is, too,” Caren suggests. “It’s only the promise of something good.”
“Yeah, yeah!” Bennett responds to Caren, getting excited. “He’s allowing himself to live in the subjunctive.” Gay is often misread as a cheerful poet, Bennett adds, but “this is a guy who’s wrestling joy from the jaws of defeat.”
Throughout the semester, Bennett will ask “Where’s the heat?” again and again. Later, Caren explains why he appreciates the refrain. “It’s not ‘What do you think?’ and far from the dreaded ‘What does it mean?’ It’s an invitation to share anything,” Caren says, “a presentation of a completely open slate…”