Prof. Alexandra Socarides
Spring 2011
Class: T/TH 9:30-10:45, Middlebush 205
Office Hours: TH 11am-1pm, Ellis Library Bookmark Cafe

English 4100/7100, Section 1:
How to Make a Poem: The History, Theory, and Practice of American Poetry

Course Description

In this course, we will immerse ourselves utterly in ten dynamic and important poems. Each one, written by a major American poet, will be accompanied by a packet (to be found on the course website) of historical, textual, theoretical, and creative materials that sheds light on what gives the poem its force: how it was made by its author, framed by its editor, received by its audiences, and interpreted by its critics. The purpose of the class will be three-fold: to widen our sense of American poetry, to deepen our understandings of poetic form, and to investigate and grapple with the various discourses that have shaped the ways in which we discuss both of these things. Poets will include: Anne Bradstreet, William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sylvia Plath.

Students will be required to come to every class having read and thought about all of the materials concerning the week’s poem. In addition, students will write weekly response papers (approx. 2 pages) on some aspect of the primary and/or secondary materials. Papers can tackle a historical problem surrounding the writing or editing of the poem, investigate a manuscript or textual detail, or critique one of the scholarly approaches. Students may also occasionally write their own poems or undertake creative projects in response. More than anything, these papers must demonstrate independent thinking about the materials. In the final weeks of the course, students will choose (in consultation with me) an American poem that we have not studied, create a packet of secondary materials on it, and write a longer paper (approx. 10 pages) about this process. Students will then present this work to the class. There will be no midterm or final exams.

All course materials can be found on the course website:


Attendance: I expect you to come to all classes and to be on time for class. If you are going to be absent, please email before the class to let me know. If you miss more than 2 classes, your grade will be lowered. If you miss more than 4 classes (2 weeks worth of the course), you will be dropped from the course.

Reading & Participation: I require that you complete the week’s reading in full before the Tuesday class begins. (Your assignments for Thursday will be to revisit specific sections of this reading and to do additional research and writing as necessary.) Please come to class with interesting things to say and provocative questions to ask.

Weekly Writing: Each week you will write a short paper (approx. 2 pages, double spaced) or undertake a creative response on some aspect of the upcoming week’s materials. This will be your opportunity every week to not simply regurgitate what the materials assert, but to think independently, originally, and critically about how the material functions: what it tells us about this poem and how it tells us that. My advice is to approach the week’s work this way: read the poem very carefully, memorize it (or part of it) if you have to, get inside it first, then read the materials, and as you read ask yourself: “How does this help me or hinder me from understanding the poem? How useful is it? What kind of work is this doing? How does it change my experience of the poem?” After you finish the reading, you can focus on one piece of it, or you can think about a combination of pieces. Write in response, which means, respond to the ideas, the style, the work it does or doesn’t do. Be creative, be scholarly, think independently, question the texts, show that you know the poem inside out. I am open to almost any angle you want to come at it from. My only requirement for the kind of work you do is that you over the course of the semester you try several different approaches. Here’s a rough rule: Write at least 2 analyses of the scholarly articles and undertake at least 2 creative projects (poems, films, collages, drawings, photographs, etc.). In all cases, approach the poems with curiosity and passion, whether you like them or not. You should post this response to the course website by Monday evening and a hard copy of this work will be due to me at the beginning of class on Tuesday. Only under extenuating circumstances will late papers be accepted.

Final Project: About half way through the term you will choose a poem that you would like to study and that we haven’t considered in class. Your project will be to gather various materials and sources on this poem. You are welcome to work individually, with a partner, or even with a larger group. At the semester’s end, every student will turn in a copy of his/her packet as well as a paper (approx. 10 pages, double spaced) in which you discuss the process of putting it together and what you learned from it. You will write a rough and final draft.


Final Project: 50%
Everything else (weekly papers, class participation, etc.): 50%

Statement of Academic Dishonesty

“Academic integrity is fundamental to the activities and principles of a university. All members of the academic community must be confident that each person’s work has been responsibly and honorably acquired, developed, and presented. Any effort to gain an advantage not given to all students is dishonest whether or not the effort is successful. The academic community regards breaches of the academic integrity rules as extremely serious matters. Sanctions for such a breach may include academic sanctions from the instructor, including failing the course for any violation, to disciplinary sanctions ranging from probation to expulsion. When in doubt about
plagiarism, paraphrasing, quoting, collaboration, or any other form of cheating, consult the course instructor.”


January 18: Introduction to the Class

January 20: Intro to Anne Bradstreet and Navigating the Course Website

January 25 & 27: Anne Bradstreet

February 1 & 3: No Class

February 8 & 10: William Cullen Bryant

February 15 & 17: Walt Whitman

February 22 & 24: Emily Dickinson

March 1 & 3: Wallace Stevens

March 8 & 10: William Carlos Williams

March 15 & 17: Langston Hughes

March 22 & 24: Elizabeth Bishop

March 28 – April 1: Spring Break

April 5 & 7: Gwendolyn Brooks

April 12 & 14: Sylvia Plath

April 19 & 21: Presentations

April 26 & 28: Presentations

May 3: Presentations