The Poetry Evangelist: Elisa New on the Power of Poetry

Faculty Insight

Elisa New

Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature, Harvard University

New shares her love of American poetry, both as an art form and historical record, with students around the world.

Elisa New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature, finds poetry all around us.

“I try to teach poetry both as an art form and a kind of historical documentation,” New says. “When I walk through midtown Manhattan, I have Frank O’Hara on my shoulder, reminding me to look at what he called “the hum-colored cabs.” That perspective, New adds, has shaped her New York.

In fact, New encourages her students to always consider poetry, no matter the time or place, including everyday subjects such as football, motherhood, or a city they’re visiting for the first time.

“You can go to the Poetry Foundation website, search for any subject, and all these poems will come up,” she says. “The site will even read them to you. I love the immediacy of that technology.”

New’s passion for poetry, and the power of place, is evident in her Poetry in America course series, which originated at Harvard College and covers the whole history of American poetry. Inspired by the breadth and reach of HarvardX, New brought the course to HarvardX, as well as to the the Extension School. The course runs as a series, semester by semester.

“It really happened here”

New wasn’t satisfied with simply providing an academic course. Instead, she took advantage of the dynamic media offered by the video format, filming discussions on poetry at the First Church of Cambridge, Harvard University’s Memorial Church, and even locations throughout Massachusetts that are pivotal to the history of American poetry.

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“We go to these places because the texts were often created there,” she says. “To stand at the boathouse of the Old Manse on the Concord River, from which Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne would set off in boats or go ice skating together, is an extraordinary experience. And there, you’re standing just a few steps from the Old North Bridge, where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. It really happened here.”

Just steps away from that spot, New adds, the Concord Hymn—a poem Emerson wrote about the Revolutionary War—is inscribed under a Daniel Chester French statue.

“To read these poems in the places where they were produced really makes you think about poetry in all of its functions,” New says. “Poetry has functions in our ritual life, our national life, and in our personal lives. It adds to anyone’s experience of living in the world.”

Making meaning together

For New, the diversity of experience at the Extension School offers the opportunity to reach a broad audience, both globally and here in Cambridge.

“The students are fantastic, and they’re from all over,” New says. “In my most recent course, we had a student in Greenwich Village, a student in India, some from Boston—just all sorts of people.”

As a self-described “poetry evangelist,” New is always encouraging others to find inspiration and meaning in poetry and everyday life.

“Currently, I have a lot of balls in the air,” she says, smiling. “But all of them are about how reading poetry is actually light lifting, as opposed to heavy lifting. Anyone can read it, and it’s even better to read it out loud, with someone else. An interesting, somewhat ambiguous text provides an amazing opportunity for human beings to connect, to sit and think about the work together.”

The collaborative, interactive experience, New says, is essential to what she calls a “liftoff of meaning.”

“I’ve always loved that moment in the classroom: a bunch of people are sitting together, and all at once, there’s that liftoff,” she says. “People tend to remember that fondly. It’s why people organize book groups or pursue lifelong learning—because they want to make meaning with other people. Reading poetry with others is a great way to do that.”

— Article by Jennifer Doody

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