Session 1: Recognizing Patterns

Write up a roughly 300 word introduction of yourself especially as in terms of your relationship with poetry. What is your background: prior knowledge, authors or works you like, don't like or are curious about, good and bad experiences, things you'd like to learn or talk about in the class, things you know from other disciplines (linguistics!) that might be useful.

Session 2: Making Poetry in English

Print out the readings, mark them up, and bring with you to class next week. The assignment below gives questions to think about as you read the poems.

Assignment: Prose to Poetry

Session 3: From Evidence to Analysis

  • William Shakespeare, "Sonnet 116." Poetry Foundation.
  • Buy at Amazon Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 113-115. ISBN: 9780674637122. [Preview with Google Books.]

Read the sonnet (multiple times) and Vendler's analysis. Come with questions.

Assignment: Informal Essay I

Session 4: Etymologies and Rhythms

Make a copy of the readings, mark them up, and bring with you to class next week. In the process, please glance at the poets' bios and make a note of where and when they lived and any key facts—just the basics!

Assignment: Poetry Analysis I

Assignment: Etymologies and Rhythms

Session 5: Language as System(s)

Read enough to get an idea about Miyagawa's two major research projects.

Come up with questions to ask Miyagawa in class about:

  1. The research (points of clarification, but also why these projects, how did they come about, how are they finding evidence—anything is fair game).
  2. Language in general, from a linguist's point of view (How do you make a sentence out of words? What is a sentence? How do we know where to put stress on words or syllables? Etc.).
  3. Issues with translation between languages. How different are human languages from each other, anyway?

Session 6: The Shape of Sentences and the Shape of Information

We're going from words to sentences and looking at some more cool poems. Take a look at the class notes for session 6 (PDF - 1.2MB).

Assignment: The Shape of Sentences

Assignment: Informal Essay II 

Session 7: Reading Line Breaks

This week, the poems are mostly short and very spare, so that we can really bear down on the phenomenon of what it does to end a line (but not a sentence). Consider this: line breaks affect the rate at which information is delivered. Sometimes (as in the Wordsworth poem) they seem to contain their own information.

There is also some brief prose reading.

  • Eliot's comments will help you think about how to describe rhythm in poems that are not uniformly metrical, and you should find it useful to hear how a practitioner thinks about it. 
  • Since you'll be meeting Tyehimba Jess, let's start hearing what he has to say.
  • Williams' poems are about as stripped down as Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," so it's interesting to read an article that fills in what he was seeing and gives us some context. What can we do with the information?

Session 8: Fixed Forms, Rhymed and Otherwise

This week's poems are fixed forms: forms with tight constraints on variables like number of lines, meter, line-length, rhyme, or line ending words. First, sonnets: by three sixteenth century authors participating in the vogue of writing long sequences of sonnets devoted to (mostly) unrequited love, and then by four twentieth century authors who use the form to different ends. Second, villanelles: another poem by Bishop, and one by Martha Collins (a wonderful poet who lives hear Harvard Square). Finally, a poem that invents a new form, initially as a tribute to Brooks and now used by other writers. Hayes has a weekly column in the NYT Magazine featuring a poem by someone else that he likes with a few sentences about why; if this tickles your fancy, check it out.

Assignment: Poetry Analysis II

Assignment: Sonnets and Rhythm

Assignment: Informal Essay III

Session 9: New Work in Computer-Generated Poetry

  • Buy at Amazon Montfort, Nick. Truelist. Counterpath, 2017. ISBN: 9781933996639.

Rather than ask that they read particular section or sections of The Truelist, I'd like to have each person in the class engage with several aspects of the project:

If people want to read it all, of course, or read a few sections, that's great.

Session 10: Sound Patterns and Sense

Take a look at the class notes for session 10 (PDF - 1.3MB).

You know most of the drill (poems, poets, annotate). In a previous session, we looked at poems characterized by end-rhymes organized in predictable patterns. Today, we're going to broaden the optic on repeated sounds. I would like you to look hard at either assonance and consonance (repeated vowel or consonant sounds) in the sonnet, or track the pattern of rhyming sounds especially but not exclusively at the end of lines in Herbert. It might be useful to know that Herbert was a clergyman (that is, he would have worn a collar, which becomes a sign of both the religious vocation and its demands for certain kinds of personal sacrifices). "Collar" is also a homonym of (sounds identical to) "choler," an older word for "anger," and this other word invoked by sound is also relevant.

Andrew Marvell was a contemporary of Milton's; this short poem is among a number by this poet written in the persona of a mower (that is, a laborer who cut grass)—for reasons again having to do with poetic traditions of writing in the voice of "simple people" who worked with the natural world. Sylvia Plath is the only 20th poet in the reading. Coincidentally, the New York Times published an obituary for her today, part of a project to redress important and systemic omissions in their record. The bio on Poetry Foundation is probably more relevant for us, but here is the extended NYT piece if it interests you. 

Assignment: Poetry Analysis III

Session 11: Reading a Difficult Poem (1)

Assignment: Difficult Poem (Group Project and Presentation)

Assignment: Essay Revision

Session 12: Reading a Difficult Poem (2)

Some takeaways from our discussion of "The Waste Land," parts 1-3:

  1. The poem links together myth and its own historical moment.

    1. Myth: the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King—guardian of the Holy Grail, wounded and impotent because of a transgression at his court. While the king is wounded, the kingdom is infertile—they are waiting for rescue.

    2. History: the moment is Europe after World War I—recovering not only from the material shocks and losses of a massive war, but the sense that an earlier political and social order was revealed to be bankrupt. No sense of agency for "fixing" the predicament, prospects for renewal not yet evident. Passion is dead, prophecy fraudulent, the living are almost dead, and the reader is also implicated in this situation.

