Richard L Kenney
ENGLISH 581, WINTER TERM, 2011: FORMS OF POETRY, FORMS OF THOUGHT
This class explores the equivalence suggested in its title. It will be a two-part gift-exchange. Phase One: in the first weeks, I'll try to frame the problem in practical terms and sketch a coherent formal response. The general question What is Poetry? will be replaced with a practical one, along these lines: by what linguistic means may our emotional and rational natures be brought to congruence? No experience with “forms” is presumed. We'll start from scratch, reviewing fundamentals of prosody and metaphorical reasoning, with particular attention to the slippery problem of "tone."
Phase Two: having said as quickly as I can the best of what I think I know, I'll encourage you to scatter for the frontiers and bring back mice and honeycombs for the further delectation of our communal threshold. As necessary, I'll propose hooks or goads. Riddles; Robert Frost and the Sound of Sense; animal communication systems generally; the latest word from the monkey-house; hypnotic suggestion; jokes; quantitative prosody; verbal seduction technique; artificial intelligence; paleoanthropology of music; aphasias vs. aprosodias; PET scanning for verbs; practical magic; Chomsky vs. Darwin and the wrangle over language origins--? You'll think of something. Everyone reports back. We'll have a good time.
Like Poetry, situated in tradition (and probably under the skull, too) halfway between speech and song-- like Piltdown Man, with his orang brain case balanced on a human jaw-- this class should be a chimera. The talking part will be practical: an intensive review of the forms of poetry. The thinking part will attempt to consider those forms with respect to their nature and origins.
Origins? Insofar as the child is the father of the philosopher, we'll read Mother Goose, weather-saws, charms, jokes, riddles, and other naturally inextinguishable subliterary forms. Insofar as the earliest literatures are windows on Bronze and Iron Age origins, we may read scraps of Gilgamesh, Archilochos, Sappho, and a Celtic miscellany. Insofar as poetry is a subdiscipline of biology, we'll note Charles Darwin (on the expression of emotion in animals and humans), and sample several of his followers and clarifiers in the cognitive sciences. That's an incomplete hint at what ought (under the pressure of your own curiosity) to evolve into a widely ranging, intellectually promiscuous array of readings.
Why? By way of another analogy: celestial navigation was traditionally taught "the Navy Way," encumbered or illuminated by a good deal of astronomy, so the student might hope to understand why the abstruse calculations worked. But it was also possible to teach this subject in a simply practical, stepwise way: no sky, just tables and rote arithmetic. Either method gets you there. It strikes me that poetic forms are usually taught in the second way. That's fine: they're efficacious, they have real consequences, whether deployed in service of the Muses, Moloch, or your agitprop masters at Party HQ; you don't need neurobiology to learn certain emotionally and intellectually manipulative technics. I can teach these, and will, quickstep, in the opening weeks of this class. But my preference is for The Navy Way, with (necessarily speculative) attention to how and why these methods might work. Insofar as language seems to be the touchstone and distinguishing attribute of our species, and poets above all others are licensed to use it less like money and more like catnip-- why wouldn't we want to peer closely at the processes of our response? The nature and origins of the linguistic instrument, the nature of the niche which poetry claims within the long ecology of speech, the general nature of emotional response, the possible mechanisms by which emotionally competent methods (linguistic and otherwise) may work in and upon us-- these strike me as inherently interesting lines of inquiry. Though in the psychopomp department they may choose Darwin (over, say, Freud or Marx, who are weary and need a rest), and poach a vocabulary less from literary theory than the cognitive sciences, these questions seem to me absolutely germane to our excitements and practices as poets. I want to participate in this kind of conversation, and learn something new.
Student learning goals
General method of instruction
Class assignments and grading