Poetry: What It Is, and How to Understand It

Understanding poetry is a way to immerse yourself in an art form that explores cultures everywhere in the world

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  • Lectures 19
  • Video 8 Hours
  • Skill Level All Levels
  • Languages English
  • Includes Lifetime access
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Course Description

A Faculty Project Course - Best Professors Teaching the World

Why read a poem?  Why write one?  People say modern poetry as an art form is imperiled in our time, yet everywhere in the world cultures and individuals memorize, recite, and value various forms of poetry.  This course will attempt to define this genre of poetry writing, to discuss its particular attributes, to distinguish between good and bad poetry, to explain why so much writing poetry is difficult, and to isolate the sorts of truths modern poetry seems best at conveying.  Our focus will be on modern poetry, in English and in translation.

See Prof. Soltan in The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Course Introduction
Section 1: Poetry and the Arrest of Life.

In my first lecture, I discuss the way my series - mainly focused on 20th and 21st century poetry in English and in translation - will be interested in micro as well as macro questions - everything from very basic definitions (What is a poem?  How can we distinguish it from other modes of writing and utterance?) to large questions about meaning (What sort of meaning does a poem tend to yield?  What is the poet's relationship to Truth, what a capital T? Can we derive wisdom from poetry that will help us lead our lives?). 

The course will discuss, among other things, the pleasure we derive from poetry, the difficulty of much contemporary poetry, changes in poetic forms and themes over time, and distinguishing between good and bad poetry. I also analyze the first poem of this series - "Adelstrop," by Edward Thomas.  As I'm reading and interpreting the poem, you should go to YouTube, Richard Burton reads Adelstrop, to read the poem on the screen, and to hear it recited. You can also find it in the next lecture.

Richard Burton reads 'Adlestrop' by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Section 2: Poetry and Difficulty

Many people find twentieth and twenty-first century poetry from Europe and America to be difficult. The most famous poem written by America's most celebrated contemporary poet, John Ashbery (he just received the Presidential Humanities Medal) is "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" - a notoriously dense and challenging artwork. In this lecture, I'll look at that and a few other poems and consider why so much of the most-respected poetry of our time (think of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land) is so hard to understand.

Section 3: Distinguishing Between Good and Bad Poetry.

Using this essay by Brian Phillips as our background text, I'll talk about why it's so difficult, especially today, to bring a truly critical eye to poetry. There's so much poetry produced; yet for a variety of reasons (some of them having to do with the difficulty that I discussed in the last lecture) readers tend to be reluctant to judge the worth of any particular poem. As Phillips makes clear, the erosion in our time of a critical capacity in regard to art is a very bad development. I'll suggest ways to strengthen our confidence in our ability to discriminate between poetry of value and poetry that's really not worth our time. The main poem we'll look at here is Anne Sexton's "The Fury of Cocks."

Section 4: The Poet on Poetry

Our next step in getting closer to poetry is to read what poets themselves have said, in letters and essays, about poetry in general, and about their own work. (We'll also look at some non-poetry-writing critics of modern and contemporary poetry.) How do poets themselves think about the act of writing a poem? What do they imagine themselves to be doing when they put words on the page? Some of the poets we'll read are Randall Jarrell (from the collection No Other Book), Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, D.H. Lawrence, and James Merrill.

Section 5: "Sunday Morning," Wallace Stevens

With this lecture, we'll begin in-depth readings of selected great modern and contemporary poems. "Sunday Morning" is generally considered to be among the best, most important, and, in some respects, most representative twentieth century poems. It combines an argument about the loss of religious faith with beautiful language that attempts to reconcile us to earthly life without a sense of the divine.

Section 6: "The Graveyard by the Sea," Paul Valéry.

In considering this great meditation on life, beauty, and death, similar in important ways to the Stevens poem, we'll read some of the original French as well as the English translation, so as to get a sense of the sheer sonic pleasure and drama of the poem. We'll also talk about what's lost in the translation of poetry. What sort of transformation occurs when we translate a poem?

Section 7: "The Moon and the Yew Tree", Sylvia Plath.

Here is another poem which places its speaker in the natural world and has her pondering, in a mood of crisis, life, beauty, and despair.  We'll compare it to the poems we've already looked at, and I'll start making arguments about commonalities among the most valued, most-read, modern and contemporary poems.

Section 8: "At the Fishhouses," Elizabeth Bishop.

The question of knowledge - how can we know the world; how much of the world can we know? - fascinates the modern poet, and Bishop's poem, with its famous final stanza about the profound difficulty of understanding existence, is perhaps the best-known expression in our time of the effort to pierce the mystery of life.

Section 9: Philip Larkin and W.H. Auden

 "Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel" and "Absences," by Philip Larkin.  "Brussels in Winter," W.H. Auden.

All of these great poems try to say something about nothing.  They try to evoke those moments in life when our lives stop and disclose not the stirring sense of fullness "Adelstrop" conveys, but rather a sense of our paltriness - even our pointlessness - in a vast and enigmatic cosmic scheme. 

Section 10: What are they trying to tell us?

Having read and analyzed these important modern and contemporary poems, we will try to come to some conclusions about what our best poets are trying to do - with language, and with ideas. I look forward to hearing from students with their ideas about poetry, and their suggestions for future lectures about poetry.

Section 11: Conclusion, Part One: Poetry: What It Is, And How to Understand It
Conclusion, Part One: Poetry: What It Is, And How to Understand It
Section 12: James Merrill's "Santorini: Stopping the Leak." A Poem of Therapeutic Arrestation

Teaching Beauty in DeLillo, Woolf, and Merril

Section 13: Love, and the Arrest of Life

What happens when we add love to the modern poem?  Through a reading of Lynda Hull's "Black Mare," we'll consider some of the ways in which love expresses itself poetically in our time.

Simple Twist of Fate, Joan Baez

Section 14: Charles Wright's Black Zodiac

Black Zodiac

Dover Beach

Section 15: STOPPING THE LEAK: T.S. Eliot's Poem, "Virginia"

 The poem "Virginia"

The Hopkins poem

One of many musical settings of this poem. It's the last song on the YouTube

Lyrics, "Every Time We Say Goodbye."

Ezra Pound, "In A Station of the Metro."

Kay Ryan, "Niagara River."

Section 16: Poetry and the way it undermines us: Weldon Kees and Donald Justice
In this lecture, we look at a poem by the twentieth century American poet Weldon Kees, “That Winter.”   The poem is an exercise in retrospective thought, and I argue that this form of thought, typical of many important poems, represents one dominant way in which poetry helps us understand where we are in the world right now, and how we got to this particular place.
This lecture extends my discussion of Kees, and adds a discussion of a similar poem by Donald Justice , another important twentieth century American poet.  Both lectures are extended considerations of this intriguing statement by Albert Camus:  “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.”

Instructor Biography

Margaret Soltan, Associate Professor of English - George Washington University

Margaret Soltan is an English professor at George Washington University in Washington DC.  Her interest in twentieth century poetry and fiction is reflected in the title of her co-authored 2008 book, Teaching Beauty in DeLillo, Woolf, and Merrill (Palgrave Macmillan).  She also authors a blog, University Diaries, which critiques the modern American university.

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