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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 24, 2020

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Prof. Amir Eshel


Office: Building 260, Room 219

Office Hours: Tuesdays 9-11

Lucy Alford

Course Description

Our creative investigation in this course will center on the human aptitude to approach life and the worlds we inhabit poetically—in modes of writing, speaking, and making that are not governed by systematic reasoning. We will consider how poetic works across media raise personal, communal, ethical, and political dilemmas. Studying mythological, religious, literary, cinematic and digital works, we’ll ask how poetic objects permit us to contemplate how to live our lives. The course culminates with a creative project or portfolio drawing on student’s aesthetic medium of choice. No formal training or background in art or creative practice is required; a key component of this course will be incremental learning of simple digital tools in section and through guided assignments to facilitate creative and poetic engagement with course materials.

Learning Objectives

The aim of this course is to provide a platform for close encounters with diverse literary and aesthetic objects, and to explore the practice of poetic thinking through reading, writing, and critical making. In class discussion and in diverse critical and creative responses (on our website) to each other’s work, this course will build knowledge and intellectual skills while breaking new ground in individual and collaborative creative expression and exploration.

This course follows a long, rich tradition, which reaches back to the biblical Books of Wisdom, to Greek mythology, tragedy, and philosophy. It also points to romanticism and its heritage, for example in Nietzsche’s thought and in philosophical pragmatism. We also hope to address more recent trends within the digital humanities and other fields, often referred to as “critical making.” In the words of digital humanist Steven Ramsay, “Humanists concern themselves with the study of the human experience; digital humanists find that building deepens and enriches that engagement […] building as a form of thinking” (Reading and Machines 85). Following the long tradition of poetic thinking and such contemporary interventions, our class will examine and discuss creative works alongside critical ways those works have been, or can be, transformed imaginatively, and critically.

Peer-to-Peer Learning   

This course encourages interactive, collaborative learning. Your peers are your toughest and best teachers.  In your future endeavors, you will depend upon the standards, fairness, eloquence, skills, creativity, imagination, and cooperation of your peers–and you will contribute in this same manner if the interactions in this class are to succeed. We encourage social and collaborative reading, discussion, debate, and learning in and outside the classroom, which we will try to facilitate through our website. 

Students with Documented Disabilities or Unique Learning Needs

If the amount of online or screen reading required for this course is an obstacle to your learning, speak with a professor or TA and we will provide alternative solutions to ensure you can approach the course materials in a manner most beneficial to your learning and accessibility needs. Students who may need an academic accommodation beyond having printed materials, based on the impact of a disability, must initiate the request with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). Professional staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, and prepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is being made. Students should contact the OAE as soon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations.  The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (phone: 723-1066, URL:

Course Requirements

Students are expected to:

  1. Participate actively in our discussions. This entails showing up to class prepared, having done the reading, and prepared to contribute to the discussion (30%)
  2. Regularly create and contribute to the Poetic Thinking website (50%)
  3. At least 10 self-authored poetic reflections and/or creations (e.g. images, music, scores, video, installation, etc. Your work is a mode of poetic thinking, so please be encouraged to imaginatively engage the materials and topics by composing, for example, your own aphorisms, poetry, photography etc. OR but posting onto our website more ‘traditional’ critical reflections. In terms of scope: your creative contributions to the site may be anything from one-two sentences to a few paragraphs.
  4. b.     At least 15 comments on your co-learners responses or creations. In terms of scope: your creative contributions to the site may be anything from one-two sentences to a few paragraphs. 
    1. A week after the last session (so, by March 16th), please e-mail a portfolio of your poetic reflections and of your comments to Lucy and Amir (20%).
    2. Graduate Students are strongly encouraged to synthesize their readings and contributions to a graduate-level final paper (20-25 pages). Amir will work with the graduate students individually to ensure the scope and reach of this work. Graduate students are NOT required to compile the portfolio (3).

Meeting 1: Introduction and Overview


  • Michael Oakeshott, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”
  • Selected poems by Paul Celan

FURTHER Reading (optional)

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley “A Defense of Poetry”
  • Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” 

Meeting 2: Aphoristic Wisdom: Ecclesiastes and Kafka


  • Robert Alter’s “Introduction” to Ecclesiastes
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Franz Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms


  • Choose two or three of Ecclesiastes’ assertions to present them in class. Please be prepared to explain why you have chosen them. 
  • Choose two or three of Franz Kafka’s aphorisms to present them in class. Please be prepared to explain why you have chosen them. 

