Poetry and Poetics: The African American Tradition
This course is designed to give you the background and vocabulary to talk and write about poetry.
You are expected to come to every class prepared to contribute substantively to our conversations. We will spend the majority of each class period reading in detail a single poem, indicated on the syllabus as the “primary poem” for that day. You are responsible for reading this poem carefully and thoroughly before class. This entails, at a minimum, reading the poem several times, reading the poem out loud, and making notes on moments in the poem that call your attention. This might also entail doing a metrical analysis of all or part of the poem, reading background information on the poem, or looking up words or associations in the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to this primary poem, I will often assign additional background reading. This might consist of additional poems, a critical essay, or a reading in poetics from one of our course texts—usually Poetic Designs or The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This additional reading is required, and will help to give you the technical vocabulary and conceptual framework that will allow us to have substantive conversations about the poem of the day.
Your presence and active participation in class are essential to a successful conference and to your success in the course. More than two unexcused absences may affect your final evaluation; more than four unexcused absences may affect your ability to pass the class.
• Stephen Adams, Poetic Designs: An Introduction to Meters, Verse Forms and Figures of Speech (PE 1505.A32 1997)
• James Weldon Johnson, The Book of American Negro Poetry, referred to in the syllabus as BANP (PS591.N4 J6 and PS591.N4 J6 1959)
• Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems (PS3503.R7244 A6 1963)
• Langston Hughes, Collected Poems (PS3515.U274 A17 1994) or Selected Poems (PS3515.U274 A6 1990)
• M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, eighth edition (On reserve at PN 41.A184 2005; additional, older versions of Abrams are available in the stacks)
• W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Norton Critical Edition (On reserve at E185.6 .D797 1999)
Important Online Resources
• INTRA - Interactive Tutorial on Rhythm Analysis, by Ellen Stauder, Dean of Faculty and David Eddings Professor of English and Humanities. Available through the website.
• Oxford English Dictionary,
available at www.oed.com.
• The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Preminger and Brogan (PN 1021.N39 1993, referred to in the syllabus as NPEPP. This is an important reference work not only for this class but for all English majors; it is available through Literature Online anytime).
• Literature Online's extensive collection of poetry, including many full text in-copyright contemporary works. Literature Online is a subscription database acessible from off-campus through a proxy server.
Accessing Course Materials from Off-Campus
Some of the course materials are part of subscription databases that Reed pays for, and that therefore require authentication in order to access from off campus. These include the Oxford English Dictionary and anything from Literature Online or JSTOR. The library's website has information on how to set up an automatic proxy server, as well as information on accessing specific databases not covered by the proxy access. If you run into trouble, contact the CIS help desk at 503-777-7525.
Software for Reading PDFs
Much of the reading for this class will be available in PDF format. All of these texts, whether e-reserves or links to websites, will be linked from this syllabus page. It is imperative that you bring copies of the texts we are discussing to class, including PDFs. Moreover, these should ideally be in a form that you can mark up. This means that if you are reading some secondary material on the computer rather than printing it out, you should be using a PDF markup application to take notes and highlight directly on the PDF. Open source PDF readers for Mac that allow annotation include Skim and (to a limited extent) the built-in Preview (10.5+). Of the available free Windows readers, I highly recommend the Cambridge-based Qiqqa, designed by and for academics. (If you like access to more advanced editing and are handy with a command-line, Wikipedia lists some open-source resources; otherwise, Adobe Acrobat is excellent, but expensive.) On the subject of reading off the computer screen--whether you print out course reading or read it off of the computer is up to you. You must, however, choose a format that will allow you to come to class attentive and ready to participate in the conversation. If you will be distracted by this modern inconvenience, leave the computer at home. Anything else is disrespecful to you and your fellow students.
How to Read a Poem for Class
The University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center offers useful advice on how to read a poem in preparation for either class discussion or developing ideas for a paper. Please also read two short essays on how to write about poetry, one from the Norton Introduction to Poetry, and one from A Short Guide to Writing About Literature. These will be useful to you both in preparing for class and for thinking about how to complete your writing assignments.
One 1 page critical article synopsis.
Two 1 page close readings of the in-depth poem of the day.
One 3 page paper.
One 6-7 page paper.
Three short quizzes on poetic terms and a number of short assignments due in class
See assignments page for details.
Tuesday, Jan 24th
Introduction: Syllabus and course expectations
What is a poem?
Why African American Poetry?
Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”
You should review the basic timeline of African American political and literary history. This interactive PBS timeline is one possible resource; this timeline for an African American poetry course at the University of Iowa is more poetry-specific.
If you wish
an overview of some of what we will cover in this course, I suggest that you read James Weldon Johnson's prefaces to the Book of American Negro Poety, assinged on Thursday of Week 3; this will get you ahead in the reading and a nice context for what is to come.
Thursday, Jan 26th
We begin this class with Phyllis Weatley and Alexander Pope. This is the arbitrary moment in which African poetry intersects with the English-speaking tradition. You may love Wheatley's poetry or you may find it difficult and, at first, not at all like what you enjoy about contemporary poetry. Yet it is precisely what is difficult about Wheatley that makes her a fascinating place to start, and that raises some of the many questions that will take us through this class. This lecture by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Wheatley's reception history will be a useful introduction to how and why Wheatley is difficult for the contemporary reader. The Poetry Foundation includes a more detailed biography and six of Wheatley's most famous poems. Please read them all. We will focus in class on two poems in particular: On Being Brought from Africa to America and To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works. In class, we discussed the relationship of this second poem to the Mather Byles' poem "To Pictorio, on the Sight of his Pictures." If you would like to learn more about the relationship of these two poems, I recommend the article "Phyllis Wheatley's Subversive Pastoral," by John Shields, Eighteenth-Century Studies 27. 4, African-American Culture in the Eighteenth-Century (1994): 631-647.
Tuesday, January 31st
Primary poems: Wheatley, On Imagination Alexander Pope, Ode on Solitude (variant version with light annotation here).
Jonathan Culler, "Apostrophe," available through here. Handout on the ode. Like many deconstructionists, Culler tends to take the romantic lyric as exemplary of poetry more generally. One question to ask of this essay, therefore, is to what degree it applies to Augustan odes such as those by Wheatley and Pope. Some of the poems Culler references in his essay include the following (recommended reading): Auden, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"; Baudelaire, "Spleen" and "Le Cygne"; P.B. Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind" and Adonais; Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"; Yeats, "Among School Children."
(Those who want to read more fully into the history of the genre of the ode may wish to consult Paul Fry's introduction to Poet's Calling in the English Ode, on reserve at PR509.O3 F7 1980: this reading is recommended, not required)
Thursday, February 2nd
Today we skip over the romantics in order to focus on the post-romantic poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Please read the short biography and all of his poems at the Poetry Foundation; we will focus on "We Wear the Mask" and "Ode to Ethiopia" (from the Google eBooks edition of Lyrics of Lowly Life, pages 30-32).
Tuesday, February 7th
Primary text: "The Sorrow Songs" from The Souls of Black Folk (1903), by W.E.B. DuBois. Please also read this short (14 page) introductory chapter to the collection--it will give you an important framework for reading the "Sorrow Songs" essay. Critical response by Sterling.
J.W. Johnson, “O Black and Unknown Bards”
(BANP). Response by James.
Please bring both the Du Bois
and Johnson to class.
Class website with information on the history of the spirituals and selected examples.
Thursday, February 9th
"African American Folk Roots and Harlem Renaissance Poetry" by Mark A. Sanders, from the Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance: Please read the opening four pages of the essay, as well as the section on James Weldon Johnson.This text provides a succinct introduction to the role of the vernacular in African American writing. (If for any reason the above link is broken, search for the essay through Reed's subscrition to Cambridge Collections Online). Critical responses by India and Meg.
Please read with care James Weldon Johnson's Prefaces to the 1922 and 1931 editions of The Book of American Negro Poetry, available in the library at PS591.N4 J6 and on Johnson's author page; this will be our primary text of the day. This introduction will give you a basic overview of the early history of African American poetry. Pay particularly close attention to what Johnson has to say about dialect. Please also read the short excerpts from critical essays by George Hutchinson and Michael North available here (this is a long page--scroll down past other critical essays for the excerpts by these three authors). Critical response by Sophie.
Tuesday, February 14th
James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation” (primary poem, available in BANP) and review Genesis 1.1-2.9 in the King James Bible.
Both are available here. Please bring copies of both to class. Response by Meg.
"Characteristics of Negro Expression" by Zora Neale Hurston (have a look at its original publication context in the landmark 1930 anthology Negro through Google Books). Critical response by Erica I.
"Black Speech as Poetic Reference" by Stephen Henderson.Critical response by Zach.
"On Repetition in Black Culture" by James A. Snead. Critical Response by Erin.
For general background, read "Lyric," "Narrative Poetry," and "Dramatic Poetry" in NPEPP.
Thursday, February 16th
Petrarch, Sonnet 12 "If I can withstand" Response by Preston.
Wyatt, "Whoso list to hunt" (primary poem); annotated version here. Response by Erica I.
Spenser, Sonnet 64 “Comming to kisse”
Shakespeare, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"
Response by Eve.
Adams, Poetic Designs, pp. 88-92 (on the sonnet)
Read Abrams and NPEPP on “sonnet,” Abrams on “conceit” and NPEPP on “Petrarchism.” I expect you to be able to identify all three sonnet types.
Tuesday, February 21
Jean Toomer, "Portrait in Georgia" (primary poem). Response by India.
Helene Johnson, “Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” (BANP). Response by En-Szu.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “Sonnet” (BANP) Response by Lyle.
Adams, “Figures of Speech,” in Poetic Designs, pp. 105-108 plus 132-147 (this is the introduction to the chapter plus the section on tropes). Critical response by Matt.
Recommended: "Figure, Scheme, Trope," "Metaphor," and "Simile" in PEPP
Recitation due: Recite in class a poem that you have memorized; it can be any poem of at least 12 lines written by someone other than yourself. Simply remembering the words isn't enough--be prepared to recite the poem expressively, in a way that you feel best conveys the poem's tone and affect.
Thursday, February 23rd
Shakespeare, Sonnet 130 “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (primary poem). Responses by Brad and Erica I.
Due in class: Write a sonnet based on Shakespeare's "My mistress' eyes" using the n+7 style of composition (explained at poets.org). Feel free to play around with the N+7 machine, but for the assignment, please use your own dictionary. Consider using an unusual dictionary such as a bilingual dictionary or particularly large (OED) or small (pocket) dictionary; the more different dictionaries get used by the class, the more various will be the results achieved.
When you have written your sonnet, and not before, read Harryette Mullen, “Dim Lady," “Variations on a Theme Park," and the following interview in which she discusses Oulipo and Shakespeare. Things start getting interesting on page 3. Please also explore/skim a feature in the literary magazine Drunken Boat on Oulipo in France and the United States and the curator's note to this feature. Critical response by Haleigh.
The purpose of today's exercise and readings is to give you a more visceral grasp of the form of the sonnet and at the same time to introduce you to a school of aleatory poetry--Oulipo--that has been important to contemporary poets writing in French and English.
Monday, Feb 26th
Special session on taking the Qual in my office, Vollum 125, 12-1pm. In preparation, please read one or both of the following short chapters on how to write about poetry, one from the Norton Introduction to Poetry, and one from A Short Guide to Writing About Literature.
Tuesday, Febrary 27th
Claude McKay, “If We Must Die,” "America," and "The White Fiends" (primary poems). Response by Erica E. (If we must Die), Alejandro (To the White Fiends), and Lyle (America).
Background reading in the political sonnet tradition in English: John Milton, Sonnet 9; William Wordsworth, "London, 1802" and To Toussaint L'Ouverture; Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Robert Gould Shaw"; Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"; Wilifred Owen, "Anthem for Doomed Youth"; Countee Cullen "From the Dark Tower"; Robert Hayden, "Frederick Douglass."
Adams, “Figures of Speech,” pp. 108-132 in Poetic Designs (this is the section of the chapter on rhetorical schemes). In your study of figures of speech you may find it useful to explore the Poetry Foundation's Poetry Tool, and note in particular the ability to browse poems by Glossary Term.
Highly recommended: "Challenging the Literal," from the book Semiotics: The Basics, by Daniel Chandler.
Thursday, March 1st
Quiz 1: Basic dates in African American history, basic poetic terms to date, including figures of speech.
John Donne, selections from the Holy Sonnets:
At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
Batter my heart, three-person'd God
Death, be not proud (primary poem: close read this poem for discussion in class). Responses by Matt and Desmond.
I am a little world made cunningly
If poisonous minerals, and if that tree
Show me dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear
Since she whom I lov'd hath paid her last debt
This is my play's last scene
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
During this portion of the course we will use INTRA, an Interactive Tutorial on Rhythm Analysis, as the basis for our discussions and homework. This tutorial is an on-line explanation of meter and rhythm, complete with exercises. The program should be accessed using Internet Explorer or Firefox and can be found at: http://academic.reed.edu/english/intra/. It is also available in paper form on reserve.
Read the Preface and the sections up to and including 4.3; make sure to complete all of the accompanying exercises.
Highly recommended: "Reading and Re-Reading Donne's Poetry," from the Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Explore my entries on the sonnet sequence and on the religious sonnet. Response by Lyle.
Tuesday, March 6th
John Donne, Holy Sonnets, continued. Reread the selection from Tuesday, but focus today on "Batter my heart, three-person'd God." Responses by Sophie and Meg.
INTRA, sections 4.4 through 5, with the accompanying exercises. Scan the opening four lines of the first sonnet of John Donne's "Batter my Heart" using the Attridge beat / off-beat method. Bring your scansions to class; I will hand out a correct version of the exercise for us to discuss.
Thursday, March 8th
Gwendolyn Brooks, sonnet sequence “Children of the Poor.” Primary poem will be sonnet 2.
PEPP on the Sonnet Sequence. Responses by Erica E, India, and Sterling (each responder should agree to focus on a different sonnet in the sequence; decide among yourselves).
Due at the beginning of class: a rhythmic analysis of Brooks’s “Children of the Poor” sonnet 2 ("What shall I give my children?") using the Attridge model. I will hand out the scansion, and we will discuss in class any difficulties you had. We will then turn to an analysis of the relationship between meter and other elements in the poem.
Tuesday, March 20th
Final day on meter: focus on poem 4 from Brooks's "Children of the Poor," "First fight. Then fiddle." For class, scan the sestet using the Attridge model. I will hand out the scansion, and we will briefly discuss in class any difficulties you had. We will spend the majority of the class discussing the relationship between meter and other elements in the poem.
Thursday, March 22nd
How to write about poetry. Please read the following short essas on how to write about poetry from Sylvan Barnett's A Short Guide to Writing About Literature. If you would like, you can also read the Norton Introduction to Poetry's discussion of writing about poetry; that discussion is more focused on the *process* of writing about poetry and less on the formal elements you might consider. Both are useful, but we will focus in class on the Barnett. Come to class with a written thesis about the final poem from "Children of the Poor." We will do in-class exercises on how to develop an argument and paper on poetry using this sonnet as an example.
Quiz 2: on meter, will be given at the end of class.
Tuesday, March 27th
Milton, Lycidas, annotated version. The following online Lycidas at Dartmouth is also well-annotated. Please also read the following short handout on rhetorical figures in Lycidas. Responses by Haleigh and Alejandro.
Elegy, by David Kennedy, chapters 1 and 2 ("Form without Frontiers" and "What was Elegy"), pages 1-34. Five copies on two hour reserve at the library at PR509.E4 K46 2007. Critical response by Larisa.
Thursday, March 29th
Class cancelled. I will be giving a paper at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference as part of the seminar stream "Bad Reception, Missed Connection, Clogged Circulation." To make up the class, we will have one additional class session during reading week, on Tuesday, May 1st from 1:10-2:30, in our usual room.
Instead, your 3 page paper will be DUE Friday, March 30th, at 5pm.
Tuesday, April 3rd
Milton, Lycidas, (primary poem), continued. Responses by Luke and Quinn.
Kennedy, Elegy, chapter 3 "The Work of Mourning," pages 35-56. Five copies on two hour reserve at the library at PR509.E4 K46 2007. Critical response by Ylana.
Thursday, April 5th
Kennedy, Elegy, chapter 4, "'The needs of ghosts': Modern Elegy," pages 57-74 (final ten pages of the chapter, which ends at page 83, are recommended but not required). Critical response by Ylana.
Adams, Poetic Designs 37-69, with particular attention to the section on the ballad stanza, pages 37-43.
Recommended reading: a short introduction to the traditional English folk ballad (this will be required reading next week, so if you do this reading now you'll be getting ahead of the game).
Please also read the following introduction to the traditional English folk ballad, and the following short selection from Thom Gunn, "Thomas Hardy and the Ballads." Critical response by Luke.
Tuesday, April 10th
Langston Hughes, “Weary Blues” (primary poem), and Hughes's recordings of "Weary Blues," also available through the Hughes page. Response by Clarissa.
Bessie Smith, “Weary Blues,” available through the page On the Blues
Additional blues poems by Hughes: Misery, Hey!, Hard Luck, Suicide, Bad Man, Gypsy Man, Po’ Boy Blues, Homesick Blues, Hard Daddy, Gal’s Crying for a Dying Lover.
Jahan Ramazani, selection from The Poetry of Mourning, pages 135-167. Critical response by Desmond.
Steven Tracey, Langston Hughes and the Blues, pages 141-159. Critical Responses by Eve and Erica E.
