Monday, November 21, 2016

Thinking About Theory (One Last Time)

Thinking About Theory (One Last Time)

Remember, Theory isn’t some abstract thing that only academics use or something that exists (and rots) in a jar. A theory is, as Culler defines it, “a contesting of premises and postulates, what you thought you knew…You reflect on your reading in new ways. You have different questions to ask and a better sense of the implications of the questions you put to the works you read” (16). That means it’s simply a way of articulating ideas and perspectives that might otherwise go unnoticed in a literary work. In general, a theory should be an idea that goes against ‘common sense’ notions and helps us see what is not obvious or expected (though, to be fair, what is not obvious to you might be obvious to someone else, which is why I try to avoid talking about “depth” in literature). That said, a theory should be something that gives you a light bulb moment so you say, “oh, I never thought about it like that before!”

Some theories we’ve discussed that work well with Shakespeare and the Harlem Renaissance writers:
  • Chapters 4,5,7, & 8 in Culler: these are chapters about how poetry and language works and creates a persona, how literature creates identity for readers and writers. Crucial for thinking about any of these poets and why we continue to read them. Each chapter contains several “theories” in it, so you only need to use part of a given chapter as your lens.
  • Greenblatt, “The Circulation of Social Energy”: this talks about how the historical and cultural moment creates and shapes literature. No work is solely the work of its authors—the historical moment is an active co-author. That’s why we can talk about a “Harlem Renaissance” as a school of thought: they were responding to their culture and society in a unified (if individually diverse) manner.
  • Essays in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader: writers such as Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Hughes worked hard to create theories and perspectives for their people to follow. Hughes’ own poetry is shaped by his theoretical ideas, as we see here. However, these ideas can also shed light on how Shakespeare wrote and thought: he, too, defined himself against a majority group and felt that his writing should reflect a theoretical ideal of “race” (though his race was more a class—though actors/writers were almost seen as an inferior race in that time).
  • Marx/Communist Manifesto: the idea of class constructions being the most important way to read history and society profoundly shapes how we read literature. You could argue that both Shakespeare and writers like McKay or Hughes are really writing about class inequality. Marx provides us a historical lens with which to make sense of the struggle of writers writing against power and privilege.
  • Fetterly/Feminism: her notion of American literature being “male” by default, and forcing readers to identify with a male identity is important to reading older literature in general. You could examine how the identity shaped by Shakespeare and Cullen (for example) is inherently male and robs women of their own expression (the “Dark Lady” sonnets seem to equate femininity with falsehood). Or, you could argue that Shakespeare writes from a position of subjectivity and inferiority, allowing him to better identify with a female ethos. The same could be argue of all the Harlem Renaissance writers—and not just the women.

Critical Paper #2/Paper Abstract

Critical Paper #2/Paper Abstract

An Abstract is a short paper (1-2 pages) that briefly outlines an approach to a given paper or topic. It should give a theoretical framework for discussing a writer or theme, and should briefly explain what works you intend to discuss. It doesn’t have to have an ironclad thesis, but should clearly state your intention, interest, and assumptions. It’s okay to say “I hope to find X in the works of Y,” or “I want to explore the connection between X and Y,” but avoid phrases like “I want to use Culler’s theories to find different ideas between several of the authors in class.” For example, the abstract below is for an article I published earlier this year in Oklahoma Humanities:

I would like to propose an article on the "It's a Mystery" theme for the Winter/January 2016 edition of Oklahoma Humanities.  The article would be entitled (tentatively) “M.R. James’ Warning to the Curious.”  James is a largely-forgotten (but still widely admired) early 20th century writer of ghost stories who envisioned the terrors of the hidden world where we least expected to find them—in the raw material of daily existence. In a short essay written toward the end of his life entitled "The Malice of Inanimate Objects," he writes,

“there [are] days, dreadful days, on which we have had to acknowledge with gloomy resignation that our world has turned against us.  I do not mean the human world of our relations and friends…[but] the wrong of things that do not speak or work or hold congresses and conferences.  It includes such beings as the collar stud, the inkstand, the fire, the razor, and…the extra step on the staircase which leads you either to expect or to not expect it.” 

For James, true horror resided in modern life itself, which we assume is well-ordered, reasoned, and devoid of messy superstition.  Yet we are constantly stepping over cracks and avoiding ladders, since the old world manifests itself through the most mundane means to remind us that magic still exists; that is, the power of the human imagination to populate our world with angels and demons.  In James’ stories, he creates terrors where we least expect to find them, and reminds us that human nature is never conquered.  To quote Goya, “the sleep of reason produces monsters,” and the 20th century produced some spectacular ghouls—all while reason dozed in a dream of progress.   

On the last week of class, bring a 1-2 page abstract to read to the class (you don’t need to bring copies for everyone). I want everyone to hear your theoretical approach to the texts and what you hope to explore. This way, we can give you feedback and you might even inspire your fellow classmates. Please feel free to e-mail me a draft of your abstract early if you want feedback or if you feel like you’ve hit a dead end. NOTE: I will not let you turn in the final paper until you present an abstract in class. This is to help you and make sure you’re on the right track (it’s not punishment). So please let me—and the class—help. Don’t skip class and just turn in a paper on the due date.

Critical Paper #2: Theoretical Perspectives

Critical Paper #2: Theoretical Perspectives

“Are they being called upon to “preach”? To be “salesmen”? To “prostitute” their writing? Must they “sully” themselves? Must they write “propaganda”? No; it is a question of awareness, of consciousness; it is above all, a question of perspective.” (Wright, Blueprint for Negro Writing)

In Chapter 7 of Culler’s text, “Performative Language,” he reminds us that “no one would have ever thought of being in love if they hadn’t read about it in books, and the notion of romantic love (and of its centrality to the lives of individuals) is arguably a massive literary creation…literature is not frivolous pseudo-statements, but takes it places among the acts of language that transform the world, bringing into being the things that they name” (96). As Wright’s quote suggests above, to write is to be aware that what you write changes people’s perspectives as they read it. To be unaware of your audience as a poet in a specific historical context is to not be a writer at all—or as he later says, to be “a lost victim in a world he cannot understand or control” (201). Writing is about control, or at least about shaping the chaotic stuff of life into something that appears to have order, coherence, and meaning.

