Literature Courses

Fall 2020 Courses


M 3:30-6:00
Instructor: Lauren Mason
In essence, this course is an introduction to the history of visual culture. We will
examine the relationship between images and written narratives, the impact of visual
technology on how we read, and how images “speak.” We will also explore the
ethical, social, and political issues that arise when visual technology is used to
illuminate the lives of others. You will become familiar with influential thinkers who
have made significant contributions to visual studies (Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag,
John Berger, W.J.T. Mitchell, and Walter Benjamin), and we will consider emerging
discussions that address digital visual technology and social media. Our reading list
includes novels and films that integrate visual technology and photographic language
(Terry Pratchett’s The Truth, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Fernando Meirelle’s City
of God, Middleton Harris’s The Black Book, David Simon’s The Wire). We will also
examine online news articles, photographic essays, and exhibits that attempt to find
new and creative ways to represent the lives of others to a global audience.
T 11-1:30 
Professor Manya Lempert
This course introduces students to the history and theory of tragedy. In the first third of the course, we will read the classical tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca. We'll take stock of the “ancient quarrel” between tragedy and philosophy, in which Plato calls literature morally dangerous. We will consider how ancient tragedies represent race, gender, empire, self-knowledge, autonomy, tyranny, love, disability, war, and family. In the next third of the course, we will see how later writers have viewed, inherited, and reimagined tragedy (for instance, Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett). Reading philosophy and critical theory, we will focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers who conceived of tragedy as the genre of modernity. Finally, in the last third of the course we will consider literary tragedy as a global phenomenon; tragedy’s relation to dystopian, postcolonial, and apocalyptic   literatures; and tragedy’s contemporary resonances for thinking about climate catastrophe.
W 9-11:30
Professor John Melillo

In this class, we will examine the ways in which the field of sound studies can help us answer questions about the work of sound in literature. Sound studies is an interdisciplinary formation that traces the theory and practice of listening. The field combines literature, poetics, music, performance, film studies, linguistics, acoustics, environmental studies, recording arts, history, philosophy, and more in order to show how listening is not only a cultural artifact—a product of contextual practices, technologies, and rituals—but also a form of inquiry. For this course, then, we will ask: How do the close and distant ways of listening opened up to us through sound studies help us to rethink literary texts and their aesthetics of sound? And, conversely, how does sound studies help us uncover the literary and rhetorical effects embedded within organizations of sound—from city soundscapes to pop song recordings? Answering these questions will necessitate a sonic reckoning with the concepts at the heart of contemporary critical study: aesthetics and politics, race and personhood, voice and community, the environment and knowledge-production. 

In a contemporary world in which sonic information and surveillance are proliferating for pleasure and profit, listening has become an ever more refined tool for objectifying cultural practices. This class will emphasize how writing is implicated within this process while also opening up new forms for defamiliarizing sound and tracing its otherness. We will read, listen to, and think with a wide array of sound writing: lyric poetry, sound poetry, essays, notebooks, experimental audio, elocution manuals, concrete music, songs, ballads, sound descriptions, performance art, extended and improvised musical forms, sound walks, soundscape studies, poetry readings, and more. Specific texts will range from Sappho to Susan Howe, Alexander Pope to Public Enemy. 


W 3:30-6:00
Professor Susan White
This is a course on the films of Stanley Kubrick.  We will also consider several sources for the films’ adaptations.  By means of close reading and in the context of film theory and history, we will cover most of Kubrick’s films. We will read Nabokov’s Lolita, Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, King’s The Shining, Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (excerpts), Hasford’s The Short-Timers and Schnitzler’s Dream Story. Students can expect an intensive study of Kubrick’s films.  One major goal of the class is to learn to translate complex visual images to the written word via the specific terminology of cinema studies. Another goal is to improve student pedagogy of cinema in his or her own classes. Students will have weekly writing assignments as described below, write midterm and final papers and present at least once to the class on readings and/or their work.
Th 2-4:30
Professor Jennifer Jenkins

This course in Humanities and Social Sciences research methods and approaches to interdisciplinary literary study is a toolkit for work in this discipline. We will engage with the steps of developing a research question, literature review, and scholarly argument, while exploring the holdings of local physical archives and digital archives globally. Archivists from UA Special Collections and Literature Subject Librarian Niamh Wallace will work closely with us to discover a variety of primary sources, from illuminated manuscripts to maps to early print books to pamphlets to serials and zines to book arts, chapbooks, graphic novels, and film.  While this is not a literary theory course, theories of text, archive, and authorship will inevitably play a role in our investigations as students learn to distinguish different kinds of scholarly evidence. As part of constructing an argument, we will examine the usefulness of methodologies and discourses from other disciplines, among them history, visual cultures, film and adaptation studies, and cultural geography.  Critical approaches to text and analysis will be surveyed from major 20th century methodologies to notable 21st century digital humanities projects in prosopography and data-mining as a trend in textual criticism.

