Why Are 30,000 People Studying Poetry Online With This Guy?

You heard poetry’s dead? The acolytes of Penn prof Al Filreis’s ModPo course would beg to differ.

Al Filreis Penn poetry

Penn professor Al Filreis, who teaches Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, at Kelly Writers House / Photograph by Eric Sucar for University of Pennsylvania

Last summer, bleary, disheartened, and often angry from more than two years of seemingly nonstop doomscrolling, I decided it was time for a big change. I needed to switch the channel, stop watching the marathon mud-wrestling match that our world has become, and spend time thinking about something else, something high-minded and maybe even transcendent.

My usual response to feeling overwhelmingly disaffected is to learn something useless in my real life. I have shelves stuffed with books about calculus and French grammar and neuroscience from past episodes. For some reason, this time I thought: poetry.

And since I have no more room for books, I registered for an online course called Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (dubbed “ModPo”), offered by the University of Pennsylvania on the digital learning platform Coursera. ModPo was created by Penn English professor Al Filreis, adapted from English 88, a course he taught to Penn undergrads for nearly 25 years. I felt lucky to have found the professor right then, seeing as he’s someone who believes poetry is “a civilizing force in brutish times.”

Filreis arrived at Penn in 1985 with a PhD in English from the University of Virginia. He’d written some poems, but he considered himself a literary historian and focused on modern and contemporary American poetry. His dissertation was on the poet Wallace Stevens. Filreis was an early proponent of online education and a polite pedagogical revolutionary whose longtime goal has been “the end of the lecture as we know it.” The college lecture, Filreis maintains, is a 19th-century technology.

A lot of people think something similar about poetry — that it got up to speed around the time of Shakespeare, was really purring at top efficiency through the Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries, then sputtered into the 20th century and conked out with the publication in 1922 of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is a big reason, as a writer stated in the New York Times recently, “Poetry is dead.”

Not so, says Professor Filreis. “Poetry isn’t dead,” he once told Al Jazeera’s America Tonight. “They just told you it was dead.” He was being interviewed a few years after he first launched ModPo in 2012, during the Big Bang period for massive open online courses, a.k.a. MOOCs. From the beginning, the MOOC format seemed best suited to the STEM side of the curriculum. But 42,000 students signed up for ModPo the first year, logging on from 179 ­countries — and the numbers kept climbing and have at least doubled since. The chance to read and discuss Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, John Ashbery et al. was drawing more people than an average Phillies game, and the stadium-sized crowd arrived virtually from all over the world.

“In 2012, when Coursera approached me, I jumped at it,” Filreis says in an archived video on the ModPo website. “ModPo gives me a chance to be a teacher on behalf of tens of thousands of people who would not ordinarily be my students.” He estimates that in a little over a decade of ModPo online, he’s reached more than 180,000 students around the world. In comparison, in his 38 years at Penn, he’s taught a measly 3,500 students in person on the West Philly campus. I was about to join a bunch of folks who’d somehow missed poetry’s obituary.

By the time I signed up for last fall’s 10-week session, the Coursera website said there were more than 30,000 other students registered. ModPo has no prerequisites. The only grades come from short multiple-choice quizzes. And it’s free! During the first week of September, on one of those days that carry the nostalgic nip in the air that sparks a back-to-school reverie, I logged on to the Coursera site and clicked a link. Up came a short video introduction by Professor Filreis, recorded as he sat on the porch of his summer house in upstate New York.

We would be starting with two well-known proto-modernist poets — Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. I had read a little bit of both writers but couldn’t remember where or when. That first week’s assignments included several short poems by Dickinson and excerpts from Whitman’s sprawling Leaves of Grass. Each reading was followed by a video discussion among a panel of teaching assistants, moderated by Filreis. There were online forums dedicated to each work for students to use to communicate with one another. That, the professor says, “is where the action is in ModPo.”

“Poems,” he says, “are just a good excuse for convening a conversation.”

