English 288
Fall 2003

Course Description and Requirements


This "reading workshop" is an introduction to the unprecedented range of different types of poetry that emerged in the early decades of the last century in the U.S. as well as to contemporary North American poetry, with attention also to related developments in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the visual arts. We'll read the best known "canonical" poets of the modernist period, such as Eliot, Frost, Pound, Williams, and Stevens; the more formally radical and experimental poets, such as Stein, H.D, and the Objectivists; African American poetry (James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay); the more conventional or popular poets (Sandburg, Amy Lowell); as well as the political poetry of the time, "high" academic poetry; and also explore other, harder to classify, directions. Textbook will be the recent anthology of 20th Century American Poetry from the Library of America (volume one). Sound recordings of many of the poets will be played There will also be a listserv class discussion and the use of supplemental resources on the web.

Works will be presented from well-known poets but there will be equally attention to a range of lesser known poets as well as on younger poets now actively working to delight, inform, redress, lament, extol, oppose, renew, rhapsodize, imagine, foment . . .

This is a good course for those who know a lot about modern poetry but also for those who want a lively introduction.

This "creative reading workshop" combines aspects of a literature class with some of the formats of an experimental creative writing class. The workshop is less concerned with analysis or explanation of individual poems than with finding ways to intensify the experience of poetry, of the poetic, through a consideration of how the different styles and structures and forms of contemporary poetry can affect the way we see and understand the world. No previous experience with poetry is necessary. More important is a willingness to consider the implausible, to try out alternative ways of thinking, to listen to the way language sounds before trying to figure out what it means, to lose yourself in a flurry of syllables and regain your bearings in dimensions otherwise imagined as out-of-reach.

The readings for this workshop are extensive and cannot all be discussed in class in any detail. The concept is for you to saturate yourself in 20th-century poetry. If you have specific questions, please bring these up in class or on the listserv.

Information about the class listserv will be sent to you at your Penn email address. If for any reason you have not received this information, please let me know. Note that any mail sent to the listserv, or any reply to a post sent via the list, will go everyone in the class, so use caution when replying to list email posts.

The basic requirement for the class is a weekly response to the assigned readings - usually a notebook or journal entry, imitation, performance, or experiment. Please date each response (and number 2 to 14 according to syllabus). Before each class, post to the liserserve a question about some aspect of the reading that can be used as part of the class discussion as well as any "wreading" experiments you may have completed, in addition to any other part of your response you wish to post.. The responses, questions, and experiments will form the basis of workshop discussions, and participants will present some their experiments and responses during class.

The responses are open-ended and can be in whatever form you choose - they are meant to encourage interaction with the poems and also serve as a record of your reading. The responses will form the basis of workshop discussions. But try to be as detailed as you can and try to respond to the full range of the week's reading. Included in this syllabus is a series of reading experiments (something like laboratory work!) aimed at getting inside the styles of the various poets studied. Specific experiments are given each week and you are asked to applying them to the assigned poems.

However, it is fine to substitute or repeat experiments, but be sure to do at least one each week.

A good way to fulfill this requirement is to keep a journal noting responses, comments, opinions of readings, lectures, class discussion, and poetry readings. The journal - or notebook- is an open form in which you can feel free to record your impressions in an informal manner. A good guideline for length is at least two or three (double-space, typed) pages each week. It's best to keep an actual diary or notebook, dating each entry, typing up the material you wish to submit each week. (The journal is not something different than the "response" papers assigned, rather; it is an alternative way of looking at the assignment; rather than see the assignments as a set of 13 short papers, you can look at it as an ongoing diary of your reading, writing, listening.)

Use the journal (or, if you prefer, response papers) to document what you are reading - both assigned and unassigned reading. What do you think of the poem? Give as much detail as you can as to why you feel the way you do. What does the poem sound like, what does it remind you of? Quote specific lines or phrases that seem relevant. Being specific is the hardest part of this assignment and I almost always request descriptions of the form and style of the different poems: which can be as simple as a description of the visual shape of the poem, its length, the type of lines (long, short, metrical, enjambed), the sort of style or rhetoric or vocabulary (unusual, common, pastoral, urban, urbane, fast-paced, slow-moving, pictorial, bombastic, introspective, descriptive, narrative, fragmentary, etc.).

The point is not for you to analyze or explain the poem but rather to try to react to it. Cataloging the features of the poem won't explain it but it may enable you to enter into the poem more fully.