Students will develop a research project over the course of the semester, culminating in a seminar essay that may be mined for conference presentations or expanded into a journal article in future.  Students should identify a topic area before the semester begins; I would be happy to discuss and consult at any time before the semester begins.



T 3:30-6:00
Professor Lynda Zwinger

"The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” --Virginia Woolf “

Narrative knowledge is what one uses to understand the meaning and significance of stories through cognitive, symbolic, and affective means.” -- Rita Charon The homepage of Columbia University’s Division of Narrative Medicine declares: The Division of Narrative Medicine fortifies clinical practice by training practitioners to recognize, interpret, and glean insights relevant to patient care and clinician performance from the study of humanities, the arts, and creative work. Narrative Medicine helps physicians, nurses, social workers, mental health professionals, chaplains, academics, and everyone interested in person-centered, respectful health care to deepen their self-awareness, clinical attunement, collaborative skills, and creative capacities through rigorous narrative training and practices. In the current historical moment, English Departments find themselves battling for resources in an increasingly neoliberal corporatized institutional matrix and subjected to near-constant exhortation to justify the discipline of literary study and its fundamental methodologies, close reading and writing. Concurrently, firmly based on those very methodologies, the interdisciplinary field of Narrative Medicine, founded by Dr. Rita Charon, a literature PhD and medical doctor, expands and grows nationally and internationally, proposing to revolutionize the quality of health care via the integration of formal training in those skills. What claims about close reading and writing are made by Narrative Medicine? What improvements in patient diagnosis and treatment are established by the study and acquisition of skills learned and practiced in literature classrooms? This introductory course will explore these questions. We will survey the current conversation within and about Narrative Medicine, investigate the theory and practice of psychoanalysis as a possible precursor to the work of Narrative Medicine, hone our own close reading skills, and practice both analytical and reflective writing in conversation with our texts. You need not be in the MA/PhD in English program to register for the course.

001 W 1:30-4:00
Professor Lynda Zwinger
Transitional Office Building
Post-Comps writing group
002 S 12-5:00
Professor Lynda Zwinger
Transitional Office Building
Open to all; post-Comps may register for credit on arrangement

Required for first year students; meets every other week. “How to graduate-student.”

Meets every other week; preparation of application materials, approaches to the process, all career paths. 

Upcoming Spring 2021 Courses

TTh 9:30-10:45
Professor Roger Dahood
English 527 has two main goals: one, to introduce students to the most admired (and sometimes problematic) parts of The Canterbury Tales and, two, to give students opportunity to familiarize themselves in depth with one or more of the assigned parts and its attendant scholarship. The class will be interdisciplinary in spirit, relying on a range of scholarly/critical tools, including close reading and historical, linguistic, and art historical resources. At the end of the semester in consultation with me students will turn in a conference-length paper timed for twenty minutes’ oral delivery. I will give a final examination at the time scheduled by the registrar.
Professor Kyle DiRoberto
Monday, 6-8:30 live online

This course will examine constructions of the body in early modern texts. Our consideration of bodies will not be limited to what Kantorowicz terms “the body natural.” We will examine constructions of the body politic and of early modern bodies of knowledge. We’ll ask how epistemological anxieties about dislocations of those bodies became displaced onto a gendered and racialized corpus. For example, cultural disruptions and fear of the unknown were frequently acted out on the female body; she was treated as the site of incommensurateness between interior and exterior (the damned soul in the beguiling body), treated as the sign of mis-interpretability (an embodiment of all the deceiving confusion of the period), and therefore as the threat that must be controlled, silenced, destroyed, or married.

What was the relation of the body to the early modern state? To God, desire, political economy, and subjectivity? What was the relation of the body to representation and language? To the order of things?

Your work in the course will include participation in class discussions, a 20-minute presentation to the class, and either biweekly short papers (3 pp maximum), or 2 conference-length papers (~ 8pp), or a conference-length paper and an article-length paper (17-25 pages). For those choosing conference or article-length papers, we will work together to identify appropriate publication venues.

