Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Prerequisites


Course Description

How do you read a poem? Intuition is not the only answer. In this class, we will investigate some of the formal tools poets use—meter, sound, syntax, word-choice, and other properties of language—as well as explore a range of approaches to reading poetry, from the old (memorization and reading out loud) to the new (digitally enabled visualization and annotation). We will also think collectively about how to approach difficult poems. In the process, we will also read a wide variety of work in English, from the early Middle Ages up through the present, but with the principal focus on 20th and 21st century American writers; the spread might include John Milton, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, James Weldon Johnson, W.C. Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucille Clifton, Derek Walcott, Nick Montfort, Louise Gluck, Gregory Pardlo, and Tyehimba Jess. The last two weeks will be devoted to readings proposed and presented by the class.

Student work for the class begins with three informal essays focused on collecting formal evidence about a poem; the revision builds one of these shorter essays into an analytic close reading.

Next, students work together in small groups to apply what they’ve learned to one section of a “difficult poem,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” producing a creative presentation to the class and an individually authored analytic essay.

For the final project, students work together in small groups to plan and execute a class on materials of their choosing. Topics have included Bob Dylan’s lyrics, slam poetry, visual poetry, ee cummings, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Emily Dickinson. The final report details individual work on the project and includes a reflection on the class.


Assignment Percentage
Preparation and participation 15%
Presentations 30%
Writing 55%

Preparation and Participation

The reading for this class is mostly short in length, but you should expect to spend considerable time reading, rereading, and annotating it. Some of your work will happen outside class, in the form of annotation and commenting; several online tools will be assigned or available. You’ll also be responsible for completing assigned exercises; these will lay the groundwork for class discussions, which are the other half of your participation. Of course you must be present in order to take part, and repeated absences or late arrivals will affect your grade significantly.

Work for the Subject

Much of the work for this subject will be collaborative, and you will inevitably be building on the observations and ideas of others in the class in your own writing. We’ll talk about how to construct an “Acknowledgements” section that tips the hat to the most important influences and interlocutors for your work. However, full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted and in all oral presentations, including images or texts in other media and for materials collected online. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from your own work in an essay.