Spring 2024 Poetry-Centric Duke English Courses

Spring ’24 Poetry Classes Collage

This Spring, "poetry" has been the central theme for Duke English and the featured genre for events and courses. The department's course offerings included poetry-centric classes ranging from the traditional "Milton" course taught by Professor David Aers to "Poetry Beyond the Pages" taught by Blackburn Distinguished Artist in Residence, poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas. Throughout the semester, I had the opportunity to observe poetry-centric classes taught in the department which allowed me to experience what students are learning and the methods our professors use to teach poetry.

After I started studying poetry, I couldn't go back to novels. I find reading, studying, and writing about poetry to be the most exciting and intellectually stimulating activity. So, when I saw all of the poetry classes offered this semester, I wanted to take nearly all of them. My experience in each course has been richened by my work in the others. I've seen echoes of Milton in Robert Duncan, I've gotten to write about Milton's work in terms of the poetic theory I've been reading, and equally, all of the poets I've been exposed to have provided me with practical knowledge to apply to my theoretical understanding. For my poetry workshop, I don't know how I would write poetry without reading it in my other courses—poetry is perpetually in conversation with other poetry! Arielle Stern, ’25, English and French

ENGLISH 220S.01: Intro to PoetryProfessor Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(Blackburn Distinguished Artist in Residence)

Professor Toby Martinez's students were eager to learn about his writing and inquired about what he had written the week prior to the day that I visited their class. They had become familiar with his writing habits. He chose to share a piece he wrote after attending the “Poetry and Theology Symposium” co-hosted by Duke English, for which he was a panelist and a featured reader for the “Blackburn Poetry Reading and Q&A” session.


Martinez encouraged his students to write often and keep everything they write. Even if it doesn't end up being part of what they are working on at that moment, it might fit a future piece or be the catalyst for future work. 

Prior to reading what he had written, Martinez shared a different way of thinking about poetry and how a poet might devise their completed piece:

When you think about poetry, do you think it will be a sculpted and finished piece of art? But that's different from how the mind works; it doesn't work linearly. Part of the art of poetry is turning all this encoded chaos into something organized, cohesive, beautiful, and structured. Your job as a poet is to act as a reporter in this strange world, that is, your mind, where things don't operate under the same logic as they do in the outside world.

During class, Prof. Martinez divided his students into four small groups to share a poem they liked and discuss their selection amongst themselves. Following their group discussions, he used Mentimeter so that each student could share the first line of the poem they selected with the entire class. They then discussed these lines and their thoughts on why the poet chose those exact words. Martinez encouraged his students to be open to sharing their thoughts about the lines, whether they liked them or not. This led to some debate over how class members interpreted these lines and how some perceived them differently.

"Introduction to Poetry" has exposed me to a vast breadth of poetic forms, including haiku, haibun, riddles, prose poetry, etc. Toby is an incredible instructor. He cares so deeply about his students and their work. Not only is he accessible outside class, but he makes a concerted effort to get to know every student personally and work with them one-on-one. Toby's class has truly helped me reframe my relationship with poetry. I used to relegate it to a hobby, but he's helped me view it as a ritual and a practice—one that's fun and fulfilling. – Ali Thursland, ’24, Computer Science and Creative Writing minor

ENGLISH 290S-4.04: Poetry Beyond the PageProfessor Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(Blackburn Distinguished Artist in Residence)

When I visited Professor Toby Martinez de las Rivas' "Poetry Beyond the Page" class his students were presenting their "erasure" poetry. 

Photo of Prof. Martinez “Poetry Beyond the Pages” class

Erasure Poetry (also known as blackout poetry)
/əˈrāSHər/ / noun
A form of found poetry wherein a poet takes an existing text and erases, blacks out, or otherwise obscures a large portion of the text, creating a wholly new work with what remains.

Before this assignment, the class visited the Duke Rubenstein Archive to look for pieces they could use for their erasure pieces. The class discussed viewing works digitally versus hardcopy.

Prof. Martinez presented his students with a list of six elements to include during their "erasure" presentation:

  • Source Text/Why you chose it
  • Ethical consideration?
  • Erasure Tool/Why?
  • Process
  • Anything different next time?
  • Anything else?

