COOL CLASSES: “In the American Strain: Music In Writing (1855–1975)”

This English seminar, investigating music in American literature, explores how poetic music and ‘music’ diverge and examines the ways in which music and poetry have fed and inspired each other.

Class name: In the American Strain: Music In Writing (1855–1975)”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of English Thomas Devaney


Here’s what Devaney had to say about his class:

I am writing a book of essays about “music in writing” as it is found in a number of American writers, loosely modeled on W.C. Williams’ In the American Grain. This class echoes my own work, in that it is an exploration of sound, breath, and musicality on the page and particular artists who loved music as much as they loved words, or perhaps, loved them both equally as one and the same thing.

We look to understand how measure and musical effects are deployed and felt in poetry and prose. The class is an extension of the idea that a poem is a combination of its sound and sense. For us there is no separation. Considering music and prosody we search for how each poem, song, or text we read seeks to find its own measure or sound, poem-by-poem.

The students learn to decipher the ways in which the breath and sound are used in the structuring of a poem as well as we explore how the breath-unit helps us experience the event of the text. The class is designed so the students can experience the richness of certain poems, songs, and texts. The one thing I ask the students to consider for everything we read or listen to is to listen to the sound that it makes.

Many people will not be surprised to learn that Emily Dickinson was steeped in the hymnbook, but less people know how deeply Walt Whitman was immersed in opera. I am fascinated by Zora Neale Hurston’s book Mules and Men, which is a source book of folksong and American roots music, which lead to the blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

We start off the class with a unit called “Songs of Children.” I have a selection of poems and songs for the students to read, and they also read Muriel Rukeyser. Commenting on the made-up rhythm of children’s songs Rukeyser says: “Music is not separated from non-music, in the large world of childhood: the running of the word, the imitative noises, the early groupings and portamento sounds are part of an experience which is fluid.” The text leads to a prompt where I ask the student to write a reflection about a children’s song or poem, or story that they specifically remembered from their youth and use Rukeyser’s ideas to help explain their experiences with those songs.

We explore how poetry and music are different, but more so the ways in which they have fed and inspired each other.


See what other courses the Department of English is offering this semester.

Photo: (from left) Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Zora Neale Hurston

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience