Blackness, Freedom, Free Verse

ENGL 604/800, Winter 2017, Monday 6:00-8:15pm


"The poem is no sugar-mill to grind cane-stalk" - Aimé Césaire  "Unimaginably intricate at the thick lip" - G.S. Giscombe

"The poem is no sugar-mill to grind cane-stalk"
- Aimé Césaire

"Unimaginably intricate at the thick lip"
- G.S. Giscombe

Analyzing the “complicity of slavery and freedom,” Saidiya Hartman asks: “is not the free will of the individual measured precisely through the exercise of constraint and autonomy determined by the capacity to participate in relations of exchange that only fetter and bind the subject?” The key terms of this complex question — freedom, measure, constraint — bear not only upon problems of social determination, but also upon problems of poetic form. Is it possible to link social determination and poetic form, as these pertain to Black history and aesthetics, through the sort of question Hartman asks?

Taking up the bearing of this question upon contemporary American poetry, this course will focus on the relation between Blackness, freedom, and free verse. We will read poetry by Claudia Rankine, Aimé Césaire, Dionne Brand, Jean Toomer, M. NorbeSe Philip, Nathaniel Mackey, C.S. Giscombe, Amiri Baraka, and Evie Shockley leading us into investigations of how the history and experience of racial ascription is at issue in discrepant forms of free verse lyric, open field poetry, and poetic cartography. Interspersed with these volumes, we will discuss theories of Black positionality, performativity, and aesthetics articulated by Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Frank Wilderson, and Neil Roberts.


Black Life, Social Death, Poetic Form

WEEK 1     Introduction: White Supremacy, Anti-Blackness, Poetic Form
                    - Petrarch, Shakespeare, Toomer, Wheatley, Dunbar
                    - Saidiya Harman, Scenes of Subjection, Introduction

WEEK 2     Blackness and Freedom
                    - Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”
                    - Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, Chapters 4 & 5
                    - Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, Part 1 & 3

WEEK 3     Blackness and Free Verse
                    - Stéphane Mallarmé, “Crisis in Verse”
                    - Ezra Pound,  “A Retrospect”
                    - Charles Olson, “Projective Verse"
                    - Nathaniel Mackey, Discrepant Engagement, “On Edge,” “Other: From Noun to Verb”
                    - Fred Moten, In the Break, “Resistance of the Object,” from The Sentimental Avant-Garde”
                    - Evie Shockley, from Renegade Poetics, Introduction & Coda

WEEK 4     The Prose of the World
                    - Claudia Rankine, Citizen
                    - Frank Wilderson, from Red, White, and Black, Introduction and Chapter 1
                    - Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)

Negritude: Return / No Return

WEEK 5     Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
                    - Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism
                    - Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”

WEEK 6     Dionne Brand, Primitive Offensive
                    - Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return

Reconstruction, Jim Crow, North and South

WEEK 7     Jean Toomer, Cane
Langston Hughes, “The Negro Poet and the Racial Mountain”

WEEK 8     Tyehimba Jess, Olio
Amiri Baraka, “The Blues Aesthetic and the Black Aesthetic”

Middle Passages, Migrations

WEEK 9     M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong!             

WEEK 10    Nathaniel Mackey, Eroding Witness
                    - Nathaniel Mackey, “That Words Can Be on the Page” “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol”

WEEK 11    C.S. Giscombe, Here and Giscombe Road          

Black Arts

WEEK 12    Amiri Baraka, Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art
                    - Amiri Baraka, “How You Sound?”, “The Legacy of Malcolm X, and the Coming of the Black Nation,” “State/meant”
                    - Nathaniel Mackey, “The Changing Same: Black Music in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka”

WEEK 13    Evie Shockley, The New Black
                    - Evie Shockley, "Complicating the Subject: Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge as African American Blues Epic"