Topics for final essay (40%)

ENGL 349: Modern Poetry in English

Final essay (40%, due April 1–new deadline!). You are free to write on a topic of your own devising, as long as you get my approval for it by March 18 (this can be done together with your submission of your working thesis). The essay should be 5-7 pages long and follow the formatting requirements outlined here. The use of secondary sources is permissible and recommended, but neither required nor expected.

Whatever you do, write on something that interests you. The idea of this assignment is for you to explore, in detail, poetry that you find worth investigating. You don’t have to like it to find it interesting: but there should be something in it you find intriguing, confusing, offensive, ambiguous, troubling, etc. Do not feel you have to limit yourself to what I focused on in lecture, or how I approached it. Instead of thinking of the lectures as descriptions of facts about the poem, think of them as hands-on demonstrations of some ways in which poems can be read and analyzed. Remember that poems and essay topics that look easy at first glance are often the hardest to write well on (this is not to discourage you, but rather to give you fair warning). Use the topics or questions as general prompts; be sure that your thesis takes the topic and narrows it down.

To do well on this assignment, please attend carefully to the comments I’ve given you on the close-reading and on the report on a scholarly article. Plan to finish a first draft with enough time to edit it thoroughly and carefully for clarity, structure and grammar; it’s best if you can manage to edit your draft(s) on paper rather than on screen. Most importantly, know your poem(s) well. Read and re-read it as often as you can. Question every word and every obvious interpretation. Test your claims against the text. Follow leads, and include in the final product only things that contribute to your argument.

The topics

1. Write an essay building on your close-reading assignment. If you choose this option, you should think of what you’ve already written as one part of a larger argument. If, for example, your close-reading focused on how verb tenses are used to ironize the rhetoric of heroism in Housman’s “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” then your essay might, say, expand to address how Housman uses verb tenses among other devices and strategies to undermine the idea of heroism; or you might include “Epitaph’s” use of verb tenses in a broader discussion of verb tenses (or verb forms) in War Poetry more generally. Be sure to respond to my comments on your close-reading if you choose this option.

2. Write an essay closely investigating the relationship between form and content in a very short poem (12 lines or less) in the Norton Anthology (not necessarily on our reading list). You may also write on any of the poems that are on the reading list but not in the Anthology (see the online readings on the reading schedule).

3. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the sonnet in this class, but modern poets also used or adapted other traditional closed forms, such as the sestina, the villanelle, the hokku, the ballad, the ode, and the elegy. Write an essay discussion how and why a given poet uses one of these forms (excluding the sonnet).

4. Modern poets often use similar forms, rhetorical moves, tropes, or metaphors to deal with very different political concerns. Write an essay comparing how two poems use similar devices or strategies in order to address different political concerns. (To give just one possible example, sonnets by Claude McKay [“Harlem Dancer”] and Edna St-Vincent Millay [“Gazing at him now, severe and dead”] both undermine the male gaze in order to examine or expose issues of, respectively, racism and sexism in America. How and why?)

5. Modern poets are often explicitly in dialogue with the literary tradition (in various senses). Discuss how and why one poem speaks to one or more other works of literature. As always, be specific.

6. Discuss the importance of either objects or plants or animals in the work of one modern poet. You may approach this question in the general (if your chosen poet gives special attention or status to animals or things) or in the specific (if your chosen poem attends closely to a specific thing or animal).

7. Discuss the relation between mind and body or spirit and body in the poetry of W. B. Yeats.

8. In “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden writes that “poetry makes nothing happen” (36). Assess the significance(s) of this line in the context of the poem.

9. Discuss how one poet explores the relation between reality and imagination.

10. Using an informed selection of his poetry, write an essay exploring how Wallace Stevens thinks about metaphor. You may (or may choose not to) consider his aphorism, “Poetry is metaphor” (973).

11. Discuss how modern poetry tackles politics, focusing on one or more poems by one poet.

12. “The body is the great poem,” writes Wallace Stevens (974). Based on any one work from our readings, use Stevens’ aphorism to explore the relationship between body and poetry.

13. Discuss the relation between poetic form and gender or sexuality or race (or a combination of these) in the work of one poet on our reading list.

14. Several free-verse poets moved away from regular meters (iambic, dactylic, etc), but this is not to say that they abandoned relatively regular rhythms. Discuss how the use of non-metric (i.e. non-traditional rhythm) in one or more poems by William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Walt Whitman, or W. B. Yeats.

