The New Life: Poetry of Transformation

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This course is a close reading of several poets whose work is deeply bound up with the experience of transformation—of themselves, of the world as they perceive it, and thus necessarily of their own poetry. We begin with Dante’s “Vita Nuova” (c. 1294), which tells the story of the poet literally translated by his visionary love for Beatrice, and we end with Louise Glück’s delicate and resonant “Vita Nova” (1999). In between, we will read three other poets in whom fearful or desirable change shines out like revelation: Donne, Keats, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. As Donne responds to the contrary pulls of the erotic and the religious, he writes with a “metaphysical” wit that, uniting opposites by dint of sheer verbal exertion, becomes its own force for transformation. In Keats’s letters and poems, we see the poles of nature and imagination, change and changelessness, frame the poet’s developing argument with himself over the purpose of poetry. For Hopkins, transformation takes on a dangerous beauty in a human and natural world, simultaneously breaking and blazing with the divine. Whether as readers or writers of poetry, or both, we aim, by consistent attention to the language and technique of the poems we read, to deepen our understanding and sharpen our ability to articulate what those poems do. Students may do conference work in a wide range of poets and topics in poetry or choose an altogether different focus, depending on their interests and needs.