An illustration of a woman sitting in a tree and and looking out a window

Remote learning gave a new resonance to the poems taught in the class.

How do you teach a course on “Amherst Poets” from across the Atlantic, to a class full of Amherst College students, some of whom haven’t yet actually set foot in Amherst and others of whom are not allowed to venture off campus? That was the challenge that COVID-19 created for Assistant Professor of English Amelia Worsley this past fall, and it changed her course in remarkable ways.

Worsley taught the class twice weekly from the quiet house she’s rented near her parents’ home in northern England. Her students logged in from Amherst dorm rooms, New Jersey, China and elsewhere. She found that remote learning and social distancing gave new resonance to poems she’s taught before, such as Emily Dickinson’s “A Prison gets to be a friend—” and Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” which includes these lines: loneliness is still time spent / with the world. Here’s / the room with everyone in it. / Your dead friends passing / through you like wind / through a wind chime.

Worsley, who is working on a book about British Romantic poets’ descriptions of loneliness, says that because Vuong teaches at UMass, she would ordinarily take her students to hear him read in person. But this time they watched a close-up video, and “actually, they might not have had the same kind of intimacy in a big room with him.”

When Michael Kelly, head of the College’s Archives and Special Collections, Zoomed with the class to show some Dickinson manuscripts and archival materials, “they could all see the handwriting at the same time,” says Worsley. “They didn’t get the magic of knowing that the piece of paper that Emily Dickinson touched was right in front of them, but they could all see the letters and actually read the really tiny print.”

Later, the class paid a virtual visit to the College’s Emily Dickinson Museum, where program coordinator Elizabeth Bradley guided the class up a staircase and into the cupola, a space they had heard about in the poem “Altitudes” by the late Richard Wilbur ’42. “I’ve never been up there, and I’ve been to the house over 20 times,” Worsley told the class. As Bradley aimed her phone’s camera to show the views from the cupola’s windows, a black fly landed on a windowpane—quite the coincidence, in light of Dickinson’s famous poem about a buzzing fly.

A woman with red hair outdoors surrounded by branches

Dickinson’s home is alluded to in “Skin in the Game,” one of the poems Elias Baez ’15 read during his guest appearance in the poetry class. Baez was Worsley’s senior thesis advisee and has since earned an Academy of American Poets Prize and an M.F.A. in poetry. In the class, he also read a poem about being both a student of and a chauffeur to Wilbur, whom he drove to and from campus when Wilbur taught at Amherst.

Worsley’s class joined up with Professor Judith Frank’s “Representing Illness” class for a virtual conversation with poet and physician Rafael Campo ’87. “A lot of his poetry is about the AIDS epidemic,” Worsley says. “And suddenly now, we’re talking with someone who’s in the hospital dealing with COVID patients. And the poems about AIDS just seemed so much more present to us than they had when I’ve taught them before.”

For the final class meeting, students read poems that had made especially strong impressions on them during the semester. Ruiyi “Rachel” Zhu ’24, for example, read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places,” which struck her as an “accurate representation” of what it feels like to study remotely—a “very special fear brought by loneliness,” she said, as well as the freedom she found away from a school environment. Karla Munoz ’24 read “Graduation Day,” by former Amherst faculty member Sonia Sanchez, which made Worsley think wistfully of the crowds at past Amherst commencements.

Finally, Anthony Ornelaz ’21E chose a poem by Tess Taylor ’99. Taylor had Zoomed with the class from her home in El Cerrito, Calif., on a day when raging wildfires had turned the sky orange.

But when Ornelaz read from Taylor’s “I Gave My Love a Story”—these songs are older than we are / & this tune I hum is wise as a virus—the class thought about a different crisis, the one that keeps them distant from each other. Worsley told them she hopes they’ll meet in person, on campus, someday soon.

Photo by Maria Stenzel

Illustration by Yifan Wu