Identity Poetics

English 685/468 ~ Fall 2001 ~ Susan Tichy 

Paper Guidelines

In keeping with the dash-through nature of a survey course, papers should be extensions and developments of ideas discussed in class--or perhaps of ideas we didn’t have time for in class. They need not be researched beyond the class readings, but I recommend that once you have identified your topic you read thoroughly all the appropriate material on the reading schedule.

I recommend this because your papers must engage not only with individual poems but with ideas from the readings.  Your papers may not be unsituated readings of poems relying solely on your own close-reading skills

Your first paper will be on Mackey, Brathwaite, and/or Mullen. Second paper will be on a Scottish poet (or poets) or Torres. You'll have an opportunity to write on  poets from the end of the course in the second exam.

Papers should be 2000-2500 words. Please include a word-count on the first page, following the same guidelines.

Include a word-count for your paper. Do not include the words in poems or other texts you quote at length. If you quote a line in the middle of a sentence, count it; if you quote two stanzas of a poem or a paragraph from an essay, leave it out. The point of this rule is to be sure your paper is of an adequate length to develop your ideas, not just filled up with quoted material. Bad papers are often stuffed in this way, so that word or page count appears to conform to the assignment but in fact very little is said.

More Tips

1. Friction helps develop ideas, so you may find it easier to write a clear and substantive discussion if your topic requires you to bring two texts or two ideas into contact with each other. 

For example, if you are interested in Muse & Drudge as a "mongrel" text you might discuss the multiple ways it is "mongrel' in its form, its diction, its rhythms, its audience, etc., rather than focusing on only one of those elements. Or, you might discuss the "mongrel" aspect of this book as it compares to the "creole" aspect of Brathwaite's "Islands."

If you want to explore a large question like how "identity" is created or expressed by choices regarding poetic form, you should spend some time narrowing your topic from the very general to the very specific. If you want to explore how poets use forms analogous to jazz or blues, for example, you could compose an introduction that narrowed gradually from "African American identity" to improvisational forms to music and finally to the one or two poets you want to discuss -- say a contrast of the wandering improvisational line in Mackey and the blues-inspired quatrain in Mullen.

Another approach to a large question like "identity" would be to begin your paper with one definition and then use your discussion of poems to demonstrate how other definitions of "identity poetics" can emerge from close attention to the particular aspects of the work you are interested in.

If this is your first graduate paper, I recommend that you choose a fairly narrow topic, and/or a topic on which you feel fairly secure -- perhaps one that ties in with something you've read or written about before . This will allow you to execute brilliantly and to test your expectations against mine. I also recommend smallish topics to those who have trouble staying within length guidelines.

2. Be sure to ground your paper in the texts. Your ideas may be large but they must relate directly to the texts we have read.

3. In this as in any paper you must in some way define your project. Be brief, but be clear. It may be that a clear formulation of your project can be written only after a draft of two of the paper is complete, but for this poor readers' sake, please state your project at or near the beginning of the paper.

4. Remember that what you may not do is simply present an unframed close reading of a couple of poems, as if you and your audience are known to be in perfect agreement about what “a reading” should be looking for. I have received papers in the past that did just that--launching into a “close reading” without ever (at the start or the end or anywhere) saying what this reading was supposed to  demonstrate. 

5. Whatever your topic, direct your paper toward a reader who is at least as sophisticated (re: poetry) as yourself. Don’t waste space explaining, for example, what a metaphor is. This would be relevant only if you were contesting “metaphor” as a category or comparing metaphor with some other concept or trope.

6. Do define your terms, however. In the hypothetical first topic above you would need to either quote and adopt definitions of "mongrel" and "creole" taken from the readings or explain how you were modifying those definitons. (Laurence Breiner discusses "creole" in several places in his An Introduction to West Indian Poetry by the way. The briefest definitions are near the end of the introduction when he is laying out the justifications and contexts for terms he'll use throughout the book.)

An example of not adequately defining your terms and/or simply ignoring the class readings might go something like this: in the music & identity example above you use the term "improvisation" as if it meant an "anything goes" messing around without any particular grounding in technique or structure. If you want to make an argument for that definiton of course you may, but you must say that's what you're doing and bring it into some relationship (even if is a relationship of refutation) with Mackey and Baraka's writing on this aspect of jazz
Similarly, if you are about to perform a “Lacanian” or a “Marxist” reading of a poem, you must be specific about what those terms mean. What kind of “Marxist criticism” do you have in mind, for example?  If you are a novice at this kind of analysis, you might want to limit your terms to a specific application. For example, “I am going to analyze this poem in the terms set forth by Ron Silliman in his essay on poetic economy.” If necessary you can attach said essay to yours. 
Chamber of Horrors

Some serious or fatal flaws in papers & presentations I’ve received in the past:

a)  No topic sentence; no declared purpose for the paper. (Yes, it happens.)

b)  No conclusion: paper looks like it ended when the clock struck 12.

c) An argument framed by a particular theoretical approach (e.g. New Historicism, dialogism, etc.) in which the governing terms (e.g. “New Historicism”, “dialogism,” etc.) are never defined at all, or never narrowed enough to be meaningful (e.g., what kind of “new historicism”? whose “dialogism”?).

c) An argument based on a historical reading of a poem (i.e. a time-specific interpretation of its content) in which the date of composition was not taken into account.

d)  A comparison of some elements of a recent poet’s wok with the work of “traditional poets” of the past, in which the latter were defined as “all the poets of the past who wrote in traditional forms.” What forms? what decade? what century? what poets? If you set out to compare A and B, both A and B must be limited enough to be meaningful and must be defined.

e) A discussion of critical ideas (from one critic, comparing critics, etc.) that summarized the material at hand but contained no actual thinking by the author of the paper--no synthesis, no conclusion, no refutation, no nuthin’. Such a paper might be thought of as Step One: Get a Handle on Your Subject, competently executed, but with  no attempt at Step Two: What Have You Got to Say About Your Subject?

f) A discussion of recurring themes in a poet’s work that did no more than point to examples (“see, here it is in another poem, and another one...”) so the conclusion of the paper was identical to its starting point: yup, no doubt about it, this poet writes on these subjects. Again, this kind of paper can be thought of as the
groundwork for something of more real use. You have located enough examples to know you have solid material to work with--now what is there to say about it?


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