MIT – poetry = a travesty

Cutting the Advanced Poetry Workshop from the MIT budget is unacceptable

Ever felt out of words? Been so angry you went mute? Been in love?

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Robert Frost once said, and although most high school poetry classes have more in common with the pungent ardor of animal dissection than with poetry’s musical pleasure or ars gratia artis, anyone who has ever tried to describe a powerful moment, a strong feeling, or even a mathematical concept, knows what Frost is saying about the value of poetic translation.

Explore the origin of every noun you speak, and you will find a metaphor for something concrete, tangible, and otherwise inexpressible except by grunts and arm-flailing. Poetry, as long as man could string words together into longer, more involved metaphors and language-pictures, has been the remedy for our dumbness. Good poetry paints pictures of the previously inexpressible. It is not just a flowery literary form for men in tights and white-mustached monks, it’s a useful tool for any young scientist who would someday like to communicate with the world outside her lab. (This, by the way, is especially useful when getting funding for the existence of said lab.)

The Advanced Poetry Workshop was recently slashed from the MIT spring course catalog, due to financial reasons.

MIT has just chosen a road too-often taken by lesser institutions and desperate, penny-pinching schools — one Frost, that well-loved writer and New England icon, would have despaired to look down for long — the path with no poetic translation. Next semester, if students at this great institution want to work beyond “Intro to Poetry” in honing the most essential tool of language and the longest-surviving written form, they will have to pore through the thin offerings on HowTo.Com, or walk through the cold to another school.

In response to my surprise at this rather embarrassing news, MIT poetry teacher Erica Funkhouser wrote back, “Really. I couldn’t be sorrier.”

As a student of the Graduate Program in Science Writing and a fellow victim of the budget cuts, I couldn’t be more ashamed. Shakespeare would be ashamed. William Carlos Williams, (a practicing physician and world-famous poet), appalled. I can’t imagine what that proto-Renaissance-man, Aristotle, would think.

I scoured the spring catalog for what could have possibly beaten out poetry in MIT’s judgement of what’s more important for a well-rounded student of the world to learn. Cryptic class titles like, “Word Made Digital,” “Communicating with Mobile Technology,” “Writing for Games,” and “Writing for Social Media” were still among the offerings in the Department of Writing and Humanistic Studies.

MIT has just sent a truly depressing message — we believe in Facebook more than we believe in the power of the poem to change, inspire, and remake the world. The last time I checked, Mark Zuckerburg is being flayed in movie theaters around the country for his ironic social blinders and revolting avarice, rather than writing a Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Yet we’re championing social media over poetry, spitting on the graceful persuasion of rhythm and verse, the word-canvas of philosophers and activists, for a “Like” button and a Twitter feed.

At least there’s something poetic about one of these ephemeral thought-outlets — a Twitter post, at least, is a form that requires careful attention to using words wisely. Too bad the focus is on character count rather than quality.

Can a so-called “humanities” department afford to be so frugal? Have they blindly traded a better-looking budget for the lasting beauty of the written form? Has MIT really just succeeded in throwing poetry, itself, into the discard pile of a big financial numbers game?

I don’t know who exactly is doing the calculations, nor what the Department of Writing and Humanistic Studies expects as the outcome of this morbid literary experiment, but for myself and other deprived and disappointed students, the hypothesis: “less is more” rings hollowly, hallowingly false — “less” is simply less than acceptable.

Emily Ruppel is a Graduate student in the Program in Science Writing and draws the MITWIT cartoon for The Tech.