Assignment: The Song Project

I am having such fun with my Early Modern Literature class! Yesterday we spent a whole 80 minute class close reading a single poem by John Donne, “The Sun Rising,” & while yes there was a bit of restlessness (two texting violations) (I get it, seamless time & attention are hard, weird, scary even), in the main they were on it, smart, engaged, perceptive. We went that long on one poem only because they were into it – I had other stuff ready I set aside. Loving this group. Anyway here’s an assignment they have – to put a poem we’ve read, & a song they like, in conversation.


The Song Project

The preamble

This project asks you to connect the songs (music) you listen to to the songs (poems) they descended from. For real! The shapes and tropes on your latest playlist – unrequited love, spiritual longing, political protestthey have a history, they come from somewhere. Several somewheres, actually, and one is the body of work we’ve been reading this quarter.

[We’re reading lyrics by Skelton, Wyatt, Ralegh, Marlowe, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Jonson, Wroth, Donne, Herbert, Herrick, Marvell]

The assignment

Compare and contrast, in terms of form, structure, technique, and rhetoric, one of the poems we’ve read, with the lyrics of a popular song.

The details

Not “popular” as in a lot of people like it. “Popular” as in a modern or contemporary song created for a mass audience. Possible genres include pop, indie, hip-hop, rock, folk, blues, R&B, country, showtunes. If in doubt, check with me.

Forget about the music. You’re working just with the lyrics on the page. Pick a song whose lyrics pack the literary punch of a poem.

Pick a song and a poem that on at least one dimension – structure, technique, rhetoric – are strikingly similar, or interestingly different. (Note that I don’t list content. Content shouldn’t figure large in your comparison.)

You’ll bring a draft in point form to work on, in class, in small groups. Details below.

The final product will be an essay, with thesis, roughly 2500 words. Follow format guidelines in the syllabus.

The procedure

Here’s how I would like you to proceed. The approach may seem time consuming, but it builds on skills you’ve been developing all quarter, and helps ensure your reading has both breadth and depth. Notice that you don’t begin to formulate a thesis until late in the process. If a thesis begins to occur to you earlier, that’s great – it’s the process working for you – note it down, but don’t get locked into it. Keep your mind open and flexible; let your reading keep developing.

(1) Print out a few copies of the poem, and a few of the song, to work on.

(2) Do our noticing practice – wide open, anything goes – on your poem.

(3) Do our noticing practice – again, wide open – on your song. Steps (2) and (3) are to get to know the texts well. Write your findings on the texts you printed out.

(4) Now put your poem and your song side-by-side. Do a focused noticing practice, first of the poem, then of the song, paying attention just to structure – stanza size and shape, rhyme scheme, turn, refrain (and/or chorus, bridge). Again, write on the texts you printed out.

(5) Do focused reading practices of poem and song, paying attention, in turn, to

1. prosody (rhythm and meter)
2. line (end-stopping, enjambment, caesura)
3. imagery (including appeals to sight, sound, smell, taste, touch)
4. figures of speech (metaphor, simile, personification, paradox, pun)
5. rhetorical stance (who’s speaker, who’s spoken to, to what purpose, who overhears)

Depending on your poem and your song, there will be a lot to say about some of these things, only a little to say about others – but if you’ve chosen poem and song well, there will be interesting likenesses and differences in the same categories.

(6) Identify the likenesses and differences that are, to you,

1. most interesting
2. most surprising
3. most important
4. most revealing
5. most disturbing

Write a long paragraph exploring each. If in (5) you focused on what is there, here you focus on what it does. You’re brainstorming and getting your thoughts in order, but this is also raw material for academic writing – so when you ask a question, make a claim, or express an insight, back it up by citing the relevant passage in the poem or song.

(7) Out of all the writing you’ve done, and especially for step (6), has any overarching insight begun to form into what the poem and song have in common, or do differently? If so, write a short paragraph expressing and developing that insight. If not, review everything you’ve written, see what stands out to you as most interesting or provocative, and write.

(8) Condense that paragraph into a draft thesis statement that makes an interpretive claim about what the poem and the song have in common, and/or do differently, in terms of form, structure, and/or technique. (If the paragraph in (7) doesn’t work out, back up and write another one. Or you might need to back up further … use your judgement.)

The deadlines

M 11/18  A packet comprised of: your most interesting findings for (4) and (5), typed up in point form; the song lyrics themselves. Four copies.

F 12/6  Final song project.


The image atop is from a blog post by Simon Costin (founder of the Museum of British Folklore and director of the Museum of Witchcraft) on visiting Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Oh all the connections in this light.

 

Assignment: Memorization and recitation

I’m a forward-leaning poet. Of the works of our many-stranded canon, I swoon to those that lean forward in, & out of, their own times.

Also, I swear by a practice learned in a rearguard setting, private boys’ school in the English model I suffered in 4 years: memorization & recitation. It does get the work down in yr bones.

Here’s how I’ve tried to make that work for my Western dears.

Memorization and Recitation Assignment

A great way to get into the bones of a poem is to memorize and recite it. The process yields insights into the music, structure, and rhetoric of a poem that a more analytical approach can miss. So you’re going to memorize a poem and recite it to the class. Poems in the course outline that are underlined are eligible. I’ll post a sign-up sheet for recitations soon; they’ll begin in about three weeks. Please

do not choose a poem by the poet you working with in your song project;

do not sign up for a poem if two people have already claimed that poem.

Some further guidelines:

Choose a poem to which you feel an emotional or imaginative connection.

First concentrate on memorization. The key here is repetition. Read a line or phrase off the page, put down the poem, say the line or phrase from memory, check what you said against what’s on the page, and repeat till you have it right, without too much effort.

Break the poem into manageable chunks, e.g., quatrains. Let the rhymes be the mnemonic device they maybe originally were. Same with the rhythm, if it’s highly regular.

Once you can recite a chunk (even if effortfully) practice it, either silently or out loud, whenever you can – standing in line at Panda Express, waiting for the bus, going to sleep at night. (Especially going to sleep. A study trick every student should know.)

Check periodically against the poem; don’t memorize a wrong version by accident.

Be sure you understand every inch of the poem. The literal meanings of the words, the sentence structures, the figures of speech at work there.

Also, have these questions in mind: who’s speaking, to whom, and to what ostensible purpose? and what purpose might there be under the ostensible purpose?

You have it fluently memorized when you can recite it at double speed without error.

Then you can turn your attention to recitation. The goal here is a heightened naturalness. You want to sound like a person speaking to other persons. With that in mind:

Don’t let the meter force you into monotony. Poetic rhythm is fluid and variable; let your fluency in English, not an abstract idea of meter, guide your enunciation.

Don’t overstate the line end. As a rule of thumb, you can add about half a comma to whatever other punctuation is there. (More if there’s a rhetorical reason for it. Less if there’s an enjambment you want to convey.)

Listen carefully, a number of times, to readings of poems posted on Canvas – especially ones you find effective or moving. Where does the reader speed up, slow down, pause, emphasize?

Finally, practice, practice, practice. Recite your poem to friends, to family, to strangers, to me (remember those office hours). Get and learn from our reactions. A poem is an offering of beauty; offer it beautifully.


The image?

Many-stranded, forsooth.

It’s from an exhibition at the Met on the early modern meeting between the Islamic and European worlds. The deets:

Reciting Poetry in a Garden

Object Name: Tile panel

Date: first quarter 17th century

Geography: Country of Origin Iran, Isfahan

Medium: Stonepaste; polychrome glaze within black wax resist outlines (cuerda seca technique)

Dimensions: Panel with tabs: H. 35 1/4 in. (89.5 cm)
W. 61 3/8 in. (155.9 cm)
D. 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm)
Wt. 300 lbs. (136.1 kg)
Each tile: H. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm)
W. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm)

Classification: Ceramics-Tiles

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1903

Accession Number: 03.9b

A lush landscape provides the setting for a picnic, complete with fruit and beverages in Chinese‑style blue-and-white vessels. Two men sit in conversation, one writing and holding a safina (an oblong format book typically containing poetry), flanked by a man standing on the left and a woman on the right carrying a covered bowl decorated with Chinese designs. The patterned robes, silk sashes, and striped turbans resemble costumes depicted in seventeenth‑century Persian drawings and paintings.

Orientalism? Go on, say it. I’ll respond, try to.

 

A compost-conceptual nexus

This summer I taught ENG 460 The Art of Compost again, the course the blog is named for. This time I included more avant-garde & conceptual writing than I have, wanting that they sharpen – thicken? – their historical sense of their own work.

So we assembled an oddball constellation on the fly, stars plucked out of formations named Dada, ’Pataphysics, Oulipo, Fluxus, Flarf, Conceptual Writing. Names I didn’t forget, they’re fine for context, & now & then as shorthand for ideas, actions, orientations; but we didn’t belabour them.

One of their projects for the 1/4’s end is to come up with a generative practice of their own. Here it is. Links added to make a resource, a compost-conceptual nexus.


Assignment: Generative Procedure

Background

We’ve looked at some creative works that use a procedure to create material, or to bring material on hand to form:

A few more I’ll tell you about now:

  • Robert Zend, Hearsay
  • Moez Surani, ةيلمع Operación Opération Operation 行 动 Oперация
  • Biblioklept, one-star reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Some are cool, dry, conceptual. Some, warm & visceral. There’s no one way to do this. There’s only, for this assignment, sticking to your procedure, once you’ve conceived it.

The Assignment

Devise and employ a generative procedure.

Your submission will have two parts: (1) an account of the process you’ve devised, and (2) a work or set of works created through that process. Part (1) will in turn have two parts: (a) a description of how the process works, and (b) a rationale for the process.

We’ll work one-on-one to refine your process and to decide on what you’ll submit.

In your rationale, explain what makes your process interesting, legitimate, relevant, useful – or whatever values (extravagance? uselessness?) you want to argue for. What sorts of verbal objects does it produce? Connect it to other processes we’ve looked at, and its results to other artworks we’ve studied.

Pointers

It’s the Art of Compost, so your procedure should be a composting practice: it should digest, break down, repurpose, remix, or some such action, an extant source. Your source can be nearly anything – a searchable database, a literary text, overheard street noise. Andreas Serrano composted Christ by sinking His ikon in his own piss. Don’t do that – I just mean, the range of possibilities is wow.

And, it’s a writing course, so the result of your procedure should have a language dimension, though we can understand language generously. To my sense, Beaulieu’s Local Colour and Flatland are both language objects, while Cage’s 4’33” and Serrano’s Piss Christ are not. I’m open to persuasion.

As we’ve noted before, successful generative practices are often simple in their form – elegant even – but complex in the results they produce. However, often is not always, and simple does not mean easy to come up with.

Many of the procedures we’ve looked at have a chance or aleatory element – maybe all, if you define aleatory broadly. Everyone’s looking to get out of their head! The Greeks invoked their Muses; Surrealists fell into dream and automatic writing; Yeats channelled spirits; Jack Spicer invited Martians to rearrange the inner furniture. Maybe all these chance operations are an effort to recover spontaneity, by outsourcing it.


I look forward to their engagements with this. They know far more than they know.

E-mail to a student

Replying to a student who asked – respectfully, she’s nice upon nice, but persistently – why she got an A- not an A for participation, and so an A- for the course. It was going to trash her 4.0.


Sorry for my delay responding; I’m just back from the AWP conference. It’s important to understand that an A is a rare and exceptional grade. Or it should be, if grades are to mean anything at all. In fact A’s have become common in our field, because grade inflation is rampant in the humanities.

That’s especially true in creative writing, maybe because grading in this field can’t be justified empirically or pedagogically. So we grade high, because of the warmth of the relationships we cultivate with our students, and our knowledge that they will in turn be grading us, in their evaluations of us. The latter factor is all the more pressing for adjuncts like myself who have to deal with chronic job insecurity.

Every time I give a low, or even a lowish grade, especially towards the end of the quarter, I think to myself, and I hate it that I do, “How’s this going to affect the evaluation this student gives me?” 

This is more context than you asked for. But my point is, the system is a crock. These grades are fictions. They have nothing to do with your worth and surprisingly little to do with the worth of your work. 

If I can presume to advise you. Be in school for the intrinsic value of it. The people you meet, the values you have tested, the skills you pick up, the insights that come as you put X and Y and oranges together.

Also? A GPA of 4.0 will not be better for you than a GPA of, say, 3.9. No one should get a 4.0. Maybe in high school, where the college admission stakes are insane, but the game’s different now. With a GPA of 4.0 you risk looking to say an employer like you went to a fluff school or did a fluff major. An A- or two on your transcript will help it to look it more real. A touch of grit, if you like.

Anyway, grade inflation. It’s a big problem. And I’m committed to not worsening it. So I grade tougher than some creative writing teachers do. But I do put a lot of care into grading fairly.

All right. You asked why an A- and not an A for participation. I gave generally high grades for participation in this class because there was really good group cohesion and everyone contributed to that. I liked you guys a lot. An A went to the, I think 2 people who were conversation spurs – they ventured an idea or a perspective when they couldn’t be sure what I’d think, or whether it was even in the right ballpark. They brought new energy to the conversation, helping to move it forward. They fostered the inquiry.

We all did. That A- means you did, too, a lot. Maybe I went on so long up there about grade inflation because I’d love for a student to be delighted to receive an A- for their work in my class. I can’t say what an A- means in another class, but in mine it means you and your work have my respect and admiration.

Chris


I see a tension rereading it. I say grades have surprisingly little to do with the worth of your work. And I say her A- has a definite meaning, that she and her work have my respect and admiration.

Maybe, in trying to soften the blow of an A-, I’ve bent over backwards, nice on nice, same as I said my student has. I do do that. Could be why I see it in her & want, though it’s not my place, to jolt her into being displeasing sometimes.

And yet I do feel both sides are true. It’s my expression of them that’s fallen short, making what seems a contradiction.

Assignment: Profile of a literary journal

Too whupped, truth be told, to pivot from one vispo project (a draft is done) to another (undone draft awaits) this particular evening. But I got some juice to do something, and so this post. The template I gave my Editing & Publishing students, those who are on the Literary Publishing project. BTW the modular design seems mostly successful, though I see where I can improve it for next time.

The student-centred thought behind it is vital for me. Mostly I don’t want the authority given me by the system and the culture and the process. But I don’t get to just forswear it. If I throw my authority to the winds, that’s an authoritarian move, because only I know what I mean by it, and only I can determine its consequences. I have to own my authority and use it honestly.

And that carries me beyond what I meant to do in preamble for this post. Which too’s a matter of authority, inwardly, and how your thought stream defies it.

The assignment:


Use this template to compose a profile of a literary journal. (You’ll do three of them for your portfolio.) It’s fine if your profile proceeds as a numbered list, answering the questions in turn, but each answer should be in paragraph form. It’s also fine if your answers journey away from the inciting question, as long as the transit yields insights into the journal’s character. Each profile should be 1000–1500 words.

  1. Describe its material design – moves that make it the thing it is, and not another. Print journal: trim size, texture of the paper, fonts used; whether and how it uses images and what sorts of images; cover, cover image, binding; front and back matter. Online journal: its home page; the architecture and means of navigation; use of images and other digital media; what distinctive uses does it make of its online platform?

  2. Describe its formal design – the moves that distinguish how it thinks from other journals in your line-up. What genres are in it, and how much or little does it obey genre boundaries? How does one piece follow another – by similarity, contrast, theme and variation, or maybe haphazardly, by, say, alphabetic order? Do you see trends, thematic or otherwise, among the stories, poems, creative nonfiction, or other genres?

  3. Narrate the journal’s history, as best you can learn it – how and when it was founded, by whom, and why. This is the place to talk about purpose, vision, ethos, mission.

  4. Research one person on the masthead – best is an editor who might be reading work you submit. Google them. Look for their work online or in the library. What have they published? What’s their work like? Are there interviews you can find? Viral tweets or FB posts? What can you learn from these sources about their taste or judgement? (Your sense of an editor’s taste shouldn’t change your work. But it might affect which pieces you send them.) Describe the guesses you can make about their literary tastes and biases, and maybe, if you’re lucky, about the sort of work they’re keen to see.

  5. Describe the journal’s aesthetic – what it seems to look for in the work it publishes. Look at how it describes itself (online, its “about” page, and submissions guidelines, and maybe a GD vision statement) but more at the work it publishes – especially in the genre you’re submitting in. Maybe make a list of adjectives describing the sort of work it publishes, and then put them into sentences: “Journal X likes work that’s …”. Does their description of what they’re up to line up with your sense of what they do?

  6. How well does your work fit the journal’s aesthetic? You might, as you explain, make a Venn diagram – your aesthetic, carefully described, in one circle, and the journal’s aesthetic, carefully described, in another. How do you describe the area where they overlap? All things considered, how optimistic do you feel about submitting to this journal?

“Only connect”

Just finished a portfolio, 150 lean & sleek pages, and as many more of student evals, for a teaching award I’m up for, and grateful to be. Maybe I shd just upload the whole GD pedagogical novel, if that’s a genre yet, w/ its doubtful protagonist & his supportive cast of 1,000s, and bellow – HERE. YA. GO.

Instead, just the teaching statement. The only important sentence is the last one.

In my Editing & Publishing class, we were asking about clickbait, and attention as saleable commodity – a vantage that fries my Buddhist ass. Attention is what we live in and offer each other it should be freely, as love. Where’d we be without it? Rocks.

Well, trying to describe an approach that hands some responsibility for the course, its content and character, to my students. I won’t say “flipped classroom,” because bromide, and if I were given such directives, I’d probably do it wrong.

What I do, I have some chance to do right, cuz I stumbled on it, myself.


Teaching Statement

In my pedagogy, as in my aesthetics, I value the concrete over the general, so I’ll try to convey my teaching by way of example. I teach the advanced poetry workshop at Western as “Poetics of the Rhizome.” Taken from De­leuze and Guattari, the rhizome is a way of seeing that emphasizes multiplicity, con­nectedness, interbeing. Diversity, robustly. Or Indra’s Net, but contorted, because Western thought. Ranging among William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Coral Bracho’s selected poems, and Will Alexander’s Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, to name a few of our texts, students face several challenges: (1) Poetry and poetics texts from an outsider Western tradition and from way outside the Anglo-Amer­ican tradition. (2) An arranging idea, the rhizome, it’s hard to wrap your head around. (3) A student-centred pedagogy that has evolved, as my Socratic teaching style has matured, into a collaborative form of co-teaching. (4) Creative exercises simple on the surface but hard to accomplish: Write a poem that enacts spring. Write a poem that taps into myth consciousness. Write a poem that disputes with itself.

The first half of a class is given to student presentations, which are actually improvisations in co-teaching. Each pair presenting meets with me ahead of time to discuss angles of approach. I pay close attention to the design of their lesson plan – it should be fluid, I tell them, responsive to the moment in the room. I orient them to Socratic method, suggesting they should have, with each question they ask, an issue they want to bring to the fore, and a feeling for how to get there. But they should also know our responses might propose alternative ways there, or open a wholly new line of inquiry. “You’ll be thinking on your feet. When do you stay on track, when do you let a digression keep going? when do you reflect and extend a comment? when do you lean into a term or an idea and interrogate it? when do you leap to something seemingly unrelated, and how can you eventually tie it in?” And of course, I’m modelling Socratic method all quarter long myself. This meta-teaching keeps me on my own toes. In class, at any given moment, I need to decide whether to let be, or raise my hand as a discussant, or help out as one of the co-teachers, or step in as teacher of the co-teachers. The goal here is to democratize Socrates: to hand the role of teacher over to every interlocutor. Evidence of success? Start of the quarter, discussions are hesitant, needing lots of help from me. By the end, they’re running themselves, question, point, follow-up question, counterpoint, dialogue. Scruffy, unpredictable, co-teaching is a surrender of control and dispersal of authority – very much in the spirit of the rhizome.

The second half of each class is given to peer critique. In these sessions, I emphasize non-eval­uative feedback, finding peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when observations take the place of praise and advice. The approach has a downside – the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not – but most students come to prefer it before long. Teaching process, I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae” – the tingle of excitement, sparkle, or charge, or the weight of irritation or dismay, you feel rereading your own work. I believe everyone has these subtle responses and is perfectly equipped to perceive them. But self-doubt, anxiety, or distraction can make it difficult to attend to them, trust them, work with them. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel.

For their final projects, students construct rhizomes of their own. I set some parameters and then work with each, one-on-one, on the forms their rhizomes will take. The parameters: The rhizome needs (1) to do self-reflection; (2) to include finished poetry of their own; to engage with at least (3) one of the poetry texts and (4) one of the poetics texts we’ve read; and (5) to have a non-textual dimension. I also encourage but don’t require them (6) to engage with Deleuze and Guattari’s essay. These parameters, while they appear formal and procedural, foster rhizome values of anarchy, interconnection, and polyphony. And while the resulting project can be close to a conventional portfolio, I urge them towards bolder ventures, and we take time to brainstorm possible rhizome forms: a hypertext, a conspiracy board, a spoken word set uploaded to You­Tube, a keepsake box of typewritten scraps. The rhizome needs to build difference into its own body, by talking with or about one of the poets we’ve read, and one of the poetics texts we’ve read, and also by having a non-textual aspect, something pictorial or tactile or auditory about it. Diversity of culture, genre, medium, discourse. For by now we’ve come, with the help of Négritude, Sufism, the Haida Mythworld, Spanish Surrealism, Language Poetry, and John Cage’s screwy Black Mountain take on Sunyata, as well as cheerful scepticism about all these thought-boxes, to see the rhizome as an organism taking difference in without effacing its differentness.

My work in “Poetics of the Rhizome” expresses a pedagogy that’s been years in the making, one I’m ready to drop, any part or the whole damn thing, if it looks to be unhelpful. The last time I taught the course, a student came in to talk about her rhizome, because she’d changed her idea. She wanted now to do a rhizome “about” life and death, or maybe death and rebirth. Was that specific enough? I checked in with my sense of this student, her liking for arranging schemes – her book proposal in my Editing and Publishing course had been for an encyclopedia of all pagan faiths – and compared that to the sharp little momentary poems she’d started making, with no grand designs, just edgy perception and a brave unfinishedness. This assignment could be bad for her. I said, maybe you should just drop the whole rhizome thing. Make five to eight poems, like the ones you’ve been doing. And write something about them and a couple of the readings, you know, but no big deal. She said, I like the sound of that. I said, then you could look at the poems you’ve made, see what they have to tell you, maybe there’s an idea for a rhizome in them. But trust their intelligence; don’t push them around. She looked relieved. My teaching philosophy is, only connect.


Coda

The only meaningful thing I have to give, most of the time, is my attention. Which fixes nothing but is not nothing. I know cuz the gaps I find in me, the grievous gaping ones, most have been left by someone’s inattention; my own or another’s. Most of the rest are attentions I couldn’t say no to, and really, that’s inattention of a sort, too. And now we’ve made attention, which is the kindness that binds us – ensconcing a child’s eyes in its mother’s & settling them both in the body of unassailable & enduring love – now we’ve worked out how to make it fungible on the open market. That’s what to #Resist.


Postscript. Even as I was writing, Stephen Colbert was making the same point, in his own adorable way.

The Arts of Peace and War

Draft of a proposal for an Honors Seminar.


