First-Year Studies in Poetry: Masks, Personas, and the Literal I

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We will read a book each week, focusing on writers who utilize masks and personas to explore depths of honesty, thought, and feeling that might otherwise be off-limits—such as John Berryman’s Henry, Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, the heteronyms of Fernado Pessoa, and the expansive I in Whitman’s Song of Myself), all of which complicate the notion of the unified first person. Other poets to be read closely include Louise Gluck, Monica Youn, James Dickey, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Tretheway, and others. We will look at the different ways a character can be created and inhabited via syntax, diction, emotional crescendos and deflations, associative leaps, metaphors, and tonal shifts. We will also read individual poems by poets who use a more literal I, considering the similarities and differences between poems uttered in the voice of a distinct character and those spoken more directly and, hopefully, coming to a richer understanding of the possibilities of the first person. Class time will be split between discussing the reading and student work.