EL150 (2007; Intro to Literary Study)

Course Overview

Welcome to EL 150, "Introduction to Literary Study."

The course website is located at http://blogs.setonhill.edu/DennisJerz/EL150. I will update the online syllabus periodically, so the printout I gave you is only for your convenience today. The official version of the syllabus is the online version (though I will notify you in advance of any significant changes).

Topics for today:

The front page of the blog only shows the main class topic and the main readings scheduled for that day. To get a full list of the lesson plan for any day, click on the date on the calendar. (You might want to see what's due on Jan 24.)

Preview Ex 1-1
Preview Intro to Weblogs
In class: Informal written response.

Permalink | 22 Jan 2007 | Comments (0)

How Does a Poem Mean?

In high school, you may have gotten credit for being able to paraphrase poems, in order to demonstrate that you understand the literal meaning of the content. But if the purpose of a poem is simply to communicate a message, why does the poet go to all the trouble to rhyme, to make classical allusions, to choose vivid images? Why didn't Emily Dickinson write,

Death really isn't all that scary. In fact, Death is like a classy gentleman who picks you up and takes you on the most important date of your life.

Why did she write this, instead?

Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me --
The Carriage held but just Ourselves --
And Immortality.
And when Edgar Allen Poe could have written,
Death always wins, so let's revel in the destruction.
why did he write:
Out--out are the lights--out all!
  And over each quivering form
The curtain, a funeral pall,
  Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
  Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
  And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.
(These poetry selections are from "Because I could not stop for Death" and "Conqueror Worm.")

John Ciardi, author of the 1961 book How Does a Poem Mean?, identifies several levels in the understanding of poetry. The ability to paraphrase a poem and restate it in your own words is not literary study. In this class, instead of memorizing handouts that your teacher prepares for you, or looking up what SparkNotes says is important about a work, we will develop the ability to look carefully and closely at the actual words chosen by the author. We will look at concepts such as diction (word choice), metaphor, and rhythm. Once students can recognize these building blocks of poetry, according to Ciardi, they are ready for the next step -- the discussion of form.

Form in essence, is the way one part of a poem (one movement) thrusts against each other across silence. Any standard sonnet moves in one direction, then pauses (the pause is like a rest in music), then thrusts the final couplet against the first twelve lines, usually in a reversal. Whenever such a pause and counter thrust happens in a poem, something changes in the handling of the technical elements. If the student can be taught to identify such changes, he will have identified the poem in action. He will not need to fumble with "What does the poem mean?" He will, rather, have experienced it as a performance. He will have seen how it means.
If Ciardi had written that in the past few decades, his editor would have probably asked him not to use the masculine pronoun when referring to a general student. (See "Gender-Neutral Language.")

Permalink | 22 Jan 2007 | Comments (0)

Introduction to Weblogs

In Admin 309 (computer classroom).

All students will receive their own personal online journals (weblogs) at blogs.setonhill.edu.

In class: Post a quotation from the assigned readings, and briefly state what you would talk about if called on to lead a brief class discussion about your quotation. (That's your "agenda item" -- see the course FAQ page.)

Experienced bloggers, please help classmates if necessary... this is just practice today.

About Weblogs

A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette focused on how Seton Hill University students have been using their academic weblogs. Maybe somebody you know got quoted!

Agenda Items and Online Discussion

Some time today, post your agenda item for the next class discussion.

By the beginning of that class period, post a brief response on the weblogs of two to four classmates. Find their blogs by clicking on their names, in the list to the left.

In class, I may call on you to share with the class the agenda item you posted on your own blog. I may also ask you to share with the class the comments you left on peer blogs. Most students find that hit helps to bring printouts of those online contributions, so you have something to consult when I call on you.

Permalink | 24 Jan 2007 | Comments (1)

Workshop: Close Reading

We'll go over this handout on close reading (but you don't need to blog anything about it).

What does a close reading do? Here is one example:

While “The Star-Spangled Banner” is known to most Americans as a song, Francis Scott Key’s poem emphasizes sight far more than sound in order to invoke patriotic feelings of hope. The poem does not ask the reader to listen, but rather to “say” what the reader can “see” (1). The first stanza contains two questions, stanza two contains one question mark and one hopeful exclamation mark; yet stanza three has only one question mark, suggesting that hope is at risk; but the uncertainty of the third stanza is erased by the final triumphant stanza contains no question marks and two exclamation marks. The same wavering passage from uncertainty to certainty is also reflected visually, through the flag’s survival from night through the dawn, and its transition from “fitfully blowing” (12) to its waving with “full glory reflected” (13).
That's an example that I banged out in about 15 minutes before class. I'm not entirely satisfied with it... I don't think it will be possible to make a strong connection between the sight/sound discussion and the pattern from uncertainty to certainty. If I were to keep working on this, I would likely have to choose one or the other idea.

