The Poetic Faith “Seminar”: An Introduction

I am now officially eighteen days into my first sabbatical. The cycles of euphoria, lethargy, manic productivity, and hubristic goal-setting have been rapid and slightly dizzying thus far. When I had a semester of research leave (not a sabbatical, by my college’s definition) five years ago, these cycles were much slower, but then I had few set plans beyond a research trip…sometime, a fair amount of reading, and completing a writing project (my book, Epic in American Culture). This time around, the sabbatical will last much longer; instead of the my semester before, this will be a year of official sabbatical followed by a year’s leave to hold a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. I’ll get more into the fellowship stuff as that gets closer, but for this year, the rhythm is pretty well spelled out for me. In late August, all six Phillipses will pile into our minivan and drive cross-country, visiting friends and family along the way to an extended visit in California (where three of us came from and one has never seen). That means that whatever I get done this summer has to get done this summer, because I’m not writing any articles while I’m living out of a suitcase with four children under the age of 10. That’s family time; this is work time. And to help organize the next weeks of work time, I’ve decided to take a seminar.

I love seminars. I enjoyed them as a student, I enjoy them as a professor. I still go back from the occasional AAS Summer Seminar. I’ve toyed with the thought of attending the Cornell “theory camp” or Dartmouth’s Future of the American Studies program. I’ve tried and failed a few times to get into a Rare Book School course. But this year, I didn’t want to add more travel to my calendar—plus I had a huge stack of books borrowed and purchased that I’ve been telling myself I’ll read when I have the time. And now, I’m telling myself: this is the time.

I’ve taken my stack of books and created an “imagined seminar” for myself. This is a technique I learned while studying from my oral exams in grad school, thanks to my academic big sister, Patty Roylance. In the face of a large reading list, organize readings into fake syllabi that allow strands of thought and shared questions to come into focus. That was useful both as a heuristic and as preparation for the generation of actual syllabi that it’s been my privilege to undertake over the decade-plus since those exams. But this time, the syllabus is for me.

A bit of context on the content of this seminar: my super-sabbatical is focused on the writing of a book I’ve titled The Hymnal Before the Notes: A History of Reading and Practice. I’m studying hymnbooks before the era when printed, interlined music became standard (roughly the 1860s), so that the books I’m looking at are at one level a type of poetry anthology. They were used for singing in churches, yes, but also for reading in churches, and in homes, schools, and other locations. They were used to teach children, slaves, and Native Americans how to read (this extended to many other countries, but I’m focusing on the English-speaking Atlantic). They were used to establish individual and corporate forms of identity. And they were used to shape our modern notions of what poetry is, what it is for, and what it can do (think Matthew Arnold, or Emily Dickinson, for instance).

The books that I’ve been waiting to read tend to be on the theoretical rather than the history side of this historical study, and they’ve swirled around a big question I’ve started pondering and that will probably take me well beyond this single book project: what does it mean to read with faith? Quite a number of books have been written on what it means to write with faith, but almost every attempt at the reading side of the equation has been made when dealing with the reading of scriptures. Since I’m dealing with hymns, including the ways that hymns slide in and out of the category of literature, I need to travel some not-very-charted ground to make progress on this question. To orient this journey, I’ve compiled a syllabus organizing over two dozen books and articles into four main categories, each covering a week of work (here’s where the hubristic goal-setting comes in).

The first week will focus on recent writings on secularism and belief. The works I’ll be studying come from a range of faith backgrounds and theoretical perspectives, and many of them hover around Charles Taylor’s much-discussed A Secular Age. That week will lead into theoretical material I’ve become especially interested over the past year: practice theory. Practice theory has been around for a while in fields such as anthropology, sociology, and religious studies, but it hasn’t had much play in literary studies or even book history up to this point. My readings for that week will include some key works of practice theory alongside a number of works in literary studies, philosophy, and religion that I want to read in dialogue together. Week three will focus on poetry, looking at key works in historical poetics (a key subfield for me) and in poetic theory as well as a few works exploring religious dimensions of poetic practice. I’ll also be grazing my way through Emily Dickinson’s Poems to consider how I might apply the learning from this seminar to some of the poetry I’ll be writing about this year. The last week is a rather miscellaneous one which I call “Possibilities”; it basically collects the other books I have around that I’d like to reading this summer—Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter and Tiffany Kriner’s The Future of the Word are two that rank high on that list for me—and explores what questions and bibliographies I might generate for the next round of work.

This all should give me plenty to ponder as I head out on The Great Trek, and I’ll revisit this material and add some new reading to it when I’m back in the office in November. We’ll be in Philadelphia for the first half of 2016 while I do archival work at the Library Company of Philadelphia on an NEH fellowship, so this summer and fall I’ve decided is my opportunity to dig into ideas, something that I find I never quite have the time to do amidst the research trips, classes, and other duties of the usual academic life.

To close this rambling, self-absorbed post, I want to answer a question that anyone who has read this far has probably asked themselves: why am I blogging about this? Why don’t I just read and have my own good time? It’s because I want to formulate thoughts as I go—in notes, certainly, but also in a format a bit more public, with a bit more accountability, and I plan to write at least a post a week as I go through my seminar to ensure that some of that formulation happens at regular intervals. I’m also doing it because, while it’s a poor substitute for a flesh-and-blood seminar, the blog format allows me to invite feedback from others. People who know more than I do about these various topics, people who share my curiosity, people with questions and comments, all are very welcome in this process. Machiavelli wrote of putting on his best clothes when he prepared to read the classics, as he was about to enter the best company. I hope to bring my best self to this reading and enjoy the company of books, as well as enjoying the company of those who might follow this journey with me. It might not be as short and sweet as the effusions I’ll likely post from Yellowstone this fall, but the Poetic Faith seminar marks the start of its own trek. Thanks to those who choose to come along.

And here’s a PDF copy of my preliminary syllabus for the seminar:

Poetic Faith: initial syllabus

2 thoughts on “The Poetic Faith “Seminar”: An Introduction

  1. RC Smith

    Intriguing idea, Chris. I have RSS’ed you, so I will be looking forward to your posts, and participating in the feedback!

  2. Christopher Phillips Post author

    Thanks, RC! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts as I have thoughts to share.

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