Thursday, April 12th
Langston Hughes, “Song for a Dark Girl” and "Bitter River" (primary poems). "Song" responses by Larisa and Erin; "Bitter River" responses by Luke and Ylana. Additional Hughes poems to explore: “Silhouette,” “Blue Bayou,” “Bitter River”
As part of your close reading preparation for this class, please pay special attention to when and how "Bitter River" fits or breaks from an implied ballad stanza.
Jahan Ramazani, selection from The Poetry of Mourning, pages 167-173. Critical response by En-Szu.
Tuesday, April 17th
Gwendolyn Brooks, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” (Responses by Zach and James) and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” (Responses by Larisa and En-Szu). These are the two primary poems. As you prepare for class, consider how these texts comment on literary conventions and the ballad form. For background and comparison, read the following short introduction to the traditional English folk ballad.
The website Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America offers a unique and disturbing perspective that may be useful to you as you read Brooks's poems; these photographs and postcards constitute the most extensive visual documentary evidence available of the history of lynching in the United States.
Please also read the following poems, which will give you some background into the genre of the lynching elegy. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “The Haunted Oak”; Claude McKay, “The Lynching"; Countee Cullen, “The Black Christ”; Lewis Allen/Billie Holliday, “Strange Fruit”; and Robert Hayden “Night, Death, Mississippi."
Thursday, April 19th
Abortion and the Elegy
Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Mother” (primary poem). Responses by Erin and Clarissa.
Lucille Clifton, “the lost baby poem” (primary poem) Responses Sophie, Desmond, and Matt.
Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind" Response by Sterling.
All three poems are reprinted at the end of the following essay by Barbara Johnson: "Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion," Diacritics 16.1 (1986). Please read both the poems and the essay. Critical Response by Clarissa.
Tuesday, April 24th
Christopher Okigbo, "Lament for the Drums." Responses by Eve and Quinn.
As you read "Lament for the Drums,"
consider how apostrophe functions in this poem. Is it an ode? Is it an elegy? Or something else entirely? As you consider these questions, compare this poem to Ben Okri's "Incandescence of the Wind" and Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind."
"Iron, Thunder and Elephants: A Study of Okigbo's 'Path of Thunder'" by Ime Ikiddeh, from Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo, by Donatus Ibe Nwoga. (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1985). Available through Moodle's e-reserves. Critical responses by Preston and James.
Biographical Timeline, from Christopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight, by Obi Nwakanma.
Thursday, April 26th
Amiri Baraka, "Dope," as a recording and text. Response by Haleigh. "Black Dada Nihilismus" [Modern American Poetry on Black Dada Nihilismus] audio& DJ Spooky mix) (from Preface to a 20 Vol. Suicide Note, 1957)
Please read through the Modern American Poetry websites on the Black Arts Movement and on Amiri Baraka. Response by Zach.
A short but very useful essay giving some context for poetry readings:
Neon Griot: The Functional Role of Poetry Readings in the Black Arts Movement, by Lorenzo Thomas (himself a Black Arts poet). Critical response by Alejandro.
Required background listening:
Gil Scott-Heron, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" and "Black History/The World"
Linton Kwesi Johnson, "If I Woz a Tap Natch Poet [live a capella audio]," "If I were a Top Natch Poet [video for the Guardian]".
Week 14: Reading Week Make-up Class
Tuesday, May 1st, 6pm, Room TBA
Jazz poetry after Langston Hughes, including "Soledad" and "Homage to the Empress of the Blues" by Robert Hayden; poems on Coltrane by Michael S. Harper and Nathaniel Mackey; "Rose Solitude" by Black Arts poet Jayne Cortez; and Christopher Okigbo, "Elegy for Alto." Responses by Haleigh and Preston. Pay particular attention to Hayden's "Soledad": I'd like to focus on it and the Okigbo. Since there's no required secondary reading, try to read at least two more of the poems closely. If you enjoyed the reference to Frank O'Hara in Lorenzo Thomas's essay, you might also enjoy reading his brilliant jazz poem "The Day Lady Died."
"Projective Verse," by Charles Olson. Critical response by Quinn.
Final PAPER DUE Thursday May 10th, via email. WARNING: I WILL NOT ACCEPT ANY WORK SUBMITTED AFTER MIDNIGHT ON THURDSAY, MAY 19TH. This is a policy set by the college, and I cannot and will not contravene it. (The only circumstances under which this does not apply is if you qualify for a formal medical incomplete arranged through the Registrar's Office.) It is also the case that you cannot earn a passing grade in this course without completing the final paper. So whatever you have by 11pm on Thursday, send it in!