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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Chelsea Jennings
ENGL 243
Seattle Campus

Reading Poetry

Critical interpretation and meaning in poems, representing a variety of types and periods.

Class description

Poetry is often imagined as making timeless statements about universal human truths, as being ethereal, ineffable, and transcendent. Poetry, however, is always written, printed, sold, and read under specific circumstances, and this course assumes that these facts matter to our understanding of a poem--or even to our willingness to see a text as a poem. With this in mind, we won't simply ask "What does this poem mean?" Instead, we'll begin by asking "How is meaning created in this poem?" and then chart how our reading of a poem shifts depending on our ideas about authorship, awareness of the poem's historical moment, encounter with a particular material version of the text, or expectations as readers.

More specifically, we'll consider how knowledge of authors' biographies might impact our analysis of their work, as well as how writers have tested the limits of authorship through collage, erasure, translation, or hoax. We'll look at technologies (such as the printing press and the typewriter) that have influenced poetry, and the effects of titles, typography, spelling, spacing, punctuation, prefaces, endnotes, and images on interpretation. We'll examine how poets have revised and republished poems during their lifetimes, in addition to how their work has been altered after their deaths. We'll also explore ways that readers make meaning out of texts, especially texts that challenge conventional definitions of "poetry."

We'll start the quarter with Shakespearean sonnets and end with Anne Carson's Nox (2010). Along the way, we'll read poems by George Herbert, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Charles Reznikoff, Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, A. R. Ammons, Wang Wei, Jack Spicer, Araki Yasusada, Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen, Kimiko Hahn, and Jen Bervin. The required texts for this class are Nox (ISBN 0811218708) and an English 243 course pack.

Student learning goals

To offer convincing close readings of poems using methods and vocabulary from the course.

To situate close readings of poems in relevant contexts (i.e. historical, biographical, cultural).

To demonstrate awareness of the impact of materiality on the interpretation of poems.

To improve general writing skills and build skills specific to writing about literature.

General method of instruction

The majority of our class time will be spent in small and large group discussions and activities, so expect to participate actively in every class period.

Recommended preparation

An interest in poetry and a willingness to rethink your assumptions about authorship, texts, and reading are all that is required for the first day of class. Because the course is writing intensive, however, students who have already fulfilled the university's "C" requirement will be at an advantage.

Class assignments and grading

This course fulfills the university's "W" requirement. As such, you'll write three brief response papers, one of which you'll expand into a longer paper (of 7-10 pages) that you will revise during the last week of the course. You will also write a book review of Nox and a final reflection on your learning.


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Chelsea Jennings
Date: 10/26/2011