1. Introduction to the Project

When I began studying poetry as an undergraduate student there was no digital archive of poems or commentaries on poems. There was no internet. With the advent of the web, digital sites with comments on poems began to appear. Most of these sites and commentaries were not especially helpful, except perhaps for a desperate student seeking to have someone else do their learning.

So years ago a group of students and I published an open-access book designed to provide engaging and reliable commentaries on individual poems. American Poetry and Poetics is a living anthology of commentaries on poems, as well as more extended essays on literary production, reception and form, There are currently fifteen commentaries on poems by the nineteenth-century poets Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman, all written by undergraduate students at New Hampshire’s public liberal arts institution, Keene State College.

Here is the introductory note to the book:

We are interested in sharing the excitement and controversies among readers and writers of poetry as they wrestle with broader questions about language, culture and imagination. To this end, we offer comments onboth exemplary and representative poems of poets who have shaped the tradition of writers and readers, as well as discussions of the poems that have surfaced more recently as a result of archival and editorial work. Our efforts are at the same time engaged with poetics, including the critical and theoretical conversation concerned with American poetry, the historical and cultural contexts in which poetry has been written, and the diverse ways poems have been (and continue to be) read.

This semester you will be writing five commentaries in the course and submitting them for publication in this online resource guide.  The final versions of the commentaries, and decisions about publication, will be in October.

2. Writing Commentaries

The commentaries are descriptive. You will not be writing to advance an interpretive claim. Rather, the work is to discover, describe and elaborate on some of the reasons why the poem matters. It is important that you choose poems that interest you or that challenge you. It is imperative that you also do comprehensive research to find out exactly what others have said about the poem in the secondary criticism.Each commentary will demonstrate an awareness of the formal and thematic concerns of the poem as well as the ways the poem has been read by other readers. You are responsible for reading and quoting from, when appropriate, readers who have published commentary on your poem.

Books and essays in the Mason Library and Databases that can be readily accessed through the Mason Library English Portal 

Material available on the web: for example, the Maine Historical Society,  The Poetry Foundation,  The Academy of American PoetsWikipedia

Each entry will include

  • the poem
  • an audio file of you reading the poem aloud (more on this later)
  • a succinct overview of the poem (or section or segment of a long poem) and a focused commentary of no more than 500 words
  • a bibliography and further reading section that directs readers to the extant commentary on the poem

The format for and content of each entry will follow the sequence below:

1st paragraph: Text and Context Historical and factual information

textual information

  1. texts have histories (manuscripts, versions, editions) that may be relevant
  2. texts first appeared where (date and location) and then in book form
  3. poetics: poem (verse) structure: lyric, narrative, dramatic

contextual information

  1. biographical
  2. social/cultural
  3. when the poem occurred in the arc of the poets career

Can end in transitional summary sentence to continue the commentary

2nd paragraph: Summary of the poem Descriptive account of form and content

  1. relevant details of poem structure (octave/sestet, narrative book-length poem, etc.)
  2. relation of poem to other poems or texts or contexts
  3. relevant summary of poetic features (language, imagery)
  4. relevant lines, phrases, words quoted as evidence

3rd paragraph: Critical reception of poem Tradition of commentary and conversation about the poem

  1. How was the poem received by contemporaries?
  2. How has the poem been read by readers since its publication?
  3. Are there critical debates or different ways of reading the poem?
  4. How does the poem fit into a literary tradition?

4th paragraph: Conclusion Informed comment about the significance and/or interest of the poem

Most students of literature and culture I have worked with in the past have been surprised at the challenges (and pleasures) of descriptive writing. Most everyone has found these pieces of writing especially rewarding, too, as they are written for a general audience and not merely for the teacher of the course.

3. Examples from the Book

The entries published in American Poetry and Poetics will be useful as models. And we will discuss descriptive writing in class.

4. Editorial and Production Work

Writing, rewriting, and editing for publication are collaborative processes.

Writing and rewriting involves self-directed work as well as the productive incorporation of feedback on your writing from others:

  • You are producing your commentary, allowing it (and yourself) to give it rest for a few days, reading general feedback, and making changes
  • You are receiving feedback on your commentaries. You have examples above and others in the book.
  • I have written and published the blog post Commentary on Commentaries that offers a preliminary assessment of your work, offers an example of a research process (poking and prying with a purpose), and a reminder about formatting guidelines

This process will continue with feedback on your commentaries from your peers and from Mark during weeks 5–8 of the course.

Editing The form and content of the commentaries will be consistent across the entries. We will be working on larger organizational structure as well as copy editing (mechanics, punctuation).

Production This stage in the process will likely spill over into part two of the course. There are a number of things to do. We will need:

  •  managing editors (2) to make sure that all the commentaries are consistent. Mark will produce a Google folder for all the commentaries and invite the managing editors to have editing privileges
  •  an editorial team (3–5) to go over the existing entries in the book and make any necessary corrections or additions. This will be a interesting and educational editorial process that will involve working with Mark.
  • a sound team (2) who will be responsible for working with all the contributors to assure the audio files with each poem are of consistent and usable quality. Each sound file will be an embedded media file that will look like this:

This file was produced with the application Quick Time Player on a MAC. There are other ways to produce files that we can use, .mp3, .m4a, .ogg, or .wav files. Word Press has a Tutorial on Audio

Another method is to use the Voice Memo on an Iphone. Utlilities > Voice Memo > upload M4a file

  • a contributors team (4) who will design and generate content for a page with thumbnail images of the contributors (or an avatar if the contributor wishes). We will be shooting for a page like the People Page on the Democracy + Culture site I built with students in another course