English 109S: Poetry and Memory

Deborah Pope

Les Todd

Last year, as English professor Deborah Pope began planning for her spring seminar, she realized that she wasn't satisfied persisting with her traditional "Poetry and Memory" writing workshop. "I felt there was so much more to do," she says.

In her mission to retool the class, she found herself in uncommon territory for an English professor—cognitive neuroscience.

"Everything I was reading kept bringing memory and poetry together in fascinating, mutually illuminating ways," she says. "One thing I found myself doing was substituting the word 'poetry' wherever the text had 'memory' and there were just amazing, continual correspondences."

Pope began her class reconstruction by including scientific articles discussing the mechanisms of memory. Next, she included a component that would encourage students to draw on influences beyond their own memory, and instead draw inspiration from others' experiences.

With the help of Elizabeth Dunn, research services librarian in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Pope designed a project where students were asked to research primary-document collections—everything from letters to photographs—and then use their research for writing original poetry. "It is this role of poetry as culture-memory, [as] custodian of the past, with its ability to imagine and animate the voices and memories of others that provided the inspiration behind the project," Pope says. She says she sees the project as the centerpiece of the course.

Students enrolled in the course say they were drawn, in particular, to the idea of building poetic work from primary documents. "Every poetry class is different, but the way that this class focused on content rather than form really helped to find strategies to answer one of the most difficult questions: What will I write about?" says Melanie Garcia '07, who took the course the first semester it was offered, last spring. Garcia's research focused on the diaries of a traveler/businessman in antebellum America; the man's story, Garcia says, "captured a real struggle between ethics and desire."


Pope received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the author of five books of poetry and criticism. At Duke, where she has taught for more than twenty years, she offers writing workshops and literature courses. She has a special interest in women's writing.


Students must submit a writing sample to enroll in the course and, ideally, should have prior creative-writing instruction.


Students read a wide selection of poetry from anthologies such as 250 Poems, edited by Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl, as well as critical works on memory and the writing process, including Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry by Robert Pinsky.


Weekly poetry-writing assignments
Journal writing
Assigned readings
Class discussions
Project in Special Collections

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