Q+A: Classics scholar discusses new Core sequence in Humanities

Beginning with Fall Quarter 2017, UChicago will offer Poetry and the Human, the first new Humanities Core sequence since 2007. Students in the sequence will study techniques and concepts in poetry from various cultural traditions and learn from instructors across ten departments in the Division of the Humanities, as well as from the Committee on Social Thought and the Creative Writing program.

Sarah Nooter, associate professor in the Department of Classics, specializes in Greek works and literary theory and linguistics. Nooter helped lead Poetry and the Human's development and recently discussed with UChicago News her inspiration and some of the works that students will encounter.

Where did the idea for Poetry and the Human come from?

I was asked to update one of the original courses, but I found that a bit demoralizing. And I thought about myself as a freshman and what would have been inspiring to me, and that’s how I first started thinking about this course.

Can you tell us what students might expect to study in each section?

The first section is about forms and transformation in and through poetry—really just learning about what poetry is and how it’s been thought about as foundational and at foundational moments. We’ll read poetry and philosophy from a number of different traditions, including Chinese, Indic and Mayan poetry, and will end by focusing on book 24 of The Iliad, which is about loss and mortality, looking at old English translations and contemporary adaptions.

The second quarter is where we’ll look at politics and performance. We’ll talk about current events and how a poet responds to the world and finds his or her voice. It’s not always about being anti-establishment. Sometimes poets are working with the regime to build institutions, for better or worse. We’ll also be able to bring in film to think about the edges of poetry and whether it must only be a linguistic act or can be made through images, music or movement. We have two films in mind to include, one by Paul Strand called Manhatta, which incorporates the poetry of Walt Whitman; and one by Maya Deren called Ritual in Transfigured Time, which we’ll read alongside the work of New York poets like Frank O’Hara.

In the third quarter, there will be two options, one a Humanities course and one in the Arts Core, which will be a creative writing workshop. In the Humanities course one of the things we’ll read is Emily Dickinson’s “envelope poems.” These were poems she literally wrote on envelopes, which we’ll consider in their original three-dimensional, creative context along with Greek epitaphs on stone to think about poems as objects. We’re excited that the Court Theatre is staging a play called the Belle of Amherst next year about Dickinson, and we’re going to be working with them.

Why do you think students should study poetry?   

I want there to be more poetry in the world. I went to a progressive school as a kid, and I remember that when the headmaster was asked what the goal of the school was, he answered that he wanted to supply a third of the world’s poets. I think that if we have a good group of first-years taking this course every year at U of C, and the result is that there’s more poetry in how they think and read and write, this change alone can make the world a better place.