001 W 1:30-3:00

Professor Lynda Zwinger

Transitional Office Building

Post-Comps writing group


002 S 12-5:00

Professor Lynda Zwinger

Transitional Office Building

Open to all; post-Comps may register for credit on arrangement

Required for first year students; meets every other week. “How to graduate-student.”


Meets every other week; preparation of application materials, approaches to the process, all career paths. 

Th 2-4:30
Professor Suresh Raval

This seminar will focus on Conrad’s major fiction, especially Heart of DarknessLord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes with a view to exploring their significance for modernism. The course will discuss, among other things, several essays by Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and Virginia Woolf dealing with the emergence of various innovations that herald the era of modernism in early twentieth century fiction. Careful attention will be given to discussions of modernism by recent art historians as well as literary critics. Although the seminar will be oriented towards close readings of his works from the perspective of modernism, there will be occasional fuller discussions of the historical, social, and political implications that continue to make Conrad a formidable presence today. Almost unique among his contemporaries, Conrad provokes reflection on transnational, post-national, and international issues, and so this seminar will inevitably deal with these aspects of his fiction. Students signing up for this seminar will find it useful to have read Nostromo, arguably his most difficult and powerful novel, before the semester begins. Knowledge of some works by Ford, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf will be helpful in capturing the importance of Conrad as a modernist. Assignments will include in-class presentations, a term-paper, and an omnibus summary account of some recent scholarly studies.

W 9-11:30
Professor Johanna Skisbsrud

This course will consider a wide range of works by Samuel Beckett in light of both his own postcolonial political engagements and contemporary social, cultural and critical theory. Analysis of Beckett's dark humor, theatrical modernism, and postmodern critique of the object will support a deep inquiry into the nature of the geographical, political, and conceptual borders we define and are defined by. Readings will include a wide selection of Beckett’s fiction, non-fiction, poems and plays, as well as plays by writers, such as Tom Stoppard and Suzan-Lori Parks, who acknowledge Beckett as a key influence. Major critics and contexts we’ll be exploring alongside Beckett’s work will include Susan Sontag (“Godot comes to Sarajevo”), Fred Moten (From Stolen Life), Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (from Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature), Martin Esslin (from Absurd Drama) and John Calder (from The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett).  

Framing our discussion will be a consideration of the contemporary production, Beckett is a Woman, which premiered at London’s Pleasance Theatre on November 11, 2020. Not wanting to wait any longer -- until 2059 when (70 years after Beckett’s death) it will become legal to cast a woman in a production of Waiting for Godot -- the clown theatre company, Silent Faces, has created their own production that explores the implicit and explicit boundaries of gender, selfhood, and creative expression. The new production draws attention to the literary, political, and ontological implications of the race and gender restrictions imposed by the Beckett estate in an effort to remain faithful to author’s wishes and the original text. It offers a direct challenge to the idea that, as director Jack Wakely puts it, “the only person who can be an everyman character has to be a man. That if you put somebody else in that role, the play becomes about the fact that they’re not a man, as opposed to the fact that it’s about existence.”   

Wakely’s comments will provide a touchstone for this course as we ask, what does it means to read, write, and think “about existence” today? How we might best take up, expand, and adapt the call to self-reflexive thought and action Beckett expresses—so poignantly and so ironically—in Waiting for Godot? “But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!” 

Students should expect to write weekly response papers, engage actively in class discussion, present a 15-20 minute seminar paper and submit a final research paper (which may emerge and/or be developed from the seminar presentation).  

W 3:30-6:00
Professor Tenney Nathanson


 “The longer you look the more you see”

Back in the heyday of the (old) new criticism, the apocryphal story goes, a graduate student in Cleanth Brooks’ seminar at Yale who could endure no more lurched up out of his seat and huffed toward the door.  “Where are you going?” the professor asked.  “Away to read everything you’ve read, so I can come back here and pretend like you I haven’t read it.”

In this seminar we’ll also try to pretend: not to know what we know about the historical period or style to which the particular poem we are engaged with belongs; not to believe that there is no such thing as a purely “intrinsic” reading of a text; not to care too much when our own particular ignorance of the writer or school in question is leading us down one or another slippery slope as we propose a reading.

The course will try to bracket such questions in order to focus on the crucial skill of close reading.  Close analysis of single poems, detached from their multiple contexts, may have its drawbacks as a critical practice (or may in fact be strictly impossible to perform); but it may have important virtues as an exercise.

