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Unit information: The Poet as Witness in 2015/16

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Unit name The Poet as Witness
Unit code ENGL29006
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. James
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of English
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The aim of this course unit is to study poetry written in response to war, political violence and civil unrest. Students will consider how these issues have been addressed in poems relating to national and international conflicts, and in the works of specific writers (e.g. Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, Carol Rumens). Attention will be paid to the distinction between actual and imaginative acts of witness, and dilemmas central to both the practice and the analysis of modern verse will be explored. For example: how may a poet authenticate a political voice when he or she is not writing under blatant political duress, or is not a first-hand witness of the events recounted? What are the implications of a poet's direct (or, indeed, indirect) approach to sensitive subject-matter? And in what ways might a poem be said to either court or guard against the dangers of ethical complacency?


In addition, issues to be addressed will include: artistic freedom versus civic responsibility; the figure of the poet as national spokesperson; poetry as reportage; poetry as fable; uses of mythology; uses of rhetoric; the politics of poetic form.

Intended learning outcomes

  1. Enhancement of analytical and close-reading skills;
  2. acquisition of historical knowledge;
  3. engagement with philosophical ideas;
  4. increased awareness of the cultural, national and international contexts of contemporary verse;
  5. deepened understanding of the political and ethical challenges faced by certain writers, and of the formal and rhetorical strategies developed in response to such challenges.

Teaching details

One x 2 hour seminar per week.

Assessment Details

  • 1 essay of 2000 words (40%)
  • 1 essay of 3000 words (60%)

Both summative essays map onto ILOs 1-5.

Reading and References

The specific syllabus alters annually, but indicative texts include:

Seamus Heaney, North (London: Faber and Faber, 1975; new edition, 2001)

Geoffrey Hill, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2006)

George Walter, ed., The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (London: Penguin, 2006)