The Voice: Winter 2002

The Voice

Poetry in China

During the first week in November 2001, I was invited by Jilan University in Changchun, People's Republic of China, to lecture on five American writers. My students were mainly Chinese graduate students in literature.

The topic of my first day was “The Music in Poe's Poetry,” so with seventy students we read aloud Poe's “Bells,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Raven,” to name a few. Our “music” had a slightly Chinese tone.

The second day I found the students eager to understand some of John Greenleaf Whittier's poems expressing his Quaker pacifism and his opposition to slavery.

Among other poems, we then read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “The Arsenal at Springfield,” in which he writes, “Were half the power that fills the world with terror,/ Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,/ Given to redeem the human mind from error,/ There were no need of arsenals or forts....” Against the backdrop of Sep-tember 11, we could agree that Longfellow's ideas were, sadly, wishful thinking.

They also heard from his “Psalm of Life”: “Life is real, life is earnest!/ And the grave is not its goal;/ Dust to art, to dust returneth,/ Was not spoken of the soul,” and already they had heard more of Longfellow than most American college students, and loved him.

On the third day we read Robert Frost's rural poems. An American teacher, there for the year, joined me in reading two of Frost's poems, “Home Burial” and “The Death of the Hired Man.” The students, three-to-one women, were glad to see that the women in both poems were more sensitive characters than their frostier husbands. On the last day we read and saw a film on O'Connor's “The Displaced Person”_not an easy story because of its many allusions to O'Connor's faith, but these students gamely searched like detectives for clues for meanings beyond the plot.

On the morning that I flew out, ten students came to my hotel to say goodbye. Two of them rode with me to the airport. One, whose American name was Paul, asked, “What is your purpose in life?” Dordt students, likely assuming the answer, had never asked me the question in precisely those words, but I told him briefly. Then he said sadly, “Sometimes I feel no purpose in my life.” I wished I could pass purpose to him like potatoes but the loudspeaker was shouting “Last call for boarding.” I gave him a hug and said goodbye. The big questions always come when you hear the last call, leaving unfinished business.