Michael D Willett
Critical interpretation and meaning in poems, representing a variety of types and periods.
Consider this course an initiation into the great and ongoing conversation surrounding one of mankind’s oldest and most respected art forms. We propose to read poems formally: that is, grouped by style rather than by country or age; bodily: we'll pass them through our throats and hands, not merely beneath our eyes; and critically: as in “art critic” i.e. with scrutiny, and as in “critical condition” as though it matters. We’ll paint quickly and with a broad brush, touching the greatest writers in the Western poetic tradition, from figures both major and minor, some of whose work you'll no doubt have encountered, but most of which will be new.
Student learning goals
Attempting to understand this business of poetry, we'll consider the art and its creators from several angles: in addition to the work itself, we'll read letters, criticism, manifestoes, and reviews in order to understand not only what this work means, but what it has meant to diverse communities throughout a long and staid history. To readers in generations past, poetry was not only the queen of the arts, but the very aqua vitae. Our job will be to taste and to develop taste: “to divine” in the old sense: sourcing and mapping poetic springs. Over the course of this class, you will develop perspective, confidence, and measurable skill in understanding and in writing about poetry.
General method of instruction
This class leans heavily on discussion, both in small and large groups. Be prepared also for public readings and presentations; historic, interpretive and guest-led lectures; field trips to relevant sites, and online participation in class blog.
Purchase the course texts as early as you can. Start skimming around, following your fancy, and making copious marks in the margins.
Class assignments and grading
What understanding we manage to form, what inroads to make, will be codified in written responses of the following type and manner. 1) a reading journal featuring informal weekly responses to the work, which will be revised at quarter's end into formal critical engagements. 2) a keepsake book, wherein we'll hand-copy the full text of certain poems as a way to see better the lineation and mechanics of the work. 3) four short essays, described in detail in the course syllabus, which must, by the term’s end, undergo significant revision, in keeping with the University’s (W) requirement.