FURTHER Reading (optional)

  • Harold Bloom on The book of Job and Kohelet 

Meeting 3: Poetic Thinking and New Media: the Artwork of Jonathan Harris



  • Please reflect on and be prepared to present at least one keyword, e.g. “Marry”
  • Choose at least one of Harris’s projects to present in class and be prepared to explain why you have chosen it.
  • Choose at least two stories from that you find appealing/intriguing and be prepared to explain why you have chosen it. One story of the two should be by Jonathan Harris (his section on and the other is up to you to choose.
  • How does Harris connect his personal biography to the core ideas that drive his work?
  • What is Harris’s view regarding technology’s ability to help us present our thoughts and life stories?

Meeting 4: Poetic Thinking in Philosophy: Plato and Nietzsche on Knowing


  • Biographies of Plato and Nietzsche. What seem to be key moments in their intellectual/artistic biography?
  • Plato’s allegory of the cave from The Republic 
  • Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (trans. W. Kaufmann) Book I, section 1-14.

FURTHER Reading (optional)

  • Harold Bloom, “Emerson and Nietzsche” (from Where Shall Wisdom be Found)


  • In what ways does the allegory of the cave make claims about human perception?
  • What insights does Plato wish to convey through poetic means (allegory)?
  • In Nietzsche’s view, who or what is the “overman”?
  • What does Nietzsche mean by having Zarathustra state: “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman”?

Meeting 5: Poetic Thinking and the Visual Arts: On Gerhard Richter’s painting cycle October 18, 1977


Read Gerhard Richter’s biography: What seem to be key moments in his intellectual/artistic development?


  • How does Richter alter his materials (e.g. images from books and from magazines) and to what possible effect(s)?
  • Is there any discernible logic to the order of images?
  • Choose at least one painting from October 18, 1977. Please be prepared to explain your choice in class.

FURTHER Reading (optional)

  •  “ART REVIEW; Helplessness And Beauty In the Vision Of a Skeptic”.     
  • Recent lectures on Richter’s work (please view in this order):

Meeting 6: On Loss and Transience


  • Read de Montaigne’s biography. What seem to be key moments in his intellectual/artistic biography?
  • Montaigne’s “That to philosophize is to learn to die” and  “On Solitude.”
  • Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
  • Watch an interview with Joan Didion at


  • How does Montaigne tie together the pursuit of wisdom and his understanding of death?
  • What stories and quotes does Montaigne bring in to support his views? Which of these do you appreciate most? Be prepared to present one in class.
  • In what sense is the year Didion describes “magical”?
  • What is the role (or effect) of temporal markers (such as specific times, years, historical events, etc.) in Didion’s writing?
  • How does Didion describe grief?

Meeting 7: Photography and Poetic Thinking: George Didi-Huberman


  • G. Didi-Huberman biography. What seem to be key moments in his intellectual/artistic biography?
  • George Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All, 1-119
  • George Didi-Huberman, “Out of Plan, Out of Plane”


  • How does Didi-Huberman defend the value of images?
  • What value does Didi-Huberman attach to photographic images?
  • What is the relationship between images and hope Didi-Huberman draws in Gerhard Richter’s work (in the essay “Out of Plan, Out of Plane”).

FURTHER Reading (optional)

  • Susan Sontag, excerpts from On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others

Meeting 8: Poetic Thinking and the Novel


  • J. M. Coetzee biography. What seem to be key moments in his intellectual/artistic biography?
  • J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (selection)
  • Georg (György) Lukács, The Theory of the Novel (selection)
  • Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogical Imagination (selection)


  • What is Elizabeth Costello’s view about the capacity of the novelist to think ‘for the reader’ or to offer her/him certain opinions?
  • What are the specific modes through which the novel may think poetically?
  • In what specific ways do Lukács and Bakhtin view the novel as capable of responding to the world outside the text? 

Meeting 9: Poetic Thinking and Cinema: Ingmar Bergmann, The Seventh Seal



  • How does The Seventh Seal present death? How may we perceive the metaphor of the chess game?
  • What specific visual elements does Bergman use in pondering the viewer to consider human finitude?
  • What is the role and/or the effect of the score in the film’s aesthetic framework? 

Meeting 10: Poetic Thinking about Love


  • Ovid, Rilke, Roland Barthes, and Adam Phillips biographies. What seem to be key moments in their intellectual/artistic biographies?
  • Read the section on Orpheus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Read Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Coursework), concentrating on the first five sonnets.
  • Read the sections from A Lover’s Discourse and Adam Philips, Monogamy 


  • What spatial tropes does Ovid employs and to what effect?
  • Who is Rilke’s addressee in the Sonnets and to what possible effect?
    • How do Barthes and Phillips describe (or not) their genre?
    • In your view, what are the two most illuminating explications of love in Barthes?
    • What is the relationship (if any) between love and monogamy in Phillips’ view?