In "The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism" (1933) T.S. Eliot wrote," The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be [...] to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog."
To extend this analogy: this course will look at texts by meatless burglars, writers who set out not to sedate but to conscript the sense-sniffing house-dog as they pillage the house for things of value.
This course will survey some of literary modernism's most defamiliarizing texts, ones that challenge interpreters by withholding or avoiding that digestible (and perhaps soporific) "meaning" Eliot referred to. We will look at modernist formal experiments from Gertrude Stein and Guillaume Apollinaire through Dada, surrealism, the French New Novel, and the theater of the absurd, alongside the less prominent but equally influential exploration of aleatory, procedural, and machine-generated poetry by writers such as Jackson Mac Low and the Oulipo. Working with authors' manifestos and critics' interpretations alongside the primary texts, we'll pay special attention to the varied relationships to meaning that can be found at work in texts that a casual reader might lump together as simply meaningless or nonsensical.
As the semester progresses and we get a clearer sense of what these texts require from their readers, we'll begin to ask (with the help of some basic readings in semiotic and psychoanalytic literary theory) how our interpretive behavior when confronted with seeming nonsense might relate to the various things we do when we read normal or typical texts--ones that strike us as already or obviously meaningful. Is making sense something that a text can ever do on its own or something that we must always do to (or for) the text?