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Student Honors Papers

The Student Honors Papers collection represents exemplary work in English at Illinois Wesleyan University. The Ames Library is proud to archive many of these and other honors projects in Digital Commons @ IWU, the University's online archive of student, faculty and staff scholarship and creative activity.

This paper explores how a certain kind of surprise⁠—the “well-made” surprