Sense, the Sentence and Syntax

This class studies the relationship between the various ways a poem offers or constructs meaning — that is, "makes sense" — and the tactics it uses to literally embody that meaning, via the line, sentence and verbs. About this "making sense," we'll consider it in at least three ways: first, as any of those deliberate moments commonly called the image that gesture, relate to or otherwise awaken the body's five senses; second, as that overall moving, if transforming, logic or "sense" of identity or argument that drives the poem; and, lastly, as sensibility, not just the poem’s atmosphere, tone or stylistic tics but the poet's as well. Along with each, we’ll labor to see specifically how syntax (sentence structure, length, deployment, verbiage, meter and more) underwrites, enacts or, even, subverts or queers what sense is available in the poem. In short, we'll reveal, if not collapse, that ground which sits between "subject" (identity) and "form" (body) in both our own work and the work of a selection of published poets.

The Body

“I sing the body electric.” So announced Walt Whitman in his first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Possibly, it announced as well what would become a prevailing subject, if not at times a cliché, in American poetry: “the body” as image and metaphor, as abstraction, and, perhaps, as literary inheritance. Certainly, notions of the body have not ceased to be explored and complicated since Whitman. We find, for example, Wallace Stevens resigning that “the body dies” but “the body's beauty lives” in the early part of the 20th century; though for Sylvia Plath, it may be only a woman’s “dead body” that “is perfected.” Later in that century, Lucille Clifton celebrates the (black) female body in poems such as “homage to my hips” and “poem in praise of menstruation,” while in the first decades of the 21st century it’s “the arbitrariness of gender and having to have a body” at all that still obsesses—and torments—Frank Bidart. Most recently, the body as symbolic figure or as object remains central, if controversial, in Kenneth Goldsmith's “The Body of Michael Brown” and, as if in response, there’s Morgan Parker insisting in her poem, “Magical Negro #84: The Black Body” that, in fact, “The body is a person./The body is a person./The body is a person.” Through these and many other examples, this class aims to offer a much-abbreviated survey on the (d)evolution of “the body” as a subject in American poetry up to the contemporary moment. What is “the body”? Can it be—and how has it been—defined? For whom is “the body”? What can we read from it? Who has the “right” to describe or speak for a particular body, and who doesn’t? What agency or power does or doesn’t “the body” yield? And is any of this related to the body politic or to bodies of art? These and more questions will be asked as we take time to discuss, through close readings of individual poems and occasional essays, various manifestations of the body that may include (but are not limited to) the gendered body, the raced body, the queered body, the sick body, the brutalized body, the dead or “no body,” the politicized body, and more. Additionally, students will be prompted throughout the semester to write poems that engage the body through each of these manifestations and/or poems that respond to arguments about the body as articulated in the published work that we read.

Sustained Revision

Carl Phillips, Jorie Graham, Frank Bidart

“I hardly knew / what I saw. Whatever shadow there was in that world / it was the one each cast / onto the other,” so wrote Jorie Graham over thirty years ago, describing a memory of witnessing two bodies during intimacy—but one wonders if the sentiment might hold true for a given poet’s body of poems, their “work.” The writer Alice Walker has asserted that “you do not study, or critique, or condemn a writer without taking into account their whole body of work… There is a reason it is called a body of work and not an arm or a leg or a tonsil.” This class aims to try out that argument about reading through an intense reading of three American poets: Phillips, Graham, and Bidart. Linked if only by the powerful influence they’ve cast upon contemporary American poetry, we’ll move through the whole bodies of each poet, from their earliest poems to their latest contributions, attempting to tease out what, perhaps, they “hardly knew” they saw, they felt, or believed—at least, until they did. We’ll track each poet’s unfolding ideas, obsessions, images, arguments—their “visions”—and, importantly, also consider how these visions may have shifted, relaxed, come by way of different strategies, assume different voices—that is, all the ways their visions, from book to book, have been revised. To what degree is any poet aware of their (re)visionary practice? Is it a thing one should know? This course focused on close readings of the poems, as well as the occasional critical essay or other supplementary media. Each student conceived of and wrote one long poem, as a way of putting into action some ideas raised in our discussions, delivered in sections over the course of the semester, and leading up to a significant revision by the course’s end.

Queering Poetics, Queering Form

Since at least the mid-1990s, "queer" has emerged as a socio-political and theoretical framework set in opposition to the normative, "stable" or strictly binary. In 2016, then, what might it mean to write a poetics queerly, to insist upon a queer reading of a text or, indeed, to queer a form? In this workshop, these questions and more will be rigorously explored. We'll sharpen our critical skills through very close readings of a selection of published poems and essays, as well as the work of workshop participants. There will be both in-class and at-home writing assignments, and small group activities. Among the still-evolving list of authors and artists we'll potentially discuss include contemporary queer poets, such as Robin Coste Lewis, Frank Bidart, Ari Banias, Marilyn Hacker and Carl Phillips; historical queer voices, such as Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Virginia Woolf and Ma Rainey; and, finally, figures who, although they may or may not themselves identify as queer, produce or produced work that arguably still “queers” or "troubles" the very notion of the poem or a given poetic form, such as Douglas Kearney, Robert Hayden, Cathy Park Hong and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Potential participants should arrive not so much ready to toss what perceptions, conventions or ideas they have of the poem/poetic form out of their thinking, as much as be prepared to turn those perceptions, conventions and ideas on their heads, in-side out, out-of-sorts, to pervert them into some productive "new" space or, as Roger Reeves perhaps more succinctly puts it, to allow some "iron bars" to "queer a field."