Zombie Poetics

ENGL 4980: Zombie Poetics

Course Description

Ghost: Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing

To what I shall unfold.

Hamlet: Speak; I am bound to hear.

When the dead speak, the living are “bound” to listen, compelled and confined by their uncanny speech. As voices from beyond the grave, the dead possess a supra-mortal wisdom that requires “serious hearing” on the part of the living; as macabre and decaying cadavers, the dead engender an affective, horrific response in the living that – in many poems – compels the hearer toward ethical change. Yet the speaking dead is also an impossibility – corpses can’t talk, and fathers don’t return to tell their sons of their foul murder – so when the dead do speak in literature, their voices open up multiple paradoxes: temporal, subjective, ethical, epistemological. In this course, we will engage in close formal analysis of “corpse poetry” from the tenth century to the twenty-first in order to unpack these problematics, to assess changes over time in how the trope of the speaking dead is deployed, and to consider continuities that unite these poems across time. Distinguishing between poetry written about the dead (as objects) and poetry voiced by the dead (as speaking subjects), we will explore how the speaking dead change reality in ways available only to their distinctive and impossible subject positions.


Yes, I primarily teach Middle English, much of this course’s poetry will be selected from the Middle English period, and you’ll be reading it in its original spelling and pronunciation. (We’ll spend plenty of class time getting you comfortable with reading and interpreting Middle English.) However, we’ll also be reading Seamus Heaney, Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, John Donne, Josh Ritter, Christina Rossetti (and the poets and artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) – and many, many others. As students will be coming into this course with prior experience in a range of literary periods and genres, I expect each of you to contribute that expertise in class discussion and to learn from your peers’ distinctive knowledge banks. Assessment will include active and engaged class participation, informal and formal writing, one researched assignment, and a final portfolio of revised work.


Book List

  • Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence. You really want to get your hands on the hardback, green-cloth-with-gold-embossing edition (ISBN 978-1848316218), but the less aesthetically beautiful paperback will do in a pinch (978-0425276181). You may purchase the Kindle edition and I will forgive you, but I will doubt your dedication to the major - this is too lovely (and fun) of a book not to have in hard copy.
  • Stephen Adams, Poetic Designs: An Introduction to Meters, Verse Forms, and Figures of Speech (978-1551111292). This should be readily available used.
  • Marianne Barouch, Cadaver, Speak (978-1556594656)
  • A course reader will be made available for purchase (probably through Bel-Jean) in January. Additional readings will be made available online; please budget for printing cos


Image: The 1580s writer Robert Greene emerges from his burial shroud to write. Woodcut from John Dickenson's Greene in Concepit (1598), a narrative suppostedly written by the long-dead Greene.

Semesters taught: