In his essay, “Documentary Poetry and Archival Desire,”
published in the on-line journal, Jacket2, Joseph Harrington defines
documentary poetry as designating “poetry that (1) contains quotations from or
reproductions of documents or statements not produced by the poet and (2)
relates historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural.” Such poetry shifts the focus away from the
solitary person and shifts it toward more communal purposes. Such poetry more resembles history,
journalism, or your facebook or twitter feed than it does the verse of
Elizabethan and Romantic. This is not meant to dismiss them, simply to identify
what is different about this form from other modes of poetry. Many works of documentary poetry take on
significant historical events; others make arguments about political, social,
and/or cultural issues.
We will read widely and deeply in the form, beginning from a
significant work outside of it, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,
which includes photographs by Walker Evans.
As we read across its history, emphasizing its present, students will be
writing their own documentary poems, working their way into a substantial
project of their own. Class time will be
devoted, in equal measure, to discussion of the books, experiments in the form,
and workshopping of student poems. There
will be a class blog, in addition to in-class discussion, which students will
be required to write on every week; we will also be interviewing some of the
authors by way of the blog. I will
organize office hours to talk to each student individually about his or her
The course is open to non-poets, as well. While the readings are in poetry, your work may
be in documentary prose.
Attendance; participation; preparation; writing to the blog
and writing a poem a week; completing a 20 page final documentary project.
Required Texts (available at Revolution Books):
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee & Walker,
Dictee, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, University of
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine, Graywolf
Coal Mountain Elementary, Mark Nowak, Coffee House
I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning, Kristin Prevallet,
from unincorporated territory [saina], Craig Santos
Things Come On: an amneoir, Joseph Harrington,
Green-Wood, Allison Cobb, Factory School
We will also read Murial Ruykeyser’s Book of the Dead(1938)
in pdf or xerox form. I will also
recommend a slew of other texts for anyone who is interested.