Struggle to be heard: Rimbaud, Cavafy, Tsvetaeva, Binta Breeze

Course Dates: 02/05/24 - 23/05/24
Time: 18:00 - 19:30
Location: Keeley Street
We look at four poets who struggled to be heard or accepted because their work was so different from what their society expected. What were the barriers they had to overcome and how did they win through to become admired and highly regarded? What made one of the poets stop writing at the age of 21 and the other three continue for the rest of their lives? What makes the poetry of all of them so original, and what can we learn from their resilience?
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Struggle to be heard: Rimbaud, Cavafy, Tsvetaeva, Binta Breeze
  • Course Code: HLT52
  • Dates: 02/05/24 - 23/05/24
  • Time: 18:00 - 19:30
  • Taught: Thu, Evening
  • Duration: 4 sessions (over 4 weeks)
  • Location: Keeley Street
  • Tutor: Laurie Smith

Course Code: HLT52

Thu, eve, 02 May - 23 May '24

Duration: 4 sessions (over 4 weeks)

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What is the course about?

This in-college literature course begins with Arthur Rimbaud who wrote all his poetry by the age of 21 and then wrote no more, becoming a trader and gunrunner in Africa before his death aged 37. He had an intense affair with another poet, Paul Verlaine, who eventually shot him in the wrist and was imprisoned for two years. Rimbaud's poems are highly original and regarded as central to the development of Symbolism in French poetry. We will discuss why he abandoned writing poetry so young. Please note: we will read some of his poems in French and English, but discuss only the English versions.

Constantine Cavafy, a Greek living in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, refused to have his poems formally published, preferring to have them printed individually to give to friends. E M Forster, who introduced his poems to the English-speaking world, described him as "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe." Many of his poems are beautiful and very moving; some are quite erotic. As a gay man, his life as a civil servant was subject to strict rules. We will discuss whether the restrictions he experienced limited or enhanced his poetry.

What will we cover?

The course continues with Marina Tsvetaeva who rejected a woman's traditional role in Russia and wrote large numbers of sparky, spiky poems, viewing the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath with fierce wit and humour. As well as being married and the mother of three children, she had relations of varying intimacy with other men and at least two women. Her poems are highly original in form and tone. With Akhmatova, she is now regarded as one of Russia’s two greatest 20th century women poets.

Jean Binta Breeze, a Jamaican, refused to accept that dub poetry could be created only by men who often wrote in an aggressive and sometimes misogynistic way. She established herself as the first woman dub poet and has been hugely influential, especially for younger Black women poets. We will look at how she used a diagnosis of schizophrenia as a source of strength and inspiration, and at the potential importance of dub in British poetry.

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

• Understand why these four poets struggled to be heard or accepted
• Understand what makes their poetry highly original
• Enjoy reading and discussing many fine poems.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

You should be interested in exploring how thoughts and feelings are expressed in new ways by the four poets, through reading and discussing representative selections of their work. No particular knowledge or skills are needed.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

Tutor explanation and group discussion. You will be sent the poems by email several days before the course so you can read and think about them, and decide whether you would like to read one to the class. Beyond this there is no preparatory work.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

No, photocopies of the poems will be provided at the beginning of the session. You may find it useful to bring a notebook and pen.

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

Look for other Poetry courses at under History, Culture and Writing/Literature/Poetry.

Laurie Smith

Laurie Smith has taught poetry writing and literature courses at the City Lit for some years, focussing on modernism and writers' radicalism. He researches and lectures at King's College London, helped to found Magma poetry magazine which he sometimes edits and has been a Trustee of the Poetry Society.

Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.