RESPONSE: So, for your Second Critical Paper, I want you to explore how both Shakespeare and at least one other Harlem Renaissance poet create a “perspective” and an identity in their work. How is each one consciously creating a sense of self that might not have existed previous to the poems’ existence? What related theories, ideas, values, sexualities, biases, and beliefs are they encoding into their works? Likewise, what theories or critical ideas can “uncover” each poet’s theoretical perspective on being a poet in a very specific historical moment? You might also consider how other writers would start thinking about writing—and writing themselves—based on the perspectives of these poems. In other words, how do these poems create ideas and the perspectives that we now take for granted?

THEORY: For this paper, you must use a specific theory to guide your discussion and help you examine and link these disparate poets. Your theory could be a single chapter from Culler (Chs.5, 7, and 8), since each chapter binds together related theories and theorists. Or, you can choose an actual theorist—Greenblatt, Marx, Foucault, Butler, etc. I will give you a few handouts over the next few weeks from many of these writers. You are also welcome to find your own theorist/book based on ideas in Culler or something we’ve discussed in class (note that on page 139, Culler includes a “Further Reading” for each chapter, which highlights specific theorists).

ABSTRACT: On the last week of classes, I want you to present a short abstract to the class—3-5 minutes or so—which explains your general approach to the assignment. What theory are you using and why, what poems, and what do you think it will help you reveal about the perspective/identity of each poet? You will also turn this into me so I can look it over and give you feedback. We will discuss writing the abstract in class in a week or two.

REQUIREMENTS: Page limit is up to you, but use common sense. J Must use a few poems from each poet, and not merely one from Shakespeare and one from Hughes, for example. Close reading is paramount, both in the poems and the theory. Introduce the theory before you use it and make sure your audience understands it. Then use it as a lens for your reading. DUE ON OUR FINAL EXAM DAY, WEDNESDAY DEC.7th by 5pm

Saturday, November 19, 2016

For Monday: Last Readings--Johnson and Toomer

"You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ." (Johnson)

For Monday's class, read the following poems, our last readings for the semester:

* Johnson, "The White Witch," "The Color Sergeant," "O Black and Unknown Bards," "Go Down Death," "The Creation"
* Toomer, "Song of the Son," "Georgia Dusk," "The Blue Meridian"

Both Toomer and Johnson wanted to go beyond conventional European poetry and find something that reflected another language of race or identity. Johnson tried to tap into the deep well of folklore, writing poetry that shared in the language of the spirituals; Toomer, on the other hand, sought a mythic identity that ultimately transcended racial identity. As you read these powerful poems, consider the following ideas...

* As a non-believer, Johnson did not share the simple, naive faith of the spirituals--and yet he was deeply moved by them. Why do you think he evokes their sound and imagery throughout these poems? Why write of what you don't believe? 

* How does "O Black and Unknown Bards" echo Cullen's poem, "Yet Do I Marvel"? What question is each one asking, and what answers does Johnson provide? Related to this, why might this be a profoundly Marxist poem that echoes many of the sentiments of Hughes' late poems?

* How might "The White Witch" be a commentary on Harlem itself? Why might it foredoom the fate and optimism of the Renaissance?

* Toomer makes the opposite pilgrimage as many of the Renaissance poets: from Washington D.C., he returns to the South to find 'civilization' there. According to "Song of the Son," what does he find there? Can black poets of the Renaissance find an identity in the South many of them--or their parents--fled from?

* How might "Georgia Dusk" also be a version of "O Black and Unknown Bards"? Again, what inspires his own poetry in this very simple, yet timeless, atmosphere?

* How is "The Blue Meridian" an indictment of the city and of modern civilization itself? Why does he claim that modern man/woman, "cannot mix with the stuff upon our boards/As water with flour to make bread"? 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

For Friday: Poems by Claude McKay (pp.289-298)

For Friday, read the following poems by Claude McKay:

* If We Must Die
* Baptism
* The White House
* The Negro's Friend
* On a Primitive Canoe
* The Tropics in New York
* When Dawn Comes to the City 
* The Desolate City 
* The Harlem Dancer

[The two post-Harlem poems, Saint Isaac's Church, and Barcelona, are optional] 

Claude McKay is an interesting character, since he emigrated from Jamaica, where he made his name as a dialect poet (writing in Jamaican English). Here is a few lines from one of his dialect poems (not included in this anthology, since most were written pre-Harlem or else because they were judged as insufficiently universal):


De mo' me wuk, de mo' time hard,
    I don't know what fe do;
I ben' me knee an' pray to Gahd,
     Yet t'ings same as befo.'

De taxes knocking' at me door,
     I hear de bailiff's v'ice;
Me wife is sick, can't get no cure,
     But gnawing' me like mice...

Since he was a true outsider, McKay remained very critical of both America and the Harlem Renaissance, though he was an important figure in the movement. However, his Marxism soon led him to reject the country for Communist Spain and Moscow, where he hoped to find a true Socialist utopia. An added factor which made his identity more complex was his homosexuality, which didn't sit well with the status quo either in America or Harlem. All of these identities--gay, Marxist, Jamaican--have to be considered when reading his poetry and considering his "perspectives" in writing. Other ideas to consider...

* How does he define 'America' in these poems? Is America synonymous with 'white?' Or does he see both black and white America as roughly the same? 

* How do these poems express a Marxist sympathy or sensibility throughout? Why might he agree that "the working man has no country"? 

* How does McKay contrast Jamaica with America? What does his homeland mean to him--and offer him--that the 'new world' cannot? 

* How does McKay personify the city, a place that must have been wildly alien and exciting to him? What kind of place is it? Also, does he find it a liberating, healthy force the way many in the Renaissance found it? Or is it, like the Romantic poets, opposed to Nature and the spirit of true mankind? 

* How does he view the element of performance which is tied up in the popularity of Harlem in his poems (esp. The Harlem Dancer)? Does he feel like this compromise is necessary and beneficial in the long run? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

For Monday: The Women of the Renaissance

Photo of Mamie Estelle Fearing Scurlock, by Addison Scurlock, c.1910
For Monday's class, read all the female poets included in our anthology of the Harlem Renaissance:

* Bennett, "Song" and "Hatred" (pp.221-223)
* Cowdery, "The Young Voice Cries" (pp.238-240)
* Fauset, "La Vie C'est La Vie" and "Dead Fires" (pp.254-255)
* Johnson (Georgia), "Let Me Not Lose My Dream," "Old Black Men," "Black Woman," "The Heart of a Woman," "I Want to Die While You Love Me" (pp.273-275)
* Johnson (Helene), "My Race," "A Southern Road," "Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem," "Poem" (pp.276-278)
* Spencer, "Lady, Lady" (p.299) 

As always, consider some of the following ideas:

* How do many of these poems employ uniquely feminine metaphors/imagery that are absent from the works of Cullen and Hughes? Are there other hallmarks that make these poems distinct from their male peers?

* In general, do these poems sound more like the "Talented Tenth" (more academic, polished) or more like the colloquial language of the street? Why might this be? 

* Many of these poems are 'love poems,' which strike a very universal note. Is there any trace of propaganda or 'perspective' in these poems? Should there be? Can a love poem simply be a love poem, even in Harlem?

* Do some, or all, of these poems strike a feminist note? Do these poets seem to identify more with being women, or black, or simply poets? Where is there true allegiance from the poems themselves? 

* How does Helene Johnson's "Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem" compare thematically with some of Shakespeare's Sonnets to the young man or the Dark Lady? 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

For Friday: Hughes' Poetry, Part Two (and a little Marxism to boot)

For Friday's class, we'll introduce Marxism and how it relates to both Hughes' later poetry and the Harlem Renaissance in general. I gave you a handout which is the first part of Marx and Engels' The Communist Manifesto, a small document that made quite a stir in the late 1840s. However, it really gathered steam at the turn of the last century, as people felt a big revolution was in the air. This was certainly the case in Harlem, where many African-Americans felt that unless the political structure changed, white America would have no vested interest in changing the racial caste system. 

We'll discuss the major tenets of Marxism (as its come to be called--sorry Engels), including definitions of the "bourgeoisie" and the "proletariat." As Marx and Engels write, "not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons--the modern working class--the proletarians" (71). This was welcome news to many poor, struggling, working class folk, especially those in Harlem. It also connects to the poem I, Too with its metaphors of the kitchen and future "beauty." 

So make sure you've read all the Hughes poems, especially the explicitly Marxist poems like "Red Silk Stockings," "Ruby Brown," "Goodbye, Christ," and "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria." See you then...

Monday, November 7, 2016

For Wednesday: Hughes' Poetry (see below)

For Wednesday, make sure to read all the selections below from Langston Hughes:

* The Negro Speaks of Rivers

* I, Too
* America
* The Weary Blues
* Jazzonia
* Mother to Son
* Negro
* Mulatto
* Elevator Boy
* Red Silk Stockings
* Ruby Brown
* Eldery Race Leaders
* Dream Variation
* Goodbye, Christ
* Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria 

As you read, consider some of the following ideas:

* How does Hughes' style compare with Cullen's? Would Cullen agree with his approach?

* How do these poems seem to illustrate Hughes' ideas of the "racial mountain" in his essay? Additionally, how do they offer the "perspective" on his race and historical moment that Richard Wright demanded of Harlem Renaissance writers? 

* How does Hughes use dialect or the slang of everyday speech to color his poetry?  Why is this important to him, even though many mainstream readers/critics might reject it as ‘uncivilized’?  How does this language help us read/hear the poem itself?  (you might consider that Hughes was influenced by blues and jazz and wanted his poems to sound like this music).

* In poems like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Aunt Sue’s Stories,” and “Negro,” Hughes uses history or historical events as a metaphor.  How does this work?  How does history help us ‘see’ who he is—and who his people are?  Consider how, in a poem like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the poet could have “bathed in the Euprhates…raised the pyramids above [the Nile]…and “heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans” (4). 

* In traditional literature/poetry, “white” is a positive color and “black” a negative color.  How does Hughes play with this tradition in his poetry, and how does “black” become a very different metaphor in many of these poems? 

* Which poems share similar themes and even inspiration with Cullen's? How might we consider one or more of these poems a revision or a response to Cullen? 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

For Friday: Poetry of Countee Cullen, pp.242-251

For Friday, read the brief selection of poems by Countee Cullen, which includes:
* For a Lady I Know
* Incident
* Harlem Wine
* Yet Do I Marvel
* Heritage
* From the Dark Tower
* To A Brown Boy
* Tableau
* Saturday's Child
* Two Poets
* To France
* Nothing Endures
* Requiescam

As you read, consider how Cullen might have responded (or been inspired by) the various essays we've read this week. Does he believe in the "perspective" of the black writer? Or would he find such ideas mere "hokum"? Also keep in mind the story W.E.B. Du Bois tells at the beginning of "Criteria of Negro Art":

"A professor at the University of Chicago read to a class that had studied literature a passage of poetry and asked them to guess the author. They guessed a goodly company from Shelley and Robert Browning down to Tennyson and Maesfield. The author was Countee Cullen" (100). 

Do you think Cullen would be flattered by this comparison? Would he want his poems to be mistaken for 19th century English (white) poetry? What would someone like Richard Wright say about this ability to 'pass' as a white poet? Is that the goal of black poetry? Is that propaganda? Or is this another instance of the "racial mountain" than Langston Hughes speaks of? 

