Introduction to Poetry

Doing Things With Poems: An Introduction


A first date, a job interview, a new class in school: each of these experiences can be painful or promising, depending on how we approach it. The same is true of poetry. Many of us who have had unpleasant first encounters with poetry cite the intentionally vague and difficult qualities of the poems we have read. The truth is, we can’t blame the poem for our boredom. A poem offers interesting, quirky, and surprising insights, most of which are tied to its structure and form. The reader’s fault often lies in asking, “What does this poem mean?” instead of taking the more productive approach, “What do I first notice about this poem?” This course will enhance your understanding of poetry by teaching you to look for the ways that a poem’s figurative language, tone, sound, and structure convey meaning. At the end of the course, you will understand that there is not a “deeper” meaning we should seek beneath the surface of the poem, but rather that the poem’s meaning is inextricable from its form. That is, the meaning is right there on the surface. You will emerge from this class a confident and astute reader of poetry, even seeking it out and enjoying its pleasures beyond the classroom. Using Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry anthology, we will read a range of poems from Renaissance England to contemporary America, with an eye toward formal considerations such as meter, repetition, and narrative or lyric structure. We will also analyze irony and sentiment to understand the ways a poem’s tone can resonate with readers. Short papers, in-class writing assignments, projects that analyze the William Blake Archive and other digital repositories of poetry, and lively class discussions and readings of poetry will foster your critical thinking and equip you for many more pleasant encounters with poems.