An interdisciplinary course bridging literature and the visual arts, “The Arts of Peace and War” would examine how experimental artists of the twentieth century responded to the destructive events of their time. The course would broach two paradoxes of modern avant-garde expression: (1) avant-garde artists have often employed violent or disruptive means in the service of holistic visions; (2) difficult works that might seem to be destined for a small, elite audience, and to confirm that audience in its privileges, have often been created with a radically democratic intent – a revolution of consciousness.

The course description:

The Arts of Peace and War

In this course, we’ll study the practice of creative destruction in the literary and visual arts of Europe and North America in the twentieth century. We’ll begin with a problem embedded in the term “avant-garde,” which implies a military metaphor, an advance force, a corps of troops ahead of the main army. Some early avant-garde poets and painters, the Italian Futurists for instance, did embrace war as a sort of ritual purgation. But many artists of the avant-garde have been apostles of relation and compassion, even if the methods they use in the name of peace – frag­men­­tation, disjunction, erasure, wholesale abuse of reason – can look pretty violent. What do we make of that disconnect, between a holistic ethos and the violent (to language and form) practices artists express that ethos in? How do you beat up your materials (and in a sense your readers or viewers) without suggesting beating-up is okay to do? We’ll begin with poets and painters of pre-WWI Europe – the proto-Fascism of the Futurists, the pacifism of Dada – and end near our own cultural moment, with artists exploring creative destruction as a plural response to patriarchy and white supremacy.


I’ve twice taught the precursor to this course, Poetics of Peace and War, as ENG 311 Literature and Culture V: 20th and 21st Centuries, then a thirty-five-student class. (I have also taught visual and performing arts as academic subjects while an instructor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.) It was a popular and successful course; students without much sympathy for “that kind of art” described it as eye-opening. It may have in ways resembled an Honors seminar – all of my classes use structured Socratic discussion and range across discipline boundaries. However, it was an English course, with visual works in a supporting role, and the size of the class prevented the close study of individual works that writing-intensive courses allow.

The ideal environment for exploring this material would be a small, interdisciplinary, writing-intensive seminar. For one thing, these works pose interpretive problems on which no critical consensus has emerged, including questions about the nature of interpretation itself – ideal matters for Socratic discussion, and writing assignments that foreground the creative dimensions of interpretation, the theoretical aspects of artistic production. For another, these works illuminate each other. A fully interdisciplinary course would draw poems, paintings, sculptures, manifestos, wars, technologies, dinner parties, cultural ephemera, all into the circle of our attention. Students could explore a given work, in class discussion and in critical (and possibly creative) projects, with reference to its precursors, antagonists, chance companions, and disjecta. Finally, the students who take well to this rich, provocative material are inquisitive, self-directed, intellectually restless – traits that in my experience, Western’s Honors students have in abundance.


Tentative reading and viewing list

Readings

  • F.T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto” & selected poems
  • Wyndham Lewis et al, BLAST (The War Issue)
  • Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto”
  • Hugo Ball, Karawane & other poems
  • Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons
  • Ezra Pound, Cathay
  • William Carlos Williams, Spring and All
  • George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous”
  • Lorine Niedecker, North Central
  • Robert Creeley, Pieces
  • John Cage, “On Nothing”
  • Denise Levertov, Evening Train
  • John Taggart, “Peace on Earth”
  • Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee
  • Will Alexander, Towards the Primeval Lightning Field

Viewings etc.

  • Italian Futurist paintings (e.g. Marinetti, Carrà, Severini)
  • Marcel Duchamp, readymades & Nude Descending a Staircase
  • Cubist paintings (Picasso, Braque)
  • Hilma af Klint, paintings
  • Pablo Picasso, Guernica & other paintings
  • Henri Matisse, cut-outs
  • Georgia O’Keeffe, paintings
  • John Cage, 4’33”
  • John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
  • Louise Bourgeois, sculptures
  • Andy Warhol, prints & reproductions

Image en haut, a gently cropped version of Gino Severini’s Red Cross Train Passing a Village (1915).