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 the COVID-19 pandemic created for Assistant Professor of English Amelia Worsley this fall, and it changed her course in remarkable ways.
Worsley spoke with me through Zoom, from the quiet house she’s rented near her parents’ home in northern England—the same way she met twice weekly with her students, who logged in from Amherst dorm rooms, New York, New Jersey, China and elsewhere. The professor and I talked about how 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, told me that, because Vuong teaches at UMass Amherst, 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.”
Assistant Professor of English Amelia Worsley
“We attended the Emily Dickinson poetry festival online,” Worsley continued. “Again, it’s more intimate, in a way. [Students] were seeing into the poets’ homes; they were cozy in their homes. They were able to talk on the chat and watch all this affirmation happening.”
When Mike Kelly, head of the College’s Archives and Special Collections, Zoomed with the class to show the students some Dickinson manuscripts and archival materials, “they could all see the handwriting at the same time,” said 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, when I accompanied the class on a virtual visit to Amherst College's Emily Dickinson Museum, Program Coordinator Elizabeth Bradley used her laptop and phone to show us around the poet’s bedroom, focusing in on the writing desk, the woodstove, the art on the walls. Then Bradley guided us up a staircase and into the cupola at the top of the house, a space the class had heard about in the poem “Altitudes” by the late Richard Wilbur ’42, who taught at Amherst for several years, starting in 2008. “I’ve never been up there, and I’ve been to the house over 20 times,” Worsley had told me. As Bradley aimed her phone’s camera to show us the views from the cupola’s windows, we saw a large black fly land on a windowpane—quite the coincidence, in light of one of Dickinson’s most famous poems.
Dickinson’s home and writing are alluded to in “Skin in the Game,” one of the poems Elias Baez ’15 read during his guest appearance in the “Amherst Poets” 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 from Johns Hopkins University. In the class, he also read poems about his family, his cat and his experiences being both a student of and a chauffeur to Wilbur, whom he used to drive to and from the Amherst campus. “I really did back a car into his gate,” Baez told the students. “That was one of the worst moments of my life.”
Worsley’s class joined up with Professor Judith Frank’s “Representing Illness” class for a virtual conversation with Rafael Campo ’87, who is both a poet and a physician. “A lot of his poetry is about the AIDS epidemic,” Worsley said. “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 latter half of the last class meeting, the students took turns reading poems that had made especially strong impressions on them during the semester. Ruiyi “Rachel” Zhu ’24, for instance, read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places,” which struck her as an “accurate representation” of what it has felt like to study remotely—a “very special fear brought by loneliness,” she said, as well as the freedom she has 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 that (used to) gather at Amherst’s Commencement. “A petition for Sonia Sanchez to read that poem at your graduation seems like a good idea to me,” she said.
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 changed the color of the sky. “She was clearly on edge when we first got on the Zoom,” Worsley told me, “and then she said, ‘Look at this,’ and she moved the camera to the window, and it was orange.” But when Ornelaz read “I Gave My Love a Story,”
… these songs are older than we are
& this tune I hum is wise as a virus
it makes me a vector
for rhythm & cadence …
the class thought about a different crisis—the one that has kept them distant from each other. Worsley told them she hoped they could have an in-person, on-campus reunion someday soon.