Further information on Fall 2020 courses


Dan Van Tassel – Poetry 101


Expanded description

The design of the syllabus and calendar of readings will have us taking up the poems neither chronologically by date of composition nor alphabetically by authors but by groups according to form (sonnets, elegies, dramatic monologues, odes, lyrics), common theme (such as war, love, despair, reflection, or celebration), and narrative structure. For our reading and discussion, we’ll allocate a half-dozen—give or take one or two—poems per session.

The syllabus below pinpoints, by title and author, the poems assigned for discussion on given dates. A week or so prior to our first session, you’ll be emailed, as attachments, a course packet and a class roster to help you prepare for class discussions and to start getting acquainted with other members of the course. In way of priming the pump, the course packet, actually comprising four separate attachments (or fortnightly fascicles), includes notes, study guides, and discussion questions for each of the poems. If you don’t want the expense or trouble (involving paper, ink cartridges, and printer), you can purchase a printed course packet in advance and have it mailed to you for $7 complete.

For an anthology, we’ll use Joseph Kelly’s 4th edition of The Seagull Reader: Poems (W. W. Norton), an inexpensive paperback with a glossary of terms, biographical sketches, and an intro providing helpful commentary on imagery and types of poems, meter, rhyme, and stanza patterns; the contents are conveniently arranged by poets’ names in alphabetical order. Used copies of the poetry book (in various editions, any of which will work for our purposes) can be ordered through amazon.com but a quantity of new copies of the latest edition has been ordered and is readily available for a discounted purchase price at Content, the bookstore downtown Northfield, at 314 Division Street S.


Calendar of Readings for Class Discussion

Sept. 14    First, we’ll verify the course roster and take time to get acquainted with each other. After briefly orienting ourselves to the course packet, I’ll introduce some principles and elements basic to poetry. Then together we’ll read and discuss a potpourri of six short poems, four of which being exquisite expressions of love, the other two occupied with compelling social issues: Herrick, “Upon Julia’s Clothes”; Campion, “There is a Garden in Her Face”; Burns, “A Red, Red Rose”; Elizabeth Browning, “How Do I Love Thee?”; Hughes, “Harlem”; and Brooks, “We Real Cool.”

Sept. 21    We’ll review characteristics of the sonnet form and, having beforehand read the assigned sampling of sonnets and addressed the pertinent study guides for them, engage in discussion of Shakespeare, Sonnets 18, 73, and 130; Donne, Sonnet 14; Hardy, “Hap”; Collins, “Sonnet”; and Heaney, “The Forge.”

Sept. 28    We’ll go over background information on elegies as poetic meditations on death and, having checked out the study guides for each of the assigned poems, occupy ourselves in discussing Housman, “To an Athlete Dying Young”; Cummins, “Buffalo Bill’s”; Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”; Wordsworth, “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways”; Rossetti, “After Death”; Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”; and Heaney, “Digging.”

Oct. 5         Today we’ll discuss and compare selected poems reflecting on war, namely: Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”; Hardy, “Channel Firing” and “The Man He Killed”; Sassoon, “Dreamers”; Owen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est”; Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”; and Komunyakaa, “We Never Know.” Again, prepare for class by reading (and rereading) the poems closely and taking account of the relevant study guides.

Oct. 12      We mount a discussion today of a bevy of poems that celebrate a special event: Collins, “On Turning Ten”; Kinnell, “Blackberry Eating”; Lee, “The Gift”; Rossetti, “A Birthday”; Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”; Housman, “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now”; Williams, “This Is Just to Say”; and Wallace, “Building an Outhouse.” Be sure to make use of the study questions geared for these poems.

Oct. 19      Today we’ll be discussing an assortment of poems exploring social injustice, domestic disharmony, and hate and lack of charity: Blake, “A Poison Tree” and “The Chimney Sweeper”; Robert Browning, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”; Frost, “Acquainted with the Night”; Dove, “Daystar”; Piercy, “Barbie Doll”; and Jarman, “Unholy Sonnet.” Again, besides reading the specified poems, go over the respective study guides.

Oct. 26     Our discussion today centers on a handful of poems that busy themselves telling a story or recounting an impressive incident. Either in advance or while or after reading each of the assigned poems, ponder the questions and observations in the study guides and jot down any additional questions or observations you wish to share in class. The narrative poems we’re focusing on are Larkin, “Church Going”; Bishop, “The Fish”; Stafford, “Traveling through the Dark”; Heaney, “Mid-Term Break”; and Thomas, “Fern Hill.”

Nov. 2      We wrap up the course with a potpourri of poems exploring a variety of subjects and perspectives and showcasing different techniques and forms of versification. These include Herbert, “Prayer”; Arnold, “Dover Beach”; Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”; Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts”; and Stokesbury, “Unsent Message to My Brother in His Pain.” The study questions are likely to aid your understanding and appreciation of these poems.