Here’s the drill, devised by Filreis: “Read, watch others discuss, then yourself discuss, then repeat. Do that 119 times in 10 weeks … and you have an intensely interactive, often intimate learning experience across time zones, generations, sensibilities, local educational attainment, or social status.”

And so it began, with Emily Dickinson:

I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior — for Doors —
Of Chambers as the Cedars —
Impregnable of eye —
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky —
Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation — This —
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise —

Nice. Melodious. Evocative. What the hell did it mean? I read it again, and then again. That took about five minutes. Then on to Professor Filreis’s elixir of poetic life, the close read and conversation. “Poetry is the one genre of writing that is inherently open-ended and undecided,” Filreis once told a Penn in-house publication. “I like poetry because you can talk about it forever.” It quickly became evident that he was willing and able to do just that.

On video, Filreis sat at a table flanked by seven teaching assistants — five women and two men who were earnest and smart and articulate and managed to be unfazed facing the chore of analyzing Dickinson’s poem word by word. “Possibility” alone could have several meanings. Did “A Fairer House” indicate “fair” as in justice, or “fair” as in pretty? A TA named Molly O’Neill was assigned the analysis of “This” — just that one word — which Filreis described as “the most important word not only in Dickinson, but perhaps the English language.”

Nearly half an hour later, as he wrapped up, Filreis importantly said, “This — the work we’re doing, the work we’ve done in 20 minutes — is work. It takes 14 seconds to read prose like this — newspaper prose, not memorable. I’ve been dealing with this poem for 30 years, and I still do the work, and that’s what my job is. Pretty cool.”

If you say so. The one lesson I was able to glean from the conversation was that Dickinson’s poem was about writing poetry, and that would become a standard theme: Most modern poetry was fundamentally about itself.

Now I was at the point in the process where I could participate in a written discussion like that I’d just seen modeled online by the teacher and his assistants. When I found the online forum for this one poem, it ran for 68 pages, with about 15 entries per page — and any given post might already have received dozens of responses. Talking about Dickinson was a house of intimidatingly large possibility. I decided not to knock and kept moving.

I guess I should have paid more attention to a review of ModPo I’d seen on the website of the Poetry Foundation. Though the writer called it “by far the best literature class I’ve ever taken,” she also wrote: “I’m having trouble balancing my real life with ModPo. … The class spreads like mold.”

Somewhere in the midst of Week 3 (Imagism, featuring Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens), I began to get the feeling that I’d unwittingly joined a strange cyber cult. Who were these people? And what drove them to spend hours online discussing, say, Wallace Stevens? He’d given us “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” ModPo people had exponentially more ways of looking at that poem.

There were some classic signs of a cult. The charismatic leader — okay, maybe a little nerdy (one course veteran suggested Filreis would be played by Eugene Levy if there were ever a mockumentary made about ModPo), but totally committed to his mission and relentless in his proselytizing for the open-ended discussion of poems and his ideal of what he calls “collaborative learning.” (I’d later learn that Filreis’s daughter, Hannah Albertine, is the outgoing food editor of Philly Mag.)

There was the contingent of disciples — the dozen or so teaching assistants, many of whom have stayed faithfully with Filreis since the beginnings of ModPo in 2012.

“The course is what it is because of Al,” original TA Dave Poplar tells me. Poplar is an outlier among the TAs, having practiced law for 13 years before returning to school to study writing. He’s now working on a PhD in philosophy. “I’ve had a lot of professors,” he adds. “Al takes it just to another level. The enthusiasm people have for the course that drives the cult-like status is so much a reflection of Al’s enthusiasm and hard work.”