Monday, October 31, 2016

For Wednesday: More Readings in The Harlem Renaissance Reader

For Wednesday, read the following excerpts:
* Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"
* Schuyler, "The Negro-Art Hokum"
* Du Bois, "Criterial of Negro Art"
* Wright, "Blueprint for Negro Writing"

We'll have an in-class response on Wednesday, so consider some of the following ideas:

* Why does Wright claim that "anyone destitute of a theory about the meaning, structure, and direction of modern society is a lost victim in a world he cannot understand or control" (201)? How might statement actually tie in to some of our readings from Culler? 

* Quoting Lenin (the Bolshevik leader who spearheaded the Russian revolution in 1917), Wright writes, "oppressed minorities often reflect the techniques of the bourgeoise [ruling classes] more brilliantly than some sections of the bourgeoise themselves" (195). What does he mean by this, and how does this relate with his (as well as Hughes') criticism of much African-American writing?

* Why does Du Bois write that "all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been always used for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy" (103). Does this contradict Culler's claims for literature in Chapter 2? Or does it mean that Du Bois is purposely not trying to write literature?

* Why does Schuyler argue that good African-American writers will be good 'American' writers, rather than black or Negro writers? Why does he dismiss the idea of ethnic writing as "hokum"? Furthermore, why would he consider a class called Ethnic Literature racist?

* Why would Hughes (and Du Bois, and Wright) strongly disagree with Schuyler? What fundamental ideas do they ultimately part company on?

* How can a work be "Negro" rather than national? What qualities or ideas can make a work speak of a racial or ethnic identity rather than a national or universal one? According to Culler, can an author have that much control on how his or her work is understood? Isn't identity also in the hands of the individual reader?

* According to Hughes, why do so many African-Americans ignore their own cultural heritage in favor of the traditional, white diet in American art? Whta makes them blind or indifferent to their own achievements?

Friday, October 28, 2016

For Monday: Readings in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader

For Monday, read the following excerpts from The Portable Harlem Renaissance: “Returning Soldiers,” “The Migration of the Talented Tenth,” “Africa for Africans,” “from Black Manhattan,” The New Negro,” “The Task of Negro Womanhood” (pp.3-75--note, I skipped some readings, so you're not reading 72 pages, it turns out to be much less)

These are contemporary writings to the African Americans who had settled in Harlem and were trying to forge a common identity, through literature, in a post-slavery world. Many in Harlem had felt the South in a mass exodus known as The Great Migration, which went through several waves, and brought Southerners to big Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York/Harlem. The question then remained, in escaping Jim Crow laws and lynchings, do they now settle for second-class citizenship, or do they demand an equal share in being American? Or should they just leave America altogether? Many African Americans who fought in WWI saw a different world in France, and some elected to stay there for good. Others, such as Marcus Garvey, advocated relocating to Africa and creating a new "Negro" nation. These essays detail the struggle many residents of Harlem felt at facing a new century and a new idea of citizenship.

As you read, consider some of the following: 

* How do many of the writers define their identity as black, Negro, or African? Which terms do they seem to prefer and why? What does it mean to be black and American in the 1920's? 

* Why couldn't African Americans remain in the South? What forces made it seem impossible to stay there, even though many leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, felt it was imperative to remain? Why are the "talented tenth" usually the first to go? 

* How does W.E.B. Du Bois' view of the future of his race contrast wildly with someone like Marcus Garvey? Why did they each advocate two different responses to American racism and injustice? 

* Culler talks about differentiating literature from propaganda: literature has more than one meaning and can be interpreted in wildly different manners. Why might many writers of the Harlem Renaissance be skeptical of Culler's claims for literature? Why might they feel that propaganda is vital for writing the identity of a people--or an individual? 

* How does Johnson describe the explosion of African American life in Harlem? Why there? And how did it come about? What are his hopes and fears for the community? Can Harlem sustain itself as a vital cultural force in America? 

Monday, October 24, 2016

For Wednesday: Culler, Chapter 8: "Identity, identification, and the Subject"

NOTE: By class vote, we moved the due date for Short Paper #2 from Wednesday to Friday by 5pm. That means we do have class on Wednesday, but not on Friday. Please note the change, especially since a few of you missed class on Monday, and if you miss on Wednesday you'll miss an entire week of class (not good for your grade!). 

Read Chapter 8 in Culler's text, our last chapter from that book and one that will be very important to our next book, The Harlem Renaissance Reader. It will also be important to your Critical Paper #2, which is your final exam paper. 

Here are some ideas to think about as you read, since we'll do an in-class writing when you arrive on Wednesday:

* What does Culler mean when he writes that "Theory is inclined to argue that to be a subject at all is to be subjected to various regimes (psycho-social, sexual, linguistic)"?

* How might we argue that identity is itself a performance, and one that "emerges as the result of actions, of struggles with the world"? Related to this, can something that is formed by external stimulus also be the "cause" of these stimuli? In other words, can our inner being determine our external struggles? (think Cavafy's poem "Ithaca").

* Culler writes that "literature has not only made identity a theme; it has played a significant role in the construction of the identity of readers." How can a book make a person's identity? Can you think of a book that was influential in your personal aesthetic or your view of yourself?

* What does Culler mean when he writes that "Literature is said to corrupt through mechanisms of identification?" How might this relate to the idea of censorship and banned books?

* Why might some theorists argue that books "produced 'the modern individual,' who was first of all a woman"? 

* If our identity is first and foremost an act of identity, why is this identification doomed to fail? Why is the essence of every human being a botched performance or a failed imitation? (and is this necessarily a bad thing?)

* Can group identity come through opposition? Can you become "a people" simply by opposing what you're not? Or those who deny your existence? Also, is group identity more about negation than identification?