It was exciting to see each student's erasure and learn the process they used to create their work and the motivation behind it. Each approached the assignment in their own way and illustrated their creativity with their erasure tool and text selection.

Natalia Harnisch, '27, English and Spanish major and English Ambassador, was the first student to present, and she shared a piece she created from a book cover and used black paint as her erasure tool.

With each student's presentation, the class critiqued and asked the presenting student questions. Prof. Martinez pointed out that with each student's unique piece, the student was sharing their voice with their peers through their word selection, their creative approach to the assignment, and in some cases the erasure tool utilized. The students' creativity was apparent in the words they selected to formulate their poems and the range of erasure tools of chosen:

  • Paint
  • Photoshop
  • Highlighting
  • Prosciutto
  • Ground beef
  • Etc.
ENGLISH 320S.01: Intermediate Workshop in the Writing of Poetry Professor Joseph Donahue
Prof. Donahue’s Intermediate Workshop in the Writing of Poetry

When I observed Professor Joseph Donahue's class, they were reviewing original poems they had written. After each poet read their work, the remaining class members dissected the poem, considering what the words conveyed, the format, and analyzed the piece in-depth.

Professor Donahue presented the class with a question to consider before discussing the poet's piece: "What gives this piece form and shape?"

The presenting poet sat quietly, listening to their peers critique their work. They discussed their takeaways from the piece and what they felt the poet communicated through their words. They also looked at what might have hidden meaning. They discussed potential wordplay, voice, tone, usage of punctuation, and other elements of writing as they attempted to interpret the message or story their fellow poet shared. This led to an open discussion about how some perceived the content and in some cases heard a different story than the poet intended. 

Taylor Donovan read her poem "Sickly, Sweet" to the class and then sat back as a silent observer before chiming in. Donovan stated much of the class's interpretation aligned with her vision for the poem. However, she noted that some of her peers' comments opened her mind to viewing her own words differently in some respects.

Professor Donahue's class has created an extremely comfortable space for students of diverse backgrounds to share poetry and give commentary on each other's works. Throughout the semester, a class of strangers has become a class of friends because of how welcoming and encouraging the classroom environment has been. Our discussions are lively, vulnerable, humorous, witty, profound, and insightful—it has definitely been one of my favorite classes at Duke. It has made me extremely comfortable with sharing and discussing my writing. Taylor Donovan, ’25, Psychology, English minor and Markets and Management certificate

It was clear from this class observation that Prof. Donahue teaches his students to dissect poetry, the words, format, energy, voice, and other elements through open discussion, which lends itself to peer-to-peer learning with the addition of having the poet Joseph Donahue as their professor sharing his knowledge about the genre.

Taking a poetry workshop has been one of my most enriching experiences as a Duke undergrad. Professor Donahue's class has allowed me to improve my writing and taught me life skills about giving and receiving feedback that transcends poetry. Being in a classroom full of passionate and thoughtful writers is a remarkable experience. – Becky Pahren, ’24, Biology, minors Chinese and Creative Writing

ENGLISH 338S.01: Milton – Professor David Aers

Professor Aers openly admits that he is obsessed with Milton and enjoys sharing his knowledge about the renowned English poet. Often, students might find it intimidating to take a course taught by a professor so knowledgeable about Milton. During my class observation it was clear that his students were excited to have the chance to learn from a Milton scholar of Aers' stature.

On the day I visited, Professor Aers' class they were discussing Milton's Paradise Lost, books 5-6. The students dove into discussing their reading assignment, which led to questions about individual interpretations and open discussion about differing opinions. From time to time, during this peer-to-peer learning opportunity, Professor Aers presented his class with questions to consider and shared his impressions of what Milton was trying to convey.

Prof. Aers’ goal for the class was to get his students to talk and share their thoughts on the readings, while opening their minds to Milton, and not just to him lecturing. It is his view that you learn more from sharing, and this method enhances the experience.

I've discovered in Professor Aers' class—and in the Miltonic world, generally—an angle not considered in my prior studies of English. Namely, there is an overlap of the theological, personal, political, moral, and historical; our class discussion appears to subsist in this Miltonic world of overlaps. Yes, Milton has little possibility for compartmentalization: the personal bleeds into the public and political, and the historical carves itself into the personal. We've seen Milton's prose play out in his poetry; his poetry reveals itself in his prose. The result has been transformative and transportive: we've, in a significant way, stepped foot in Milton's world of polemics, upheaval, and civil war and also into the carefully constructed canopy of his fine poetry. - Tomas Esber, ’24, Computer Science and English 

ENGLISH 372S.01: “Modern American Poetry” Professor Victor Strandberg

This semester, Professor Victor Strandberg taught a course titled "Modern American Poetry," which focused on 20th-century American poets and the elements of their work and how they have helped shape American poetry. The primary topic of discussion on the day that I visited the class was American poet and critic Ezra Pound, who Prof. Strandberg referred to as one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. He credited him as a significant contributor to "modernist poetry" as a promoter and supporter of more renowned writers and poets like Cummings, Eliot, Frost, Hemingway, H.D., Lowell, and others. Throughout the class it was noted that Pound was instrumental in encouraging other poets, and this was his most significant contribution, as his poetry is often not viewed as equal to that of his friends and proteges. 

A student asked Prof. Strandberg about Pound’s poetry:

Strandberg’s Chart

I am auditing Professor Strandberg's class as a member of the Durham community. I'm 72 years old and still working part-time, but I plan on auditing at least one course/semester for as long as possible. I chose Professor Strandberg's class because I don't read poetry and have long felt this gap needed filling. I am genuinely enjoying it.  Deborah Warren

While studying Pound the class looked at the element of "imagism" and how comparison devices can direct the reader toward the unknown and help determine the proper placement of "image" on the ladder. Prof. Strandberg illustrated this element by drawing a flow chart.

Prof. Strandberg pointed out that using poetic techniques of this nature incentivizes poets to utilize strategies that capture life amid the experience.

Professor Strandberg has been exceptional as a professor. The insights I have gleaned from his commentary (from Eliot to Frost) have reignited my love of poetry in both reading these texts and in my own creative writing. The kind of encyclopedic knowledge Professor Strandberg holds makes every class exciting - it adds great credibility to the interpretations he provides, while also allowing for our own (the students') thoughts to breathe and explore in the seminar setting. - Stanley Borden, ‘25, Computer Science, minors in Computational Biology & English

ENGLISH 590S-3.03: Double Consciousness: Perspectives on Composition in Black Music and PoetryProfessor Tsitsi Jaji (co-taught with Duke Music Professor Stephen Jaffe)
Photo Double Consciousness Class

As a member of the "Black Composition and Poetry" class, I was able to engage with multiple academic interests, such as music, poetry, and more critical writing. This class enhanced my work in archival research, as well, and showed me how an archive can be musically transformed, existing outside of its original form. It was a privilege to have the chance to take this course as an undergraduate: I learned so much about the intersection of music and literature in the course! - Trisha Santanam, ’26, English and Creative Writing minor

Professors Tsitsi Jaji and Stephen Jaffe created a course that integrates the worlds of poetry and music. Their class fuses words and music, which allowed students to blend their skills to create artistic works. The class studied songs of poetry and utilized archives, vocal artists, and poets, including Duke English Professor Nathaniel Mackey. The writers and composers in the class collaborated to create song art shared during "Concert of New Vocal Music by Duke Student Composers and Poets.” The composers in the class took the poets' text and set it to music. In some cases, the poet had not had the pleasure of hearing their final compositions until the  rehearsal the night before the concert.

The opportunity to study poetics in conversation with music in Prof. Jaji's "Double Consciousness" seminar has given me a new way of thinking about poetry. The collaborations we did between poets and composers in the class provided me with a new door into writing—making me more attentive to the sound and rhythm of language—and it was fascinating to learn about the process of composing and premiering a new piece of music. – Tyler King, ’25, Biomedical Engineering and English

"Concert of New Vocal Music by Duke Student Composers and Poets" was sponsored by the Department of Music and by the Office of the Provost. The song art was performed by soprano Professor Louise Toppin, University of Michigan, and pianist Joshua Marzan and, in a couple of cases, by the students themselves.

I am deeply honored that Professors Jaji and Jaffe held our work in such high regard that they presented it in a concert. I also sincerely appreciate the composers, pianist, and the talented Louis Toppin for arranging such a powerful presentation.

