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Syllabus: Dead Poets Society

It’s past 9 o’clock on a Wednesday night, an hour the grown-ups in the room admit is somewhat past their bedtimes. Scuffling like puppies, a dozen or so students drape themselves over chairs and around latte mugs, passing notebooks to each other and alternating writing lines.

Now the spike-haired president is calling the group to order. She lights a candle.

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately,” she quotes Thoreau softly. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life, and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”

The bylaws of SC’s Dead Poets Society are laws only in the loosest sense. There’s no set meeting place (they’ve met in classrooms, in parks, in a chapel, on a dark hillside), and no dues to be paid. The sole requirement for membership? A love of words.

But oh, how they do love words.

“Recapitulate,” one sighs, mingling the word on her tongue with the chai that’s keeping the fall chill at bay. “Don’t you just love how that word sounds? Re-ca-PIT-u-late.”

Contrapuntal. Schmooze. Armadillo. The words are tasted, breathed, spun into the air like invisible cobwebs.

“There’s hardly a meeting that we don’t stray off on words,” admits Michelle Boucher, one of the faculty sponsors (with Marguerite Regan) of the Dead Poets. (She’s one of the grown-ups advocating for an earlier meeting time, a plea largely ignored.)

Words, written in books or on the backs of envelopes or in poetry journals or on a laptop computer carried open through the empty street to the coffee shop, give the bi-weekly meeting purpose.

Organized by students with the enthusiastic support of the English faculty, the Dead Poets emerged from a poetry class two years ago. Each meeting has a topic and participants write or research a poem about the topic. On this night, the topic is everyday activities.

Some have brought poems—“Is My Team Plowing?” by AE Houseman, and “God Is in the Details,” by Red Hawk. Others have written about their own everyday activities—“Kate Gets Up Way Too Early, Then Falls Asleep Again.” Some poems are greeted with thoughtful nods and smiles, another (the hastily-written joint project read with giggles and self-derision) inspires a less charitable reaction.

“That poem does for poetry what the National Enquirer does for journalism.”

And despite their varied majors (biology, psychology, music, theatre, religion, history) and varied tastes (favorite poets: Yeats, Frost, Kipling, Wallace Stevens, Staceyann Chin) the ribbing is warm-hearted and without malice.

“There are no holds barred here, you’re allowed to voice your opinion,” one senior says. “But I feel comfortable here.”

Soon the coffee shop closing time recedes into memory, and Michelle and Marguerite gently remind the students it’s time to let the barista go home. A topic for the next poem is announced, and candles are extinguished.

Then the Dead Poets are off down the street toward campus, carrying their envelopes and notebooks and an open laptop computer.

And still, always, spinning words.