One might also look at the last two lines of stanza one. Everyone belts out these lines as if it is a statement of triumph, but look at the punctuation:

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
At this point in the poem, the speaker does not know the answer to the question. (After class today, I heard a student say she would never think of the national anthem the same way again. That's a sign that we're doing something right in this class.)

Be careful of quoting passages simply to prove that you understand the poem. The content of the poem says the flag was clearly visible last night at sunset; the bombs and rockets that went off during the night have now stopped, and the speaker does not know the outcome of the battle. When dawn finally comes, the speaker can first make out a flag flapping in the weak breeze, but because the flag isn’t fully extended, the speaker doesn’t yet know whether it’s the American flag that was flying last night, or whether the British have taken down the flag and replaced it with their own.

But as a college English student, you are already expected to be able to understand the content (with help, of course, from footnotes, dictionaries, and published scholarship). The proper area of focus of a close reading would be details such as the author's expression --- specific word choice, rhyme scheme, figures of speech, places where the poet is being deliberately ambiguous.

Thus, a close reading is an argument about how the poem means, not a statement about what it means. (Elsewhere I have general handouts on thesis statements and writing an argument.)

Permalink | 7 Feb 2007 | Comments (0)

Blank Verse Workshop

Rescheduled from Feb 26.

Write ten-beat lines of verse, like Shakespeare wrote.
But lazy poets, do not fill your lines
With really wasteful words that just fill space
In order to repeat a point you've made,
Or words transpos'd, poetic more to seem.
Like this, who speaks? Like Yoda will you sound.

Yet rhymeless soul-pack'd verse astounds the mind.
It echoes common speech you hear all day
Then surges up to soar with metaphor
And crashes, lashing out with sputt'ring rage.

Permalink | 23 Feb 2007 | Comments (0)

Prosody Workshop 2

Discuss selections by Emily Dickinson and John Donne.

Permalink | 26 Feb 2007 | Comments (2)

Resume Workshop

You will work in small groups on your resume; I will meet with each student briefly to discuss Paper 1.

Permalink | 2 Mar 2007 | Comments (0)

Paper 1 Revision Workshop

Bring a printout of your Paper 1 draft.

Permalink | 21 Mar 2007 | Comments (0)

Entrepreneurial Workshop

A speaker from SHU's CareerWorks will discuss career-management strategies that will help you apply your English skills towards the kinds of details employers look for in new hires.

(Come with questions.)

Permalink | 23 Mar 2007 | Comments (0)

Research Workshop

Come to class with a sample research question for Paper 2. (We will talk about the difference between a research question and a thesis statement.)

Permalink | 18 Apr 2007 | Comments (0)

Sonnet Slam

Be prepared to deliver a version of your sonnet for the class.

You don't need to memorize your sonnet, but you should have practiced your delivery so that your oral presentation contributes to our understanding of your work.

Remember not to pause automatically at the end of every line, but remember also not to ignore the stressed and unstressed patterns that are part of the form of a sonnet.

Bring a double-spaced printout that we can put on the overhead projector.

Evaluation criteria for the sonnet exercise:

Meter: do the lines have the right number of syllables and the right pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables?
Diction: are your individual word choices effective? Does each word matter, or are your lines stuffed with filler ("I think that maybe I just might do that")? Does your poem include a list of emotions, or do your words SHOW emotion, using specific images that GENERATE unnamed emotions in the reader?
Form/Thought: do your quatrains and your sestet contain complete thoughts? Is there a twist in line 9? If you end with a rhymed couplet, does the couplet drive the point of the poem home? Does your poem look like more than 14 random lines stuck together? Is your poem chiefly focused on expressing the feelings that you have, rather than using specific, vivid imagery to generate new feelings in your reader? (Note: If you choose wonderful words that don't fit the meter, or your meter is perfect but your diction is simplistic, overall the fit between form and thought will suffer.)
Presentation: did your oral presentation add to our understanding of the poem? When speaking, did you remember not to pause mechanically at the end of every line? Did you remember to speak naturally, without artificially stressing the syllables that you need to stress in order to get the right meter? A singer can make "Happy birthday, dear Tim" and "Happy birthday, dear Veronica" fit the same music, but poets have to pay attention to each syllable.

Permalink | 30 Apr 2007 | Comments (2)