* How do we know we have agency or free will to choose? How much of our decisions are really our own, and how much is subjected upon us by our group identification? Related to this, how much are you responsible for the actions of a group even if "you" didn't participate in them? Is being part of a group being universally responsible?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

For Monday: Sonnets 135, 138-154

I wanted to spend two more days on the Sonnets, but we're simply out of time and have to move on. So finish them for next time, and pay special attention to the following sonnets: 135, both 138s, 139, 141, 143, 144, 145, 146, 147, and 152. Here are some questions to consider:

* As in the other set of questions, consider how 138 changes between the two versions. What does Shakespeare intensify or soften in his revision?

* Many of these Sonnets seem to find the Dark Lady all too real: that is, she doesn't hide her flaws/sins and leaves them out for all to view. What is the nature of her 'sins' to the poet? Or, what does he seem to consistently accuse her of?

* Note how often the word "Will" appears in these sonnets, and not just the thousand times it appears in 135. How is he punning on the meanings of this word, and how much are we meant to take is as the poet himself?

* How do some of these poems, notably 141 and 147, seem to contradict the hopeful, romantic tone of 130? What seems to have changed over the course of a mere handful of sonnets? Or, is 141 a near echo of 130, suggesting that we read 130 too optimistically?

* Sonnet 143 contains an endearingly innocent metaphor--yet one that becomes problematic when taken in context of the Dark Lady drama. What is she chasing after like a "careful housewife," and why is the poet the "neglected child"? 

* Sonnet 144 is a drama unto itself: if we read this literally, what seems to be the story here? Or should it be read more metaphorically, like the good and bad angel on one's shoulder?

* Sonnet 145 is charming, and many scholars consider is a very early poem, thrown into the Sonnets to provide comic relief (see if you can find the pun on Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway). Why does this poem offer a tender/comic pause given the darkness of the previous sonnets? Why does it also give the poet hope where he previously had none?

* Sonnet 152 is technically the end of the Dark Lady drama (and perhaps, of the Sonnets themselves), and is a very tricky poem. Consider the difficult syntax of lines like "and new faith torn/In vowing new hate after new love bearing." Why might he be deliberately clouding the language of this sonnet? How does form follow function here? 

* Sonnets 153/154 seem like they inhabit a completely different world than the others, even going back to the opening sonnets. Why would he end the entire sonnet sequence with two poems about Cupid and the bath of love? Does this seem like a bathetic way to end the Sonnets? A killjoy? 

Monday, October 17, 2016

For Wednesday: Sonnets 127-138 (and 138a)

For Wednesday, start reading the "Dark Lady" sonnets, which document his love affair with a mistress, who he repeatedly says is a dark haired (and dark hued?) beauty. Yet the relationship is quite different from that with the 'young man,' and it begs the question, what did love between a man and a woman (especially a cultured man of the arts and theater) mean in Shakespeare's time? Did men and women experience love the same way we do? Or was there something inherently shameful about sharing a deep, physical, emotional love with a woman? Read on to find out...

Only 12 Sonnets to read this time (read both 138 and 138a), but pay special attention to Sonnets 129, 130, 134, 135, and 138/138a. Consider some of the following as you read...

* Sonnets 128, 129, 130, and a few others seem defensive in their love/praise of the dark mistress. Sometimes he seems to demean her (as in 130), and other times, to attempt to re-write the aestetics of beauty (127). What seems to be the cause of his anxiety? Why does her "blackness" trouble him, and make it necessary to qualify her beauty/attractions?

* Is Sonnet 129 secretly flattering in the way 130 is, or is it outright insulting? Many of these sonnets walk a fine line between the two, but this one seems to cross it--or does it? Is it sly and humorous? Ironic? What kind of tone should the reader adopt when reciting it? 

* Also, why might Sonnet 129 (if read straight) betray the poet's sexual anxiety, either in his ability to perform or of his attraction to women? How might this reflect deeper cultural anxieties as well?

* Compare Sonnet 130 to Sonnet 18: both are backwards love sonnets, reversing the usual procedure to offer a more realistic approach. What makes this one more audacious--and frankly, satisfying--than 18? What is the one thing he does in this poem that he refuses to do in 18?

* Ah, Sonnet 135. Why does he pun so often on the name "Will," even using its close form "Wilt" throughout? Is it significant that his own name is Will? Also, why is "Will" sometimes capitalized and sometimes not? Note that Sonnet 136 continues this joke.

* Look carefully at the differences between the two versions of Sonnet 138.  Sonnet 138a came first, published in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599, whereas 138 appeared with the Sonnets in 1609, slightly revised. What did Shakespeare (we assume) change in the revision? Which one is 'stronger' to you? Darker? 

Friday, October 14, 2016

For Monday: The Sonnets, 111-126

Start thinking about your Short Paper #2 assignment (posted below) and read through Greenblatt's chapter if you're interested in the idea of "cultural poetics," since it might give you some ideas for your play. 

For Monday, read Sonnets 111-126, a very short selection, and especially consider nos. 111, 112, 113, 116, 119, 120, 121, and 126. We'll have an in-class writing response over some of these on Monday.

Things to consider...

* Why does Sonnet 126 lack a concluding couplet? What is the effect of reading a sonnet that doesn't end, especially after a series of 125 sonnets? 

* The word "evil" crops up several times in this sequence, notably in Sonnets 119 and 121. If the relationship with the "young man" is ending, is it with considerable rancor on the poet's part? Has he encountered the ultimate betrayal? Or is it a more casual, mundane mendacity? 

* Sonnet 116 is one of the most famous and beautiful in the entire cycle, and seems almost out of place here, as the relationship winds to a painful close. Why might the poet include this sonnet so late in the sequence, particularly with its familiar decrees about love and lines that defy time's "bending sickle"? 

* How do Sonnet 111 and 112 develop the theme of 110, which states, "I have gone here and there /And made myself a motley to the view"? 