  2. At both high and low levels of society, relations between men and women have been thrown into crisis. In "Game of Chess," no way out of a room that is stifling and artificial. Traumatized man is unable to use his voice, woman speaks only in imperatives, conversation is repetitive and seems to go nowhere. In the pub, a sense of being trapped, silenced, used up, abandoned. Loss of generative connections between human beings; a toxic environment.

  3. This world is devoid of new meanings, and relies on scavenging scraps from the past. Conventional poetic forms highlight how much the present has declined from the past. Every rule violation is possible, but none are shocking—all is desensitized. Human behavior becomes mechanical while machines take on a threatening agency; language decays almost to the point of meaninglessness. Can the scavenged scraps be used to form a picture? Is there the possibility of a new design?

Assignment: Difficult Poem (Report on "The Waste Land")

Session 13: How Do Metaphors Work?

We'll be exploring the territory opened up by (for instance) the "if there were water" passage in Eliot's "The Waste Land": imaginative, counterfactual, and figurative language, aka, everything that is not being directly observed or declared to be so, aka, what's in the poem that would not be in a photograph.

Assignment: Metaphors

Session 14: Guest Lecture: Tyehimba Jess

  • Buy at Amazon Jess, Tyehimba. Olio. Wave Books, 2016. pp. 12-29. ISBN: 9781940696201.
  • Buy at Amazon DuBois, W.E.B. "Of Spiritual Strivings of the Negro People." Chapter 1, of Souls of Black Folk.  CreateSpace, 2017. ISBN: 9781505223378.

A few weeks ago, we looked briefly at a corona of sonnets from Olio, written in the voice of the Fiske Jubilee Singers. These are distributed throughout the book, and they serve as punctuation between its sections. Each of these sonnets appears on a page with banners above and below listing the names of black churches where violence occurred, with a date.

Now we'll read two extended sections from Olio, each centered on the historical figure of a particular musician: Thomas Wiggins, a blind pianist who performed while in slavery, and Sissieretta Jones, a soprano whose career took off in the early twentieth century. (Both are in Olio's character list, and you can discover more at BlackPast.) As you may suspect from reading these two sections as well as the "Double Shovel," each section of the book does something a little (or a lot) different with form, even while following the career of a historical person.

You'll see poems in two voices, poems connected to each other by first and last lines, sonnets, free verse, transcripts of archival documents, and prose poems (that may not be an exhaustive list!). But Olio has some unifying interests across this virtuoso display of formal mastery. One is the set of ideas linking masking, persona, double-consciousness, double voices that you've seen in "Double Shovel" (and will also see in the two sections for today). Another is the set of ideas associated with freedom and constraint or bondage, as historical facts, artistic choices, imaginative experiences. Like many poets before him, Jess is interested in the conditions of making art, something that never happens in a vacuum. Music—the literal subject of this book—has since ancient times been a metonymy for poetry. So we are reading both a poetic documentary about history and a meditation on how to have, find, and use an authentic voice. Let's use this class to identify some questions to ask the poet on Friday.

Session 15: How Does Allusion Work? (History)

Assignment: Poetry Analysis IV

Session 16: Guest Lecture: Charles Shadle

Charles Shadle is a prolific and talented American composer who teaches advanced music theory and composition at MIT; he'll be talking about six short poems by the 19th c. poet Emily Dickinson—a contemporary of Walt Whitman's (and of the Civil War)—which he scored for soprano and clarinet. Interpretation of poetry takes many forms, and this is one of them—which will focus us quite a bit on sound and on hearing/voicing as interpretation, as well as on ideas about choice of texts and how the composer (and performers) understand them.

Dickinson's poems may remind you, in some ways, of Shakespeare's sonnets: they are at the same time general, private, and elliptical—that is, they are focused closer to the level of the self than the level of public or civic discourse, and largely work with vivid figures rather than objective description. At the level of form, they are radically innovative in ways it took decades for audiences to come to terms with, experimenting with syntax, rhyme, and punctuation; at the level of material production, Dickinson worked almost exclusively in manuscript, allowing her to create her own forms of punctuation, provide alternative versions of a line in a single final draft version, and to exert complete control over the appearance, order—and readership—of her work. The paper booklets considered as Dickinson's final versions are held at Harvard's Houghton Library. (The 18th century poet William Blake makes for an interesting comparison: Blake's radical political and artistic vision led him to self-publish books that integrated text and visual art, each hand-colored by the poet).

Session 17: Guest Lecture: Kimberly Brown

  • Buy at Amazon Clifton, Lucille. The Book of Light. Copper Canyon Press, 1992. pp. 11-13, 44-47. ISBN: 9781556590528.

Emily Dickinson lived in Amherst, MA, and attended the precursor of Mt. Holyoke. Our guest speaker, Kimberly Brown, is a professor of English and Africana Studies at Mt. Holyoke, as well as an MLK Fellow in Literature and WGS at MIT. Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) is her favorite poet. The NYT review of Clifton's collected works comments that "[h]er verse was spare, plainspoken and shorn of rhyme, so much so that when she placed the words "salt" and "fault" together in one poem in the late 1980s, she was moved to warn readers of this potential speed bump by titling it "Poem With Rhyme in It." Those qualities may have led one anonymous reader on Amazon to comment that she was "our modern-day Emily Dickinson."

Session 18: Guest Lecture: Martha Collins, Translating Poetry

  • Buy at AmazonCollins, Marth and Kevin Prufer, eds. Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries. Graywolf Press, 2017. pp. 71–75, 163–167. ISBN: 9781555877824. 

Assignment: Analytic Essay

Sessions 19–23: Student Presentations 

Assignment: Final Presentation Report