The ModPo movement has a shrine: Kelly Writers House, a 13-room Tudor-style cottage built in 1851 on a block of Locust Street that’s now a pedestrian walk on Penn’s campus. Most of the streamed discussions are recorded there, in front of a bank of windows looking out on leafy Locust Walk. During the 10-week fall course, Kelly Writers House is the scene of a weekly 90-minute live event, a kind of tent revival meeting where Filreis acts as ringmaster to a multi-platform talk that includes a live audience, the TAs, a Twitter feed, a 10,000-strong Facebook group in live-chat mode, a YouTube chat, and an old-fashioned telephone call-in. The house is the only building on the Penn campus that doesn’t require an ID card, and Filreis extends an open invitation to everyone in the far-flung ModPo community. Journeys by ModPo members to visit the house in person — and they’ve come from as far as Spain and India — are commonly referred to as “pilgrimages.”

After a student named Anthony Watkins completed ModPo, he wrote a review of the course on the website Class Central, which tracks the world of online learning. He mentioned a Bible story “where Jesus takes the disciples up to a mountain top, and there they spend the day with the long dead patriarchs of the Jewish faith, and as the day winds down, Peter asks Jesus if maybe they could build temples for these ghostly patriarchs to live in so they could come and visit forever.”

“I am reminded of the story,” Watkins wrote, “every time I watch a video, or a podcast of Al and his TAs gathered at Kelly Writers House to discuss some old well-worn beloved verse from Emily” — that would be Dickinson — “or WCW” — William Carlos Williams — “or ‘Uncle Walt’ [hint: not Disney], or to introduce us to a somewhat more obscure but interesting poet from the 1960s or even today.” Watkins predicts he’ll be taking the fall ModPo course every year for the rest of his life.

If he does, he’ll have plenty of company. Dave Poplar told me his mom, a high-school English teacher, has done the fall ModPo course every year since the beginning, joining what Filreis estimates is a group of several thousand regulars. He’s resisted Coursera’s suggestions to design a more advanced course. The engagement of its students working collectively — veterans and neophytes together — to get through the thickets of modern poetry makes ModPo something different in the now-vast galaxy of MOOCs. According to Peter Decherney, faculty director of Penn’s Online Learning Initiative, his university alone now offers 150 open online courses and has 12 million enrollees.

“What’s unique about ModPo is that it really created a community,” Decherney tells me. “And they stay and interact with each other.”

Then he notes: “We prefer the word ‘community’ to ‘cult.’”

Still, ModPo even has the story of a miracle performed. During the first year of the course, a 16-year-old from New York signed up. His name was Dan Bergmann, and he was non-speaking autistic. He communicated by typing with one finger. As he watched Professor Filreis and his team of Ivy League TAs discuss poetry, he would write later, he “wanted to sit there with them.” He not only kept up with the reading and watching; he laboriously wrote essays one letter at a time that he posted for peer review — only a small percentage of students do such posts — and without mentioning his autism. His work was well-reviewed and noticed by Filreis.

“For the first time in my life I was following a curriculum that was not adapted to my special needs,” Bergmann wrote later, after he earned a certificate from Coursera for completing ModPo and became a celebrity in the course community. Indeed, several times, he got his wish to join Filreis and the TAs at the table for a live-video discussion. “Keeping up and doing all the work and earning that certificate was the hardest thing I had ever done,” Bergmann wrote.

He went on to earn a degree from Harvard. He calls ModPo “one of the great human inventions.”

I had little of Bergmann’s determination. Facing Week 4, which Filreis frankly says is the most difficult of the course and a frequent reason students drop out — mostly because it introduces Gertrude Stein, who’s got to be the world’s most famous writer that no one can read — I quit the cult. It wasn’t apostasy so much as my propensity to be, per Walt Whitman, “A calm, steady, philosophic son of indolence.” I went back to such wise use of my time as learning every minute detail of every investigation into Donald Trump. But I couldn’t resist logging on to ModPo every now and then as the course continued, just to read a few poems and watch Filreis and the TAs sit at the table and talk about them.

