In this seminar we will examine a range of influential appeals on
behalf of the moral, social, and political value of literature against the
backdrop of the present-day crisis in literary education at American
universities. Combining classic works with materials published in the last
decade, the course aims to give students a detailed knowledge of pro-poetry
arguments from the past while building their awareness of the institutional and
disciplinary environments in which “poetry” is currently struggling to survive
in downsizing and corporatizing institutions of higher education. Our overall
goal will be to identify theoretical and rhetorical strategies not only for
defending poetry but also for (re)conceptualizing literary learning both within
and beyond the precincts of the traditional university. In the context of this
class, “poetry” will sometimes serve as a stand-in for poiesisin general, and sometimes it will designate a particular
mode of creative writing distinct from fiction, creative non-fiction, and
drama—that is, “poetry.”
The historical survey of “defenses of
poetry” will begin with Plato’s critique of imaginative writing in the Republic and Aristotle’s reaffirmation
of literature’s vital public function in the Poetics. From there, we will move chronologically through Philip
Sidney’s Apologie of Poesie;Percy
Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry;
Germaine de Staël’s essays on literature, morals, and national identity;
selections from Kant’s Critique of
Judgment; selections from Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man; Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy; Kenneth Burke’s
“Literature as Equipment for Living”; Adorno’s “As Essay on Cultural Criticism
and Society”; selections from Jean-Paul Sartre’s What is Literature?; a selection from Roque Dalton’s Poetry and Militancy in Latin America; a
selection from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing
the Mind; Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?”; “I Happen to Think Poetry
Makes a Huge Difference,” a 1994 interview with Adrienne Rich by Matthew
Rothschild; and a selection from Jacques Rancière’s The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes. This historical sequence
will end with David Orr’s Beautiful and
Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (2011). (This list of texts is subject
to change.) Each text will be placed in its historical context in order to take
account of the particular socio-political situation to which it is responding.
Class sessions devoted to these works will consist of a mixture of lecture,
student manifestos, and discussion.
This retrospective strand of the course
reading will be crosscut by readings and reflection on the current state of
“poetry” in the Anglophone academy. Key texts for this component of the course
Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem
(2006); Konai Thaman’s “Towards a New Pedagogy: Pacific Cultures in Higher
Education” (2000); Marjorie Perloff’s “Crisis in the Humanities” and “In
Defense of Poetry” (2000); selections from Mark William Roche’s Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century(2004);
selections from Jay Perini’s Why Poetry
Matters (2008); Mark C. Taylor, “End the University as We Know It” (2009);
and Rita Dove’s response to Helen Vendler’s critique of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011).
(Again, this list of texts is subject to change.)
Throughout the semester, Dove’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century American
Poetry will provide both examples of actually existing poetry and, as a
controversial anthology, an occasion to reflect on the shifting cultural
politics associated with the work of poets, editors, and critics.
In lieu of class presentations, each
student will be required to write a one-page manifesto stating his or her
version of a defense of (or perhaps an [ironic or otherwise] attack on) poetry.
Students will read/perform these manifestos aloud in class with the aim of
For their final projects, students will
have the choice of writing either a scholarly paper on a topic related to the
seminar or a position paper aimed at a broader (or differently specific)
audience. I will also entertain poetic and mixed-genre projects if they are
rigorously conceived and convincingly defended.
Required Texts (please wait until the
first day of class to purchase, as the list may change):
Dove, Rita, ed. The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry.
Eagleton, Terry. How to Read a Poem. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.
Orr, David. Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. Harper, 2011.
Tanke, Joseph J. and Colin McQuillan,
eds. The Bloomsbury Anthology of
Aesthetics. Continuum, 2012.
A course packet