Course Description

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.

Wilfred Owen


In the traditional view, “War Poetry” is a discrete genre that depicts the glories and horrors of the battlefield, ideally rooted in actual combat experience. But in the middle of the 20th century – which she called “the first century of world wars” – American poet Muriel Rukeyser declared, “There is no way to speak of war as a subject for poetry. War enters all our lives, but even that horror is only a beginning.” If one argument for the value of poetry is that, as language pushed to its imaginative limits, it has the flexibility and acuity to represent the extremes of human experience, to express that which cannot be expressed, then war must have no better medium. In this course, we will engage the potentials and pitfalls of the genre of “War Poetry” both as writers ourselves and from the vantage point of our current century of pervasive, diffuse, constant, and varied war.

Far from viewing War Poetry as a kind of writing whose extreme subject matter separates it from comparison with other pieces, we will read and write in response to particular war poems in order to ask questions of speaker, audience, representation, and purpose that are at the heart of all writing. In particular: What constitutes a war poem? Who gets to write war poems? What or who gives them that authority? What purpose does this writing serve? Who is its intended audience? What is its impact on a readership beyond that audience? How do the semantic and creative choices writers make respond to the realities of war make meaning and feeling possible? Does extreme experience require extreme or fractured language? Each of these questions has political, ethical, emotional, and intellectual ramifications that extend far beyond the particular page. Thus, we will undertake a series of written responses – both creative and analytical, individual and collaborative – that will follow and make arguments about these texts and their work in the wider world. Course texts will range from sections of Homer’s Iliad to some extremely recent volumes of experimental poetry, including Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War and Solmaz Sharif’s Look.


Course Texts

The Iliad, by Homer & translated by Robert Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad, by Alice Oswald (WW Norton & Co)
Hardly War, by Don Mee Choi (Wave Books)
Look, by Solmaz Sharif (Graywolf Press)


Instructor: Stefania Heim

Contact: stefania.heim@duke.edu

Office: Art Building (East Campus) 200R

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