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Winter Quarter 2013

English Through Poetry

John Webster and Carrie Matthews

Wed 1:30pm, MGH 085

John Webster

  • Office phone: 206 543-6203 Padelford A-407
  • Office Hours: Wed 2:40-3:45pm, and by appt
  • cicero (at)

Carrie Matthews

  • Office phone: 206 351-0214 Padelford A-21
  • Office Hours: Mon 1-3, and by appt
  • crmatthe (at)

Assignments and Updates


In this class we’ll read, write and talk about a poem a week. The poems won’t be very long, and they will be chosen to illustrate the different kinds of poems you might find in an English course. Some will be funny, some will be sad, all will be interesting. Anyone is welcome. International students may find it helpful to their English as well as a class that offers a glimpse of the sort of work English Departments do; science students may find it welcome relief from equilibrium equations.

Poetry is a special use of language, a way to communicate using as many of the different dimensions of language as it can to render ways of thinking or feeling or perceiving the worldit's a kind of painting with sounds. 

Poetry is far too big a subject to survey completely in a short course like this, so we will look at a few specimens and help you see how expert readers of poetry notice, explore and make sense of poetry’s multiple ways of making meaningparticularly by means of its forms, its sounds, its rhythms, and its metaphors.

Course Work:  The course description promises a poem a week, though we'll also look at a few other short poems to contrast or compare to the featured Poem of the Day.  Throughout we will be asking you to think carefully about the poems we read together, and to help you do that you’ll write a short response paper for every class. There will be no formal papers or mid-term assignments. You will end the class with a 2-3 page reflection on your experience in the seminar.

Course Grading: As a Freshman Seminar, the only grade you will get for this class is either "Credit" or "No Credit." If you come to class regularly, do the required work, and take part as best you can class exercises, you will get full credit.  Should you have to miss class, you will be responsible for contacting other students in the class to learn what you have missed. 

Text:  The only text book for the class will be the pamphlet we give you as we begin, and any other handout we think necessary. In addition, we'll make things available on line through this website.

Class Website: You will find on this website not just the material printed here but all assignments for the course (on the Assignments and Updates page), and any material we offer you to help in your reading of our poems week by week (on the Blackboard page).   

Office Hours: You are not just invited—you are urged to come in during the quarter and talk to one or both of us.  We would like to get to know you before the quarter goes on too long, and the single hour a week in class we have in class doesn’t give us much time!  So don’t be shy—come on in, either by yourself or as two or more students arriving together!   

Email:  You may Email if you would like—we don’t mind at all.  But don't be surprised if we cannot always give you a fast response. We get a LOT of email, and we cannot process it all when it first arrives. (Our email addresses are displayed above, at the top of this page.)

If it's a class for reading poetry, why must we write for each class?  Good question!  Here is our answer: 

First, writing is the single most effective way most of us have of making our learning active. Because the mere reading of poems is an essentially passive process, we ask you to write so that some of your thinking will be active.

Second, the writing you do will prepare you for our time together in class. With just an hour to meet each week, your having been actively engaged in writing before coming to class is crucial: our sessions will be more interesting and efficient, and every person in the class will actually have read the assignment and be better able to contribute to the conversation.

Third, you will learn more. Writing will help you figure out what you don’t already know, and will give you constant practice with the skills that the active reading of poetry requires.

Fourth and finally, writing each week will help you become a more fluent and interesting writer. You'll find yourself expressing yourself more easily and with more clarity as we move from week to week, and the pages you have written by the end of the quarter will give you a record of what has happened to your skills as both reader and writer as the quarter moved along.

What we want. Our criterion for the response papers is ECI: “engaged critical intelligence.” That means that you don’t have to be “right,” and you don’t have to be polished. You don’t even have to solve entirely whatever challenges we give you. But we do want to see real effort—writing in which your intelligence is critically engaged—even if it’s only to narrate for us the difficulties you are having as you come to grips with the assignment.

How Much Time Should You Spend Writing? Some students have spent more time on and felt more anxious about these responses than is necessary. Please understand: though we do want you to take this writing seriously, we're not asking for a series of “English papers.” We call them “response papers” to make clear that their purpose is to be responding with an Engaged Critical Intelligence (ECI!) both to the reading and to our question(s) about it.

Specifically that means: we expect from you either TWO typed pages, or ONE FULLY ENGAGED HOUR of writing.  If you want to spend more time than that—fine. Just don’t go over two pages, or, when posting on line, over the posted word-limit.

Our response to your responses. The primary usefulness of the papers you write is in the writing itself. We believe that you will get substantially more from this class by having written regularly throughout than you otherwise would—and end-of-quarter evaluations from earlier classes confirm that most students agree.

For the most part our comments will be of the “OK,” “good,” or “I’d like to see more thinking going on here” variety. (If you want more specific response to your work, you are always welcome to come talk with either of us during our office hours.)

Late Papers. As much as we wish it were otherwise, we do not accept late response papers! You can, however, miss one assignment without losing your credit for completing the course.

Finally, we do not accept emailed papers. Each day’s papers are due as class begins.  Thanks for your understanding.

All that said, we very much look forward to working with you on this introduction to What We Do When We Do English—a little reading, a little writing, and a whole lot of fun making sense of some very good poems….





Course Overview | Texts

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