Each week, there is a set of questions to answer: it is not necessary to answer each and every question but to use these questions as guides for your response. If you have other things to write that seem more useful to you: go ahead. What follows is an overall guide to each week's responses:

oOf the poems read for this week, which is your favorite? Why? Which is the best. Why? Are favorite and best the same? Rank the poems in your order of preference.
oOf the poems read for this week, which did you like least? Why?
oOf the poems read for this week, which is the worst. Why? What are your criteria for deciding the quality of poem. Can poems that you don't like or understand still be good poems?
oIf you have heard the audio performance, describe the performance and how it extends or contradicts the written version of the poem


The "Poem Profiler" (click on link above) asks a number of specific questions that should enable you to give detailed, rather than general, responses to a particular poem. Use the Profiler to help specify your responses. Initially, run the Profiler on a several poems; after that, use it selectively to further your reading and if and as you find it useful. After the first couple of tries, don't use it if you don't find it useful. Since the profiler is a work in progess, please send me suggestions for additions.

Here's an alternate way of profiling:

oPick one poem. Describe (or catalog) its features. What kind of vocabulary does the poem use? What kind of diction or syntax is used? What is the mood of the poem? What is the most unusual feature of the poem? What does the poem sound like - give some examples of sound patterns in the poem. Detail any literary "devices" used.
oCompare poems in terms of continuity (hypotactic) / discontinuity (paratactic); fragmentated / unified; symmetrical/asymmetrical, smooth flowing / jerky or abrupt movement.
oDetail the connection between the elements of a poem: expository (a discursive argument), narrative (temporal sequence of beginning, middle end), associative, surreal or dream-like, disjunctive, etc.
oDo you see anything that all the poems assigned for this week have in common?
oHow does the set of poems for this week differ from the poems from last week?
oWhat issues of poetics - how a poem means or how it is made - are brought up by the readings. What were some of the issues raised along this line in last week's class discussion?
o[Try this one sometime after midsemester] Looking back on your previous responses, have you changed your opinions about any poems. How?

It is not necessary, or practical, for you to comment on every assigned poem. But if you choose to focus on one poet or poem, or to do the experiments, preface your response with a very quick take on the reading overall (likes/dislikes, general features, etc.).

oTry imitating the style of the poem, or parodying it. Try the wreading experiments!
oTo become more involved with the writing, try typing out some of the poems and include your reactions to that process. Read poems aloud to friends, relatives, or whomever, and report on your and their reactions. Write poems in response to the poems.
oKeep a running account of your reaction to the class as whole - what's working, what's interesting, what's not. After each class, write a paragraph describing your reactions to the discussions that took place.
oInclude the contexts in which you are reading or writing in your notebook. What's your mood, what's on your mind. oHow do the poems affect or interact with that, if at all.
oInclude, if you like, "diary" material about your life or general or poetic observations, interspersed with comments about the readings. Don't be afraid to go off on tangents, associated thoughts. Include shopping lists, dreams, travel notes, etc.

In addition to the general responses discussed above, your weekly assignments include these four elements:
1. Write about some poems not discussed in class.
2. Try to do at least one "Wreading Experiment" each week. While one or two experiments are suggested each week, you can pick up any of the "wreading" experiments listed in the syllabus. Be sure to comment on each of your experiments..
3. Pick one poem from the readings and keep a running commentary on it - that is, write about this same poems several times over the course of the term.
4. At least once in the semester, compare or contrast a poem by two different authors and two by the same author (from the assigned readings). This should be at least several pages long. Of course, you may wish to do this several times in the course of the term. This assignment is suggested several times in the "writing" sections after each week's reading assignment.

Advance Track: For students who have taken a reading workshop before or otherwise feel they would prefer the "advance" track, there is no need to follow the "local track" syllabus suggestions for responses and experiments week to week.

As a practical matter, you can hand in assignment once per week; since many of the assignments are geared to both classes in the week, it makes sense to do this on Thursday.

The most important requirement is attendance and partipation at all workshop meetings. Grades will be based primarily on class participation, response, and experiments. There is no final exam or paper in this class; you may use the exam period to make up missing response papers or for "extra credit" papers, but let me know if you plan to do this.

Please be sure to include your name and the date of the class on everything submit. Keep your original.

Generally, I will not give a grade for your responses each week or even a mid-term grade. If there is a problem, I will let you know; otherwise, the aim in engagement and conversation, not agreement or right answers. If your response is fine, I will often simply say so; while I do read all the responses carefully, I do not always make extensive comments. If your midterm grade falls below "B-" I will notify you of a possible grade problem. If you don't get such a notice, you can assume your grade is above "B-". If you require more detailed information about your grade, email me.

Extra Credit: Read one book by an author in the anthology and write a response to it. Post this response on list. Go to one of the many annunced poetry readings at Penn or in Philadelphia and post your comments..

And remember that each week you should send out part of your week's writing to the listserv created just for this reading workshop or respond to other people's posts.

Please email me with any corrections to the syllabus or bad links; additions for the Poems Profiler and Experiments list are always welcome.