Final Paper Topics: Surrealists, Kabbani, Rich
1. Ever since Sappho we have touched on the relationships between love and power. There’s love’s power over the lover, the beloved’s power over the one who loves her (or him), and the power of the lover over his or her beloved; we’ve also talked about the ways that power shifts and adjusts within a relationship, and the ways that difference or equality in power can spark or stifle desire. Choose one poem by one of our final group of poets (the Surrealists, Kabbani, Rich) and write an essay about the complexities of this relationship between love and power in it. Or, if you prefer, you can compare and contrast multiple poems by a single poet, or two poems by two different poets. Be sure to use the ideas you come up with as a way to show nuances and subtleties in the poems you discuss, rather than settling for generalities about ideas alone—and please, don’t try to tackle more than two or three poems in total!
2. Ever since Sappho, love poets have courted not only their ostensible beloveds, but also their readers. Indeed, as we saw with Whitman, for some love poets, the relationship with the reader may be the most complex, sustained, and important one. Think back over our final set of poets (the Surrealists, Kabbani, Rich) and choose one who constructs an interesting relationship with his or her readers. Write an essay about the complexities of that relationship and how it is constructed, either in a single poem or collectively, across several texts.
3. In his book on love and eroticism, The Double Flame, the Mexican poet and scholar Octavio Paz devotes a chapter to the Surrealists. In it, he describes Surrealist love in a number of highly dramatic ways. Love is “the experience of complete otherness: we are outside ourselves, hurtling toward the beloved,” he tells us—and then, a few pages later, he says that love is “freedom personified, freedom incarnated in a body and a soul.” Pretty giddy stuff! What does it look like in practice? Using Paz’s ideas, or ideas about Surrealist love from the introduction to our anthology, write an essay on one or more Surrealist love poems that we did not go over in class, making sense of what they do (if not of every image) in light of those ideas. Organize your essay by the ideas you’re working with—otherness, self-transformation, freedom, “mad love,” etc.—and then show how passages from the poem or poems you choose can illustrate those ideas.
4. One way to read 20th century love poetry is to imagine it tugged between the century’s two contradictory impulses where love itself is concerned. On the one hand, there has been an itch to debunk love, casting a cold-eyed eye on what love means in practice for women and men, psychologically and socio-politically. On the other hand, the twentieth century has also been a great age for the mystification of love, or maybe its re-mystification: a celebration of love as something powerful and transformative, even revolutionary. No wonder, then, that our final set of love poets sometimes seem torn between these two extremes as well—or that they can draw on both in a single poem or sequence, playing them off against each other. Choose one poet from our final group, and write a paper on how he or she debunks love, remystifies it, or threads his or her way between these two, either in a single poem or across a set of poems (I suggest no more than three).
5. In reading both of our final poets, Kabbani and Rich, we took a biographical approach to the work, drawing both on the poets’ actual lives and on the three-dimensional, layered characters they each construct for us in their poems. Choose one of these poets, find a poem we read for class that we didn’t go over in lecture / discussion, and write a paper on that poem that shows how it fits into that overall biographical narrative. What typical features of the poet’s work—or of this particular stage in his or her work—does this poem demonstrate? How is it like, or unlike, other poems that we did discuss in class, repeating and / or varying ideas, images, or rhetorical moves?
6. Both Kabbani and Rich write poems in sections, whether these are numbered poems in a sequence (like the “Twenty-One Love Poems” or Kabbani’s “One Hundred Love Letters”) or simply poems that fall into separate sections marked by a dot or a turn of the page (as in Kabbani’s “I Learn by Reading Your Body” or “I Will Tell You: I Love You”). Pick one poem from a longer sequence / series by one of these poets, and write a close reading of that poem in light of its place in the whole. For example, you might choose the “Floating Poem” or the final poem in the “Twenty-One Love Poems” and write an essay on how it relates to the poems right around it, or to the rest of the sequence, in imagery, tone, idea, placing it in the overall “plot” of the sequence.
7. In a poem by Rich which we didn't read, “Transcendental Etudes,” the poet makes a grand declaration about the poetry of lesbian love and women’s community that she begins to write in the mid-1970s, calling it “a whole new poetry beginning here.” As the lightly-varied iambic pentameter form of that line suggests, however, this “whole new poetry” may have a lot in common with earlier poetry, by Rich and others. Is this true of its vision of love? Or do we see something truly “new” (or truly “whole”) in these poems? Pick one or two of the lesbian love / marriage / relationship poems from Rich’s middle or later career—poems from The Dream of a Common Language and after—and compare / contrast them with one or more poems about heterosexual love / marriage / relationships from earlier in her career. What do you find?