ENG 247 Modes of Experiment on Postwar Poetry

Michael Thurston, T Th 3:00 PM-4:20 PM

 We tend to assume that a poem is made of more or less familiar words put together through more or less familiar structures (of grammar, of rhetoric, of stanzaic form) in order to produce more or less accessible meanings. This kind of poem, in which someone named “I” does something like wander lonely as a cloud or rise from her grave and eat men, we generally know how to read. What, though, do we do with a poem that starts like this: mira ool dara frim. Especially when it doesn’t go on to resolve into anything more familiar or comprehensible? What do we do with poems produced not by a self with something to express but by operations of chance or assembly from pre-existing bits of language? What about a poem that is literally illegible because it is intentionally smeared during printing or intentionally printed so that lines intersect and partially obliterate each other? What about a poem that is made of all kinds of sounds, none of them forming words, grunted and spit and shouted? Or one that consists of letters printed and groups but not forming words?


This course surveys some of the many ways poets during the last seventy years have stopped making sense, have sought, instead, to expand the boundaries of poetry, to escape assumptions about the lyric speaker and “self,” to release the energies of sound and the non-semantic properties of language, often in hopes of contributing to social revolutions and the imagining of new ways of being in the world. We will “read” a wide variety of such work, by, among others, Dada poets, Oulipo poets, Concrete poets, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, John Cage, Jackson MacLow, Bob Cobbing, Christian Bök, Caroline Bergvall, Maggie O’Sullivan, Harryette Mullen, Susan Howe, and the wonderfully named Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. In addition, we will try our hand at some of the compositional games and strategies by which these poets produce their texts, and we will, with sufficient student interest, stage a presentation and performance of this work. Final projects will take the form of  “anthologies” with critical introductions of work by a selected poet or group, which may end up taking electronic form. Our aim will be to find the ways in -- often through pleasure and puzzlement, rather than the search for meaning -- to these curious and compelling poetries.