The Tuesday after San Francisco Pride marked the first class of ENGL 150J: “Queer Poetry in America,” a summer course which analyzes themes of sexuality in the works of 19 and 20th century poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
Taught by sixth year Ph.D. student Justin Tackett M.A. ’12, the class is meant to address the current spotlight on queer issues by looking into the past.
“In America we imagine the gay rights movement going back to Stonewall in the 1960s, but … these sorts of protests were taking forms well before that, so I wanted to start with Whitman and Dickinson,” Tackett said.
One of the most important aspects of the class is how it redefines queerness as more than just a modern phenomenon, and delves into the history of queer representation.
“It helps me anchor myself in history which is in [and of] itself a kind of comfort for me,” said Auguste Seong ’20 said.
Although Seong has taken queer studies and poetry classes in the past, this was the first class they had taken in which the subject was talked about in a historical sense.
“In a couple of queer studies classes where poetry was one of the main artefacts, we studied contemporary, still-alive poets,” Seong said. “ I was curious about what it means to put it backwards, especially when thinking about questions about claiming identities and experiences.”
Students also hope to transfer their historical understanding of queer representation to the present.
“I’m looking for concrete things that I can learn, but also just methods and ways to communicate queerness and what that means,” said Leela Srinivasan ’18.
Tackett hopes that students can use what they have learned to make historical connections when they are faced with similar modern-day issues.
On their first day, students spent the beginning of class defining what the word “queer” means and what it has meant in the past. The latter part of class was spent reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and discussing Whitman’s allusions to male attraction — a major part of the class is analyzing poems for queer references.
“It’s very important to see how queerness was implicitly communicated in the past because [the past] was not conducive to coming out and being prideful,” Srinivasan said.
She believes this subtlety is due to past prejudices against LGBTQ+ figures. “It was something you had to hide and it was really stigmatized, so the poets had to be very crafty in getting around those things,” she added.
According to Tackett, the organization and scope of the class makes it unique.
“This is one of the first classes that I’ve taught where there is this sort of identitarian thematic where I put these poets together because there’s something queer about them. I don’t think it’s unusual to teach a queer course, but queer poetry might be something less usual.”
Contact Deiana Hristov at deiana.hristov ‘at’ gmail.com.