The wager of the course, that is, is that several of us could use (and might enjoy) a seminar in which we focus on the skills involved in close reading, temporarily blocking out, as best we can, all the Weighty Issues on which graduate seminars typically focus.  And also: that a semester spent on developing (or reviving) such skill and tact in our engagement with individual facets of individual texts will have a positive, nuancing effect on our individual critical practice, whatever critical school we set up shop in. While the course will focus exclusively on poetry, a few tools from the bag of tricks, several skills, and more broadly a habit of attention should all be transferable to work with prose as well.

There’s no escape from theory, of course.  And as we proceed through the semester, we may increasingly find a place for “theory of the lyric.”  We’ll try to refine our sense of how to deploy old new critical categories such as speaker, situation, and trope, and we’ll bring such more recently prized (or revived) notions as speech act, performative utterance, apostrophe, prosopopoeia, and kosmos to bear on our readings of individual texts and supplement the older formal vocabulary of “enjambment” and “caesura” with such more recently fashionable rhetorical notions as “metalepsis” and “catachresis.”  But while we’ll tackle some brief texts in theory of the lyric to accompany our reading of primary texts, we’ll treat them as useful tools, asking how they can help us to open up individual poems.

Since this is a methods course, students won’t write lengthy papers, or read an awful lot; reading will be intensive rather than extensive, and time spent writing will probably outweigh that spent reading.  Seminar participants will read a few (strategically selected) poems each week (and occasionally some theoretical texts of the kind mentioned above) and will write frequent, perhaps weekly, close readings of individual poems, explicating the whole but making particular use of the problem and “tool” currently under discussion. 

The early 3-D comics, from the fifties, used to have a little box-logo on the cover, reprinted as epigraph above.  While it may remind some older readers unhappily of the days in which professors used to remark, with only apparently self-deprecating irony, that they could explicate (at length) a shopping list (if pressed), it may also suggest that, in theoretically driven as well as so called “practical” criticism, a more nuanced habit of attention and a willingness to hover (obsessively) over difficult or puzzling moments in a text are rarely bad things. 


T 2-4:30
Professor Ragini Srinivasan

This graduate seminar in Asian/American literature offers students an institutional history and a survey of canonical texts, grounded in key debates that motor contemporary scholarship within the field. We will read central works of 20th and 21st century Asian/American literature, including fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry, along with relevant social theory, literary criticism, cultural studies, and visual media. In the first half of the 20th century, Asian/American literary writers like Carlos Bulosan, Jade Snow Wong, and Dhan Gopal Mukerji saw themselves as, in Elaine Kim’s terms, “ambassadors of goodwill to the West.” Their task was to translate Asia for audiences in the United States, which they did through the writing of autobiographical texts and memoirs. Fictions by mid-century Asian/American writers including Maxine Hong Kingston and Bharati Mukherjee complicated the relationship between the functions of ambassadorship, translation, and representation in the Asian/American literary text. In exploring both Asian/American nonfictions and fictions, we will ask the following questions: In what ways might the field of Asian/American literature be constructed as or through a necessary fiction? What if we learned to read Asian/American literary texts with the expectation that they specifically do not or cannot do the work of representing Asian/American subjects? We will read Asian/American literary mediations of immigration and narratives of ethnic assimilation, along with contemporary diasporic and ethnic texts that grapple with the changing geopolitical contexts of American decline and Asia’s rise.


 Spring 2020 Courses

W 6:30-9 PM
Instructor: Homer Pettey

This course surveys the English language from its origins to the present day.  Using literature and global media, this course traces the roots and structures of Anglo-Saxon with Beowulf, Middle English with Chaucer, early Modern English with Shakespeare, and contemporary English with literature, film, and television series from England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, and Nigeria.  Additionally, we will explore the development of the book in English, the rise of print media, the first English dictionaries, and the growing field of lexicography.  Short papers assignments will constitute the majority of the work for this course.

Note: Graduate students who foresee teaching an English literature survey at the college level in their future employment need this course to demonstrate their competency.