I've never encountered a course that so deeply encourages and necessitates self-reflection. Writing poetry is an intensely personal journey, demanding substantial time and energy for seemingly incremental progress. This course nurtured my writing in such a manner, fostering literary development and prompting profound contemplation on the manifestations of double consciousness.

I particularly valued the opportunity to collaborate with student composers from the Music department, each fluent in a specialized language understood by musicians but also enriched by poets. Our collaborative effort to transform poetry into song underscores an inevitable engagement with language, culture, perspective, and a heightened sensitivity to sound as a conduit for emotion. – Trivius Caldwell, Duke English PhD Candidate

ENGLISH 590S-4: Theory of PoetryProfessor Julianne Werlin

The topic of Prof. Werlin's "Theory of Poetry" class on the day I visited was "Lyric." 

Prof. Werlin’s “Theory of Poetry” class

/ˈlirik/ noun
A poem of a type that expresses the writer's emotions, typically briefly and in stanzas or recognized forms; a lyric poem.

Before discussing the day's topic, the class, comprised of half undergraduates and half graduate students, each shared the "poetic word" selected as part of a previous homework assignment. Students explained their word choice, and the class looked at poetic usages, whether it is a derivative of another word, and part of speech. The class’s discussion extended to how sound works in poetry and how poets can use words unexpectedly. 

Prof. Werlin noted that much of what the class had studied was with lyrics in mind. 

Prof. Werlin asked the class to consider how these elements are incorporated into the relationship between the poet and their audience. She then encouraged the class to examine "lyric" placement amongst the different poetic eras and forms of poetry.

My favorite part of the course has been applying formal theoretical frameworks to my critical analysis of poems and seeing how the meaning of poetic works can be deciphered by examining the construction of rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, etc. My classmates and I are asking questions about what it means for something to "sound good," how the way we use words can be used to subvert their meanings, and what the role of metaphor is in getting us closer to sense experience through language. I always look forward to our in-class discussions! - Arielle Stern, ’25, English & French

ENGLISH 890S.01: “H.D. and Robert Duncan”Professor Nathaniel Mackey

During Professor Mackey's "H.D. and Robert Duncan" class, students discussed Robert Duncan and the influence of modern poets on each other. They discussed Charles Olsen, the Black Mountain Poets, and how one poet's works and styles impacted other better-known poetic figures. 

I was excited to learn about Professor Mackey's "H.D. & Duncan" course. Both H.D. and Robert Duncan are deeply important poets to me, and the opportunity to spend the semester reading through their complex bodies of work—with the brilliant guidance of Prof. Mackey, no less—was a dream. I loved this class. Tessa Bolsover, Duke English PhD candidate

Mackey’s students were enamored learning from a poetic scholar like him as he opened their eyes to new and different ways of perceiving the works of those viewed as masters of the art. Throughout the class, discussion often touched on discovery and ideas that could lead to potential research topics, which Mackey encouraged his students to pursue, because their class discussion would only scratch the surface of ideas. One could dig deeper into these ideas carving scholarly research that could lead to new discoveries, literary connections, and styles.

During this class session a recording of Robert Duncan reading his poem, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" was played. Listening to the poet reading steered discussion on how this poem seemed to differ from others in his "Opening of the Field" collection. 

The class reviewed the physical layout of words on pages, questioning the use of non-traditional margins and indentions of poems they were studying. Mackey shared that some poets use these design elements as scoring devices or a method of illustrating a shift in the theme, its inspiration, and where it is trying to take the reader. He noted that some poets of the era utilized these elements, because they were using a typewriter.

Fall ’24 Poetry Courses

  • ENGLISH 220S.01 - Intro to The Writing of Poetry - Frances Leviston 
  • ENGLISH 220S.02 - Intro to The Writing of Poetry – Toby Martinez de las Rivas
  • ENGLISH 290S-4.61 – Special Topics in Creative Writing – Poetry and the Archive – Toby Martinez de las Rivas
  • ENGLISH 320S.01 - Intermediate Workshop: Writing of Poetry – Joseph Donahue
  • ENGLISH 420S.01 - Advanced Workshop in Writing of Poetry - Nathaniel Mackey