English R1A

Reading and Composition: Not Another Love Song: Poetic Cultures Medieval and Modern

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
3 Spring 2019 Stevenson, Max
MWF 11-12 211 Dwinelle

Book List

Delanty and Matto, eds: The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poetry in Translation; Heaney, Seamus, trans.: Beowulf; Rankine, Claudia: Citizen: An American Lyric


We all know what poetry is, right? At least in the popular imagination, it’s emotionally charged, personal and intimate, the heartfelt expression of Angst, Love, and the poet’s True Feelings. But in many ways that view of poetry as a product of and reflection on interiority is a recent development in poetry’s history, one that doesn’t reflect the many reasons poems have been written in English for the past thousand-odd years — or indeed reflect the place of poetry today. In this class we will only rarely talk about our feelings; instead, we’ll ask ourselves a series of critical questions: Why do we read poems (or sing songs) at the inauguration of a president? Why do spells so often rhyme? Why would someone want to tell a joke in the form of a poem? How can poems be used to instruct, to insult, to praise, to commemorate, to narrate, and to pray? What do poems look like when their writers believe that the verse they write can, quite literally, change the world?

To further estrange our sense of the possibilities of poetry, of what poetry can do and say and be, we’ll read deeply (in translation) from the body of English verse that one might think the most distant from us and our poetic conceptions: the poems written in Old English and copied into their earliest extant manuscripts around the year 1000. Well will at all times read those poems next to other, more contemporary ones — asking what Emily Dickinson’s “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee” has to do with a charm for agricultural fertility, comparing Dorothy Parker’s sardonic dismissal of suicide with monastic instructions for living, and weighing the criticisms of sovereignty, race, and agency offered by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and the epic poem Beowulf.

As a course in the University’s Reading and Composition program, our study of the poems we read isn’t its own end: instead, we’ll sharpen our sense of the possibilities of others’ verse by sharpening our own prose, crafting essays that draw on copious textual evidence to make cogent literary arguments but that are, above all, compelling pieces of critical writing themselves.

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