Th 3:30-6 PM
Instructor: Lee Medovoi

Capitalism, we are told, is the only viable framework we have ever developed for modern human life. It has steadily enveloped more of the world and insinuated itself ever more deeply into our everyday existence from the sixteenth century onward. And yet, capitalism has always been accompanied by a palpable sense of impending social, political, economic and environmental crisis. On what basis can we critically examine the forms of life and the historical trajectories of sociality, culture and subjectivity that capitalism continuously creates and recreates? This class will work through the Marxist tradition for approaching these questions. As arguably the richest and more sophisticated tradition of critical thought we have for thinking about capitalist modernity, marxist insights and approaches have been engaged by critical scholars working in disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. What are the marxist tradition's key strengths and weaknesses? has marxism been thought and rethought as a means of investigating the predicaments of capitalist modernity?

We will begin with a detailed examination of Karl Marx’s own work, including his conceptions of historical materialism, the mode of production, capital and labor, the state and civil society, ideology, base and superstructure, the commodity-form, world history, alienation and expropriation. From there, we will skip ahead to various recent (i.e. late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century) revisions and challenges to his modes of analysis. Along the way we may explore marxism’s intersections with the study of race/racism, postcolonial theory, feminism, immaterial labor, art and culture, ideology/common sense, and nature/environment. Authors whose work we may read include Lous Althusser, Moishe Postone, Sylvia Federici, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Cedric Robinson, Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek, Antonio Negri, Jason Moore, Frederic Jameson, Mark Fisher, and others.

M 6:30-9 PM
Homer Pettey

This graduate course will be devoted to reading modern and contemporary works by Nobel Laureates of the English-speaking world from England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Africa, and the Caribbean.  We will examine how these authors made major creative contributions to world literature and to the international reception of their nations’ literary arts.  This course will emphasize the relationship of global modernism to traditional arts and performance, as well as to the construction of cultural myths of place and identity.  We will observe how authors forge new theoretical reflections on gender, race, class, and post-colonialism.

Much of our close reading of these texts will involve the aesthetics of the authors’ craft and how they transformed their genres.  For poetry, we will examine innovations in style, sound, and voice by selected authors, among them: William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott.  For drama, we will explore the theatrical experiments of George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Wole Soyinka, and Harold Pinter.  For short fiction and novels, we will analyze the construction of narrative, cultural themes, and the dynamics of the point-of-view in works by world-renowned authors, such as: Rudyard Kipling, Patrick White, William Golding, Nadine Gordimer, V. S. Naipaul, J. M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, and Kazuo Ishiguro.  A final paper will be the major requirement for this course.

Note: These authors appear on the M.A. examination list.

M 3:30-6 PM
Instructor: Scott Selisker

This course will introduce students to major texts and current critical methods in 20th-century U.S. literary studies, with a focus on the novel and prose nonfiction. We’ll cover texts and authors on the MA reading list while surveying recent scholarship that will provide good models for doctoral-level research questions and methods. We’ll place some emphasis on the relationships between new media technologies and literature across the century, but the course will also provide a firm foundation in major movements, periods, and topics in the field. Likely authors: Theodor Dreiser, W.E.B. Du Bois, William Faulkner, Nella Larsen, Patricia Highsmith, Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joan Didion, Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison, Chang Rae Lee, David Foster Wallace. Students will deliver a short presentation, write an academic book review, and write a seminar paper.

W (alternating with the Job Search Workshop)  12:00-12:50 PM

Instructor: Lynda Zwinger

The colloquium provides an exchange of information about professional studies, the Graduate Literature Program, and the English Department.  In a small group setting, first-year students discuss strategies for academic success, opportunities for professional development, engagement with learning communities in and beyond the university, and balancing myriad roles while earning an advanced degree in English.  Attendance is required of all first-year students; other interested graduate students are welcome to join us for any of the classes.  Instruction will include presentation by faculty, returning students in the Program, and other members of the university community.

W (alternating with the First Year Colloquium)    12:00-12:50 PM

Instructor: Lynda Zwinger

This workshop is open to any PhD student who has completed the comprehensive exams and is planning to enter the academic job market. Ideally, students will take the workshop one year in advance of applying for jobs so that they can prepare and revise all materials required for the search. Each class will focus on a different aspect of the application process. Students will critique drafts of C.V.s, cover letters, dissertation abstracts, and teaching philosophies. We will also discuss letters of recommendation, preparing a dossier, unpacking job ads, teaching portfolios, writing samples, MLA interviews, phone interviews, campus visits, and negotiating an offer. Students who plan to attend the MLA convention may choose to participate in a mock interview with English Department faculty at the end of the semester.

Members of the workshop and anyone who is applying for an academic position will be subscribed to the Department's placement listserv. Participants may post questions, discuss ideas, and read information pertaining to the job search.


T 2-4:30 PM

Instructor: Suresh Raval

This seminar will focus on major texts of postcolonial studies, with a view to exploring issues at stake in contemporary discussions of colonial and postcolonial cultures and politics. We will discuss Fanon, Said, Spivak, Bhabha, Hall, Appadurai, Mbembe, Cheah, Chakrabarty, among other theorists and critics. Although the seminar will attempt to cover an extensive terrain—orientalism, politics of location, subaltern studies, feminism and postcolonial studies, identity politics, nation and nationalism, diasporic cultures and nativism, ethnicity, and globalization—the goal will be to explore important concepts intensively. For illustrative analytical purposes we will draw upon the works of Kipling, Conrad, Foster, Naipaul, Achebe, Kincaid, Rushdie, Ngugi, and Hamid. For fuller discussions the class will focus on Heart of DarknessLucy, Disgrace, and The White Tiger. Context permitting we will discuss relations of postcolonial theory with New Historicism, Marxism and Cultural Studies. Course requirements will include two short in-class presentations and a final seminar paper.

M 12:45-3:15 PM
Instructor: Lauren Mason

This course is an advanced introduction to African-American literature. We will examine major works by African-American writers, intellectuals, and artists from early slave narratives to the twenty-first century. We will discuss rhetorical strategies and tropes associated with African-American literature, and we will examine the academic discourse surrounding African-American literature. Because African-American literature is deeply tied to cultural, sociopolitical, and historical issues that impact Black Americans, we will devote considerable time to mapping out the historical contexts surrounding African-American literature, art, and criticism.

This course is designed for students who are interested in learning more about African-American literature, no matter how extensive their background knowledge of African-American literature. In other words, this course is designed to accommodate students who are not familiar with African-American literature (or culture) as well as students who are familiar with African-American literature (or culture). It is advanced in that we will approach the work with maturity and intellectual rigor; it is introductory in that it is designed to move you through African-American literature and criticism slowly and carefully so you can learn and ask questions as we progress.

Some of the authors we will examine (complete reading list will be available later): Olaudah Equiano, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Ovington, Franz Boas, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, John Edgar Wideman, Hortense Spillers, Toni Morrison.


W 3:30-6 PM
Instructor: Tenney Nathanson
This seminar will attend to the recurrent fascination in American poetry with a poetics of improvisation or “process”: the poem as an unfolding exploration that pushes against (and often past) any single formulation or completed form, adjusting its provisional procedures and models as it makes room for the unexpected, encountered en route. We’ll put this tradition in American poetry into conversation with Jamesian pragmatism, a defining tradition in American philosophy shaped by American literature and shaping it in turn. We’ll also be reading some poets whose work seems skeptical of the arguably liberatory potential of “open form” (and American liberalism).
I’m hoping the course can serve at once as: a survey of major American poetry (with an eye toward MA and PhD exams); a “special topics” interrogation of a key element in American (and modern and postmodern) writing; and an MFA-program-friendly exploration of a body of poetry that ought to be immensely useful for poets today. (We’ll glance at notions of romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism, though wedging them apart won’t be a course goal.)
We’ll probably read several of the following (and maybe a couple of poets not on this list): Whitman, Dickinson; Pound, Williams, Moore, Stevens, Eliot; O’Hara, Ashbery, Whalen; Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Norman Fischer, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Lisa Jarnot, Haryette Mullen, Erica Hunt, Julie Ezelle Patton, Magdalena Zurawski. (We’ll end up with a list of roughly 8-12 poets; for contemporary work, we may maximize the number of writers by trimming the number of poems per poet.) We’ll also spend some time with William James’s crucial book Pragmatism, a couple of Emerson’s germinal essays, and a bit of Kenneth Burke. Other writers or critical tendencies we’re fairly likely to bump into through short readings (as useful): Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Jameson, Shunryo Suzuki, assemblage theory, object oriented ontology . . .
Course requirements:
For Literature students: either several short papers or the typical conference-length/article-length sequence. (Some imitations, “experiments,” or original poems can also be worked in.)
For MFA students: a combination of short critical essays, imitations or “experiments,” and your own creative work (which we’ll place in dialogue with the poets we’re reading in the course), in roughly equal proportions.
For students from other programs: negotiable.
Questions: please email me at or set up an appointment to come in and chat.