15. Many modern poets write poems about poetry or poets, notably Marianne Moore (“Poetry”), Yeats (“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and others), Wallace Stevens (“The Motive for Metaphor”), Auden (“In Memory of W. B. Yeats”) and Mina Loy (“Gertrude Stein”). Discuss how one of these poets uses poetry as a device for understanding, exploring or critique poetry.

16. Write an essay discuss how (and why) one poem uses or strives to mimic the techniques and effects of another art form (e.g., painting, music, sculpture, dance, etc). Be specific as possible: for example, do not simply argue that this or that poem is musical in some way: show precisely how the poem engages with a specific musical form (for example, the 3/4 rhythm of a waltz, or the contrapuntal structure of a fugue).

17. Many modern poems move away from the singular lyric “I” exemplified in much Romantic poetry. Discuss how and why one or two poems on our list use points of view that are unusual (for example, an “I” that  is multiple, fragmented, ambiguously-situated relative to the object of the poem, etc).

18. “All poetry is experimental poetry,” writes Wallace Stevens (972). Based on poems from one poet on the syllabus, discuss how and why his or her poetry is experimental.

19. Choose a single line or sentence from a poem that strikes you as extremely rich, and write an extended close reading of that line (or sentence). You may, of course, make reference to other parts of the poem, but sparingly and only insofar as they help you interpret that one line (or sentence) and to unpack its meaning(s) and suggestions.  An example of a line begging for extended attention is Stevens’ “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (“The Snow Man,” 15); an equally rich sentence is Bishop’s “He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky, / proving the sky quite useless for protection” (“The Man-Moth,” 14-15). But of course you can pick whatever line or sentence you find worth investigating.

19. Several poems we read this term exist in more than one version. This includes published revisions, early drafts, and typescripts and manuscripts. Write an essay close-reading of one poem on the reading list, using two or more versions of the same poem to come up with interpretations impossible to derive from the anthologized version on its own. NB: this should not be a “compare and contrast” essay, nor should it be making evaluative arguments saying that one version is better than the other. For a good example of how a poem can be close-read across several drafts, see Bernard McKenna’s “Violence, Transcendence, and Resistance in the Manuscripts of Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan.” Philological Quarterly 90.4 (2011): 425, also available in somewhat reader-unfriendly format here. Among many other possibilities easily accessible to you, you can access Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts at Emily Dickinson Archive, or T. S. Eliot’s fascinating manuscript and typescript to The Waste Land, with annotations by Vivien Eliot and Ezra Pound, in Course Reserves at the Concordia Library (for 3-hour loans).

18. Creative/analytical essay option. This option must be approved by me. Despite the connotation of “creative essay”, this is not an easy alternative to the standard essay. In fact, it may well be more difficult. It demands the same activities as the standard essay (careful study of the poets you choose, as well as very clear and careful explanations), in addition to the ability to read your own creative work analytically.

Part I. For this option, choose a poem from our reading list and re-write it in the style and in line with the beliefs of another poet that we’ve discussed. For example, you might imagine Robert Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something” as re-written by W. B. Yeats. Of particular relevance here would be Yeats’s concern with Truth and the binaries of soul/body and reality/appearance, as expressed in his prose writings and in poems such as “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and “Among School Children” and “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” How does Yeats’s concerns with these issues differ from Frost’s (as expressed in “For Once…”).

The challenge of this assignment is not just paying attention to differences between the two poets’ beliefs, but also with the form they give to those beliefs (by form I mean both poetic technique [meter, rhyme, genre, etc] and style [tone, mood, register, etc]). For example, if you were to re-write “For Once, Then, Something” in the style of D. H. Lawrence in “The Wild Common,” you’d have to submit Frost’s allegory of the well to a Lawrence’s philosophies of nature, body and freedom as well as to his experiments with poetic meter and lineation.

Part II. Having “re-written” or “translated” the poem (or part of the poem, depending on your choices–don’t do more than 10 or 15 lines), you must now explain how and why you re-wrote or translated it as you did. To continue with the example above, you would have to explain Lawrence’s attitude toward water, reflection and truth, compare it with Frost’s in “For Once,  Then, Something,” and then justify how and why you altered Frost’s poem to suit Lawrence’s different ideas.


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