What is the course about?
Many people feel we are in a period of growing crisis with Brexit, the aggressions of Trump and Putin, the rise of jihadism and growing populism and intolerance in many parts of the world. In the 1930s, in a similar period of crisis, Auden wrote “poetry makes nothing happen”, meaning it has no effect on how people and governments behave. Was he right? We will be looking at how some poets have responded to living in revolutionary periods by writing poems that have illuminated what is happening and helped people to understand, cope with and sometimes resist change that can be violent and threatening.
The aim of the course is to show how some great poets faced frightening political times and wrote about them brilliantly, showing how we too can find (and perhaps write) poetry that gives us strength and consolation in these difficult times.
Laurie Smith has taught writing and literature at The City Lit for some years, focussing on modernism and writers’ radicalism. He researches and teaches at King’s College London, helped to found Magma poetry magazine which he sometimes edits and has been a Trustee of the Poetry Society.
What will we cover?
We look at Wordsworth's, Blake's and Shelley's reactions to the French and American Revolutions, and the ways in which as radicals they coped with the most repressive British government there has ever been, building through Blake’s and Shelley’s increasingly angry critiques to Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, his furious response to the Peterloo Massacre.
We will then read a range of 20th century poets: Yeats and Heaney on the struggle for independence and peace in Ireland; Mayakovsky, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova responding to the Russian revolution and its increasingly destructive aftermath; Brecht and Auden on the rise of Fascism in the 30s; and several poets who held out against repression from the 1950s –Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert in Poland, (more subtly) Miroslav Holub in Czechoslovakia and Iannis Ritsos in Greece whose greatest poem became a revolutionary song.
We will look at the personal cost to these poets – how some were imprisoned, sometimes repeatedly; others forced into exile, suffered career failures or hid what they were doing, masking their critiques as something else or refusing to publish. But they all wrote brilliantly and we will consider how far their courage under political pressure enabled them to write so well.
What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...
• Understand how a range of poets responded to periods of political revolution
• Appreciate these poets’ power and originality
• Enjoy reading and discussing many fine poems.
What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?
You should be interested in how and why poets have responded to political pressure. No particular knowledge or skills are needed.
How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?
The sessions are run in a seminar style with all students included in discussions led by the tutor and some small-group discussions with feedback. You will receive photocopies of the poems the previous week so you can read them to be ready to discuss them.
Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?
No. Photocopies of all poems will be provided, although you may wish to read further in the texts being discussed .
When I've finished, what course can I do next?
Look for all poetry classes under Literature in Humanities in the prospectus or on www.citylit.ac.uk under History, Culture and Writing.