Then spring came, and the tulip trees bloomed, and, nagged by a sense of something left undone, I went back to ModPo. Coursera keeps the fall course available — in reruns, as it were — throughout the year.

Yes, Gertrude Stein nearly defeated me. But one day, trying to get through her defiantly senseless “If I told Him: A completed portrait of Picasso” (brief excerpt: “If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him. Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it. If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon.”), I clicked on a link to a video of a dance performance choreographed to a reading of the poem, and something bloomed in me. Stein’s absurdist senselessness made total sense. What had been confounding became compelling. I was hooked.

“Wow, if you get into it through Gertrude Stein,” longtime TA Ali Castleman would later tell me, “welcome to the cult.”

Freed to set my own schedule, I found myself spending more time in ModPo as I moved quickly through the syllabus. Hours hanging out with raving Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats. A slow stroll through the Harlem Renaissance with Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. A day trying to decipher John Cage and his experiments at making poetry without writerly control, building verse on a frame borrowed from acrostics and often choosing words at random from a source text. As the hours added up, the TAs in the discussion videos started to seem like imaginary friends. I wasn’t unique in that. “That’s one of the common refrains,” Castleman told me. “We’re a little reality show for people who like poetry.”

Take this course because you’ve spent too much time thinking of language as a utility and not enough time thinking about language as self-making.” — Al Filreis

At the end of April, which happens to be National Poetry Month, I was nearing the end of the course — Week 10, focused on recent ideas of the avant-garde poets, including, oddly, unoriginality. One living poet is composing using nothing but the three-letter codes for airports around the globe, which the poet calls SKY WRI TEI NGS. (Those codes represent a defunct airport in Ohio, McGuire Air Base in New Jersey, Tezu Airport in India, and Nagasaki in Japan.) A year ago, the premise would have seemed ridiculous; now, I was tickled trying to figure out the poems and happily sat through the discussion video that stretched to nearly an hour. I started to suspect that I might be one of those people who sign up for ModPo every fall for the rest of their lives.

Back when I first started, I watched a video where Al Filreis admitted he knew ModPo would be harder work than most of us expected when we signed up. “Take this course,” he said, “because you’ve spent too much time thinking of language as a utility and not enough time thinking about language as self-making.” At another point, he gave a pep talk to learners who were frustrated when the poems they encountered seemed like so much nonsense.

“I do believe firmly that when we collective close-read, we do solve problems,” Filreis said. “We educate ourselves as to how to face uncertainties of all kinds —  the uncertainty of meaning. We face things that are hard rather than things that are easy, and that creates new kinds of muscles.”

Sure enough, 100-odd poems and much discussion later, I felt pumped up from poetry. My reading was slower (“We preach slow reading almost like slow food,” Filreis told me in one of our several conversations for this article), more attentive, and I was more tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty. My knowledge of an art form I’d previously ignored — like the large majority of Americans, according to surveys — had gained greatly in breadth and depth, and I’d barely stuck my toe in the water.

Poetry had become a place to go to escape the constant roar of the moronic inferno. It was a place where language, despite often being enigmatic and opaque, could reveal elegance and beauty and meaning. These days, when I felt I was drowning in the media’s muck, I could call up a phrase from, maybe, the New York School poet Frank O’Hara (ModPo Week 7), from a poem about an afternoon of routine errands that ended at a tobacco shop, where he learned that the jazz singer Billie Holiday had died. “A NEW YORK POST with her face on it,” O’Hara wrote.

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Whew! Take that, Twitter.

Originally, I had entered this world, become a fledgling fellow in this cult, more for distraction than for self-improvement. Now, not only was I reading poems; I was reading books about poetry. In one, called Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry, prominent poet and critic Brad Leithauser ends with three words: “Poetry improves people.” I proudly reported my find to Al Filreis, and he told me it sounded “too therapeutic and old-fashioned.”

Okay, Professor. See you in September, and the conversation can continue.

Published as “Poetry, Man” in the July 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.