By Heart

By Heart: The Bardic Tradition from Ancient to Modern

This course will consider poetry as an oral art. We will delve into the sources of literary poetry as orature in prime cultures, and we will trace ways in which the oral tradition survives today in children’s verse, anecdote, joke, and ritual speech. We will consider how the Bardic tradition shaped and continues to shape poetic forms. We will attempt to stimulate and nurture our aural imagination. Drawing on studies in ethnopoetics, we will explore the tension and interplay between literary and oral art, considering the impact of education, technology, and modernity on the place of poetry in our lives.


Since this class is based largely on oral work, participation is highly stressed. You must attend and be prepared for all classes. For each absence or non-preparation, your final grade will be reduced one-half letter. However, you may make up class absences or non-preparations by learning by heart fourteen new lines of verse for each occasion. One class attendance credit will also be given for each Poetry Center event attended.


You are responsible to learn by heart and present two hundred fifty lines of verse from required or recommended course texts during the semester, plus fifty lines of verse from outside sources. These may include your original poems or poems by your classmates. All three hundred lines must be learned by heart—not memorized (see “By Heart: Curriculum for a Bardic School”). While these lines may come from many short poems, presented over the course of the semester, you will be responsible to present all of them together, plus lines you’ve substituted for class preparations, at the end of the term. You may substitute a research paper of fifteen-twenty pages for one hundred fifty lines of verse.


In class, we will present poems—usually more than once. We will learn some poems without ever seeing them on the page; we will teach each other poems; we will discuss and critique presentations; we will look into the process of learning by heart; we will consider the bardic tradition in all its forms. We will engage with the class texts.


Robert Pinsky, Americans’ Favorite Poems
Brady, Course Packet


Daniel Bourne, The Household Gods
Daniel Bourne, (ed) The Artful Dodge—any issue
Daniel Bourne, (trans) On the Crossroads of Europe & Asia: Selected Poems of Tomasz Jastrun
William Heyen, Selected Poems 1965-2000; Crazy Horse in Stillness; Charles, Diana & the Queen; Pig Notes & Dumb Music: Prose on Poetry
Joanna Higgins, The Importance of High PlacesA Soldier’s Book


Based on preparation, participation, and completion of all assignments.


In order to receive credit for class attendance, you must demonstrate familiarity with assigned readings, and be prepared to make assigned presentations. You are responsible for any material discussed in classes you miss. Cell phones must be turned off during class. Please do not enter or leave the class while poems are being presented. Please be considerate and attentive while poems are being presented.


Week 1 Introduction to the Bardic Tradition
Readings : Brady, “By Heart: Curriculum for a Bardic School ”

Week 2 Children’s Poetry
Readings: From Roethke, Wilbur, Jarrell, Hughes, Kennedy & others

Week 3 Song (presentation by William Greenway & Steve Reese 2/3)
Readings: Greenway, “Celtic Music and Poetry”: Reese, The Feast of St. Monday: Brady, “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (in Galway)”

Week 4 Ritual Speech (reading by Daniel Bourne,2/8)
Readings: Brady, “Teaching Tu Fu on the Night Shift”

Week 5 The Aural Imagination
Readings : Brady,“Entangled Music: Teaching the Aural Imagination”

Week 6: Oral & Literate
Readings: Shlain, from The Alphabet vs. the Goddess: Levy, “Introduction to The Iliad”

Week 7: Prime Cultures
Readings : Rothenberg, from Technicians of the Sacred
Yeats, Introduction to Cuchulain of Muirthemne

Week 8: Prime Cultures (reading by Joanna Higgins 3/8)
Readings: Snyder, from Interviews

Week 9: The Modern Mind
Readings: David Antin, “Talking to Discover”

Week 10: The Modern Mind
Readings: George Quasha, Dialogos: Between the Written and the Oral in Contemporary Poetry”

Week 11: Bard and Fili:
Readings: Brady, “Why Rhyme”: Galway Kinnell, from Walking Down the Stairs

Week 12: Bard and Fili: ( reading by William Heyen 4/9)
Readings: Robert Pinsky, from The Sounds of Poetry

Week 13: The Modern World ( AWP Conference—no class Thursday)
Readings: Robert Hass, “Listening & Making”
Wendell Berry, from Culture & Agriculture

Week 14: The Modern World (performance by Steve Reese 4/27)
Readings: Brady, “Ginsberg in Ballydehob”

Week 15: Slam
Readings: Zoe Anglesey, from Listen Up! Spoken Word Poetry