* Bouncing off Greeblatt's idea that the theater "is manifestly the product of collective intentions," how might Shakespeare be expressing conventional (and theatrical) notions of love in these sonnets? While we tend to write stories that celebrates the triumph of love, were Elizabethans more pessimistic in their portrayal of amore? Do the sonnets reflect the theatrical notion that love is an idealized state that cannot be realized in the flesh? 

* What final word of warning does the poet offer the "lovely boy" in Sonnet 126? Does this ultimately echo, like a mirror, the warning of Sonnet 1? Or has it been transformed? 

Short Paper #2: What Silent Love Hath Writ

Short Paper #2: “What Silent Love Hath Writ”

In Mark Jay Mirsky’s book, The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2011), he writes that “It may seem strange to say this, but the Sonnets are essentially dramatic. That is, they are voices speaking to each other.” So for your second short paper, I want you to take this literally: how are the Sonnets both a dramatic/performative text that are “voices speaking to each other?”

Let’s imagine that the ECU Theater department has commissioned you, as their resident dramaturge, to create a very short, one-act play based on the Sonnets. However, the catch is they want this to be a play for two actors, not just a single poet writing to his invisible, silent muse. I want you to choose between 10-12 sonnets that seem to speak to one another, creating not only the skeleton of a plot, but seem to create two distinct characters having a dramatic conversation. The Sonnets can come from anywhere within the 154 Sonnets, and do not have to go in order. For example, Sonnet 1 can respond to Sonnet 116, etc. Since so many of the Sonnets repeat or recycle similar themes and utterances, it’s not hard to see one sonnet responding to a previous one, or even critiquing (or rejecting) another sonnet. Try to find sonnets that work together, advancing a relationship full of love, hope, disappointment, betrayal, rejection, confusion, acceptance, and abandonment (or some of these, anyway).

Your paper should have the following TWO parts:
  • PART ONE should introduce us to the two characters in your play. Explain who they are and why you chose these characters. They can be historical or contemporary, old or young, of any profession/background so long as you can see this in the poems. How do these character help explain the mystery of the Sonnets and the secret drama at the heart of the ‘play’?
  • PART TWO: Then identify the 10-12 sonnets in your sequence, and explain why you chose these poems; in other words, what story they seem to tell. To help you do this, I want you to briefly close read at least 4-5 poems, showing the back-and-forth conversation between the speakers. Explicating a single line in a poem is sufficient, so long as it reveals themes, characters, and ideas.
  • At least 4 pages double spaced, though more is more than acceptable
  • Close reading/quotation from the Sonnets; paraphrasing or summarizing them alone is not acceptable (though you can do this hand-in-hand with close reading). Remember the “heresy of paraphrase.”
  • Make sure we see how the characters connect to the Sonnets. For example, if you say the Sonnet drama is between two actors, you have to show how the Sonnets reveal their profession, and why reading the Sonnets as between actors is useful/engaging.
  • DUE WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 26th BY 5pm [no class that day]

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

For Friday: Sonnets 86-110

For Friday, read Sonnets 86-110, though I want to specifically focus on the following: 86, 87, 91, 94, 106, 110.We'll do an in-class writing response (#11) on something related to the Sonnets, but I'll say more about that in class. :) 

Some ideas to think about:

* How does Sonnet 86 respond to 80, even using some of the same metaphors and imagery? If we want to look at 86 as a revision of the earlier sonnet, in what spirit or mood is it written in?

* Imagine that Sonnet 87 is a speech in a play: how should it be delivered? What kind of "farewell" speech is this? Does it offer hope of an eventual reunion? Or is it goodbye, not for now, but forever?

* Sonnets 91 and 94 seem to be particularly about class and rank. How do they complicate the relationship between poet and muse, and in what way is class/rank guilty of the betrayal? Is the muse 'bad' because of his rank--or in spite of it? 

* Sonnet 106 is about the art of writing poetry itself: how can anyone write a love poem when there are hundreds of thousands of poems behind you? We could even argue that this poem is a defense of why Shakespeare writes, and what distinguishes his poem from the ancient poets'. So what does he mean by the line, "So all their praises are but prophecies/Of this our time, all you prefiguring;"? 

* Why might we be tempted to read Sonnet 110 as about the playwright's trade? Knowing this is by Shakespeare, why might this lay bare the true 'sin' of the poet's existence--and what came between him and his muse?

Monday, October 10, 2016

For Wednesday: Shakespeare, Sonnets 56-85

As before, you have two options: read Sonnets 56-85 (I just re-read them, and thoroughly recommend it!) or simply read the sonnets I want to discuss for Wednesday: 61, 62, 65, 66, 71, 72, 73, 74. 79, 80, 81, 83. 

Some ideas to consider:

* Note that most of the poems above are pairs, each one slightly revising or expanding upon the ideas of the previous poem. A great example of this is Sonnets 71 & 72, each one predicting the death of the poet, and his desire to be forgotten in name, but to survive in verse. What is the difference between these poems? Which one do you feel is stronger, more immediate? Which one more thoughtful? Which one will live 'longer' than the other? Or are they actually two halves of the same poem?

* Note that in many of these sonnets, the term "black" with its connotations of night, darkness, evil, and loss of sight, often becomes a positive term. Why is this? How does Shakespeare make this work within the poem itself?

* What is the effect of all the "Ands" in Sonnet 66? Clearly this is purposeful, so why create this constant refrain? How does it underline the meaning of the sonnet itself?

* In a few of these sonnets, Shakespeare moves away from immortalizing the lover/muse in his lines, but claims that he, himself, will live forever in them. Where do we see this, and is this conceited of him--a "sin of self love?" 

* How does the poet critique other poets/lovers in these sonnets? What is their fault, and how does the poet beat them at their own game? Consider Sonnet 83 when he writes, "For I impair not beauty, being mute,/When others would give life a bring a tomb." 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

For Monday: Shakespeare, Sonnets 33-55

For Monday, you can either (a) Read Sonnets 33-55 looking for the twists and turns of the narrative, or (b) just read Sonnets 33, 35, 36, 38, 40, 42, 43, 46, & 55. These are the sonnets I chiefly want to discuss in class.

Some ideas to consider:

* What complication seems to occur in Sonnets 33 & 35? Why do both sonnets open with comparisons to the natural world--suns, mountains, clouds, and moons? Why is this an apt metaphor for his relationship with the young man?

* Sonnets 35, 36, and 46 also employ a strange metaphor in a love sonnet: the courtroom. Why is the narrator both an "accessary" to the crime and the young man's "advocate"?

* How does Sonnet 38 seem to expand the theatrical metaphor, and tease us into seeing the young man as an actor? 

* Sonnets 40, (41), and 42 introduce a strange new element into the sonnet sequence, particularly when he initially says, "Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all." What is the new conflict that these sonnets introduce, and how does the narrator try to reconcile it?

* Sonnet 43 has some of the most difficult syntax in all the sonnets we've read thus far; consider a line like "And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed." Why is this sonnet so dense and cryptic? What issue is he trying to hide or perhaps unwilling to confront directly?

* How does Sonnet 55 compare with the earlier Sonnet 18? Both seem to have the same general subject, but how does he approach it differently at a later stage in their relationship? Or, is he simply trying to recapture the beauty (or the plea) of earlier days with this "discursive practice"? 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

For Friday: Sonnets 19-32

For Friday, you have two options in your reading:

The "Go-Getter" Option: Read Sonnets 19 to 32 in their entirety and see how each one advances the narrative one by one, and of course how many of them echo one another and build on each other.

The "Express" Option: Read Sonnets 20, 22, 23, 25, 29, 30, which are the ones I chiefly want to focus on for Friday. We will discuss some (but not all) of these in class.

You can always go back and read others when you have time, of course; however, the advantage of reading the entire set is that a poem we don't discuss could be used as a 'theory' to read and decipher one of the more prominent ones. 

Some ideas to consider with Sonnets 20, 22, 23, 25, 29 and 30:

* Consider how Shakespeare increasingly uses metaphors from the theater. Clearly as a playwright this makes sense, but how does it also make sense considering he is writing to a "Renaissance gentleman" who follows the rules of "nonchalance" in all things?

* Look for strange syntax and consider why Shakespeare might make a line deliberately difficult. For example, in Sonnet 20: "A man in hue all hues in his controlling," or Sonnet 23, "More than that tongue that more hath more expressed."

* Besides the theatrical metaphors, how does the poet/narrative reveal some of his personal background? What class is he? What relationship does he seem to have with the gentleman of the Sonnets? What is his age? What are his fears?

* Has the poet given up with the "give thyself an heir" argument, or is he simply trying another angle? Is it possible that he never meant to seriously urge him to procreate at all, and these slightly later sonnets can help us read the earlier ones in a different light? 

* How do some of these poems remind you of Cavafy's work, especially poems about old age and memory?  

Monday, October 3, 2016

For Wednesday: Shakespeare, Sonnets 1-18

For Wednesday, read Sonnets 1-18 for class and we may do an in-class writing or simply discuss a few closely as a class. As you read them, consider some of the following ideas:

* Shakespeare's sonnets are in iambic pentameter, meaning 5 iambs (an iamb is an unstressed + a stressed syllable). The rhyme scheme is typically ABABCDCDEFEFGG. However, each sonnet (except one) has a concluding couplet, which often gives a little twist to the entire poem. Note some of the twists we find in the rhyming couplets.

* How do many of these poems function as a memento mori? Who does he seem to be addressing this message to? Himself? A patron? A fellow actor? A loved one?

* How do one or more of these poems seem to be addressed to the ideal gentleman and the themes of Castiglione's courtier? How does Shakespeare draw his images and metaphors from the pursuits and interests of a typical 'well rounded' gentleman?

* Do these poems seem intimate or staged? That is, do they seem to be a performance for an audience, or do they feel like they're written for the poet himself? Is he, like a Renaissance gentleman himself, putting on a show of wit, learning, and ease through his poetry? Or is he simply speaking spontaneously of matters close to his heart? Do some seem more intimate than others?

* Sonnet 18 is one of the most famous and is the most immediately striking (and some say, accomplished) of the first 18. Why is this? What makes this poem sound a new note in the sequence? 

* Do these seem to be all written to the same person? Are some written to different audiences? Are there any clues to hint at the intended audience?

* What narrative, if any, seems to emerge from the first 18 sonnets? Where do we see this specifically?  

Monday, September 26, 2016

For Wednesday: Culler, Chapter 7: "Performative Language"

For Wednesday, be sure to read Ch.7 of Culler (the penultimate chapter we'll read of this book) and prepare for an in-class response. This chapter is a bit tricky, so here are some ideas to consider to help you prepare:

* What is the basic difference between a constative and performative utterance? Under what circumstances can a constative become a performative?

* What does Culler mean when he writes, "The literary utterance too creates the state of affairs to which it refers" (96)? Related to this, why might we argue that people didn't fall in love until they read about it in books? (certainly, people have always been in love, but consider what fall in love means, with all its many connotations, in Western culture).

* How can we argue that literature is not just an act but an event? You might consider why revolutionary movements always have "literature" that they pass out to gain followers.

* What does Culler mean by the terms "felicitious" and "infelictious" as it refers to literature? How can a poem be "infelicitious"--what 'crimes' could it commit, do you think?

* Why is repetition such an important part of language? Can we say anything that isn't somehow an echo of something said before, or a citation of another writing or utterance? (how is even this question, and this blog post, a kind of repetition?)

* What does Butler mean by gender being primarily a performance? How can you perform being male or female? Isn't being male or female a constative statement, such as when a doctor says "you're having a boy"?

* Related to this, how can performative language help define terms like masculinity or femininity? (you might refer to the comic book ad of Charles Atlas above).  

* How is calling someone a "fag!" or a "queer!" a performance that operates through a kind of cultural repetition? How does this help to prove Butler's theory of gender as a performance--and a fluid identity?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

For Friday: Old Poems and New

For Friday's class, I have a slight twist on the usual assignment. Read through the poems of 1919-1933 on pages 133-207. Then choose 3-4 poems that seem to respond in a significant way (more than just the theme, or the fact that it's a dramatic monologue, an epitaph, etc.) to ONE to the following earlier poems (see below). I'll ask you to write about this in class on Friday:


The First Step (7)
The Windows (13)
Waiting for the Barbarians (15)

Satrapy (29) 
Philhellene (55)
Sculptor of Tyana (59)

And as always, keep an eye out for poems that really speak to you or seem to encompass a 'theory' that explores ideas outside of literature. Critical Paper #1 is right around the corner! 

Monday, September 19, 2016

For Wednesday: Cavafy, Poems 1919-1933

For Wednesday's class, I want to do close readings of six related poems and continue to discuss the idea of a poem as a 'theory.' Also consider how these poems are conscious of being poems about poetry: how do they call attention to the fact that poems are themselves imperfect attempts to forestall time and create an illusion of eternity? Read these poems carefully and think about the connections each one shares. I want to jump right into these next class.

THE POEMS: Has Come To Rest (111), On The Ship (115), Darius (125), Their Origin (129), Melancholy of Jason (131), I Brought To Art (133)

Feel free to read as many poems as possible beyond this, of course, since any of them could play into your Critical Paper #1 assignment. :) 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Critical Paper #1 assignment


“If a literary work is conceived as a succession of actions upon the understanding of a reader, then an interpretation of the work can be a story of that encounter, with its ups and downs...To interpret a work is to tell a story of reading” (Culler 63).

“When you set out on the journey to Ithaca,/pray that the road be long,/full of adventures, full of knowledge” (Cavafy, “Ithaca”).


For Monday: Cavafy, Poems 1916-1918 (selections)

A new selection of poems for Monday:

* Since Nine O'Clock
* Aristobolous
* Cesarion
* Nero's Term
* In the Harbour Town
* Tomb of Lanes
* Tomb of Iases
* Tomb of Ignatius
* In the Month of Athyr
* For Ammones
* Aemilianus Monae
* Grey

We'll have an in-class writing response (#7) in class, which will explore a common theme between all of these poems. What could this be? Hmm...consider the poem as epitaph, and how each work seems to lament or observe the passing of someone's life, often a very fleeting one. Some of these people are important, others less so, but all of them share a similarity in the manner of their death or what happens to their memory. Consider how the poet tries to conjure up who they were and how they lived, even when what we know is fragmentary, like a few faded words scrawled on a tombstone. 

See you on Monday! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

For Friday: Cafavy, Poems 1905-1915 (see below)

For Friday, read the following poems from Cafavy's Collected Poems:

From Poems 1910:
* Waiting for the Barbarians (if you haven't already)

From Poems 1905-1915:
* The City
* The God Forsakes Anthony
* Monotony
* Ithaca
* As Best You Can
* Trojans
* Philhellene
* Sculptor of Tyana
* In Church
* Painted
* Come Back
* Far Away

(Feel free to read all of them, but I particularly want to discuss these poems in class)

* As you read, consider how Cafavy often takes a literal narrative--barbarians arriving at the gates, a sculptor making a bust, the Trojans being invaded--and allows it to become allegorical of larger situations. How do the poems do this? What clues or words/utterances in the poem signal this change from specific to universal? 

* Also, many of Cafavy's poems are Dramatic Monologues, which is a poetic form that he inherited from the great English poet, Robert Browning (My Last Duchess, Fra Lippo Lippi, etc.). In these poems, we get a monologue as it from a play, where a speaker (usually historical) is talking to a second person, whose words are not recorded. The monologue is supposed to create a character and a psychological moment as much as a poetic thought. How can a one-sided conversation be a poem (esp. one like Philhellene and The Sculptor of Tyana)? How literally should we read such conversations--or is the speaker just a frame or an illusion that opens a larger speaker? 

* If you read the Introduction, you'll learn that Cafavy was actually from Alexandria (in Egypt) and never lived in Greece at all. However, his family was Greek, so he naturally gravitated toward Greek rather than Arabic as a poet. What might it mean to write Greek poetry when you are, technically, not Greek and don't live there (and indeed, he only visited a few times)? How does he convey his mixed feelings for his exiled land and culture in his poetry? 

Monday, September 12, 2016

For Wednesday: Cavafy, Poems 1910

Portrait on the Casket of a Greek Mummy (not Cavafy!) 
For Wednesday, read the section "Poems 1910" from Cavafy's The Collected Poems. There are a small number of poems here, and I don't expect you to read each one thoroughly. But do sample them all, and then go back and re-read the few that most captured you, since I'll want you to discuss at least one or two of those in class. Remember to read primarily at this point for the poetics: consider how the words are used in the terms of an utterance, and how each utterance is controlled by the speaker of the 'text.' Don't worry too much about the actual history or myth surrounding the poems yet--though feel free to look this up if you wish.

Here are some other ideas to consider:

* How do these poems relate to the themes/imagery of Sappho in any way? Though over a thousand years separate their poetry, do both sound "Greek" in their use of themes and language?

* Does the poet-narrator of each poem seem consistent, or do they seem to be coming from different people? If you had to characterize the speaker of several poems, who would he (or she) be?

* Why do you think Cavafy uses historical figures and locations so often in his poetry? Why conjure up the Roman Senate, Thermopylae, Achilles, and Sarpedon? How does the ancient world seem to accentuate his poetry?

* Since Sappho self-consciously wrote about the female side of history/myth, does Cavafy sound more "male"? If so, why? Again, focus more on the poetics than the hermeneutical implications of this question (following Culler's definition of each term in Chapter 4).

* Are these poems lyrics--or lyrical--in the same way as Sappho's fragments? Do you imagine them as songs or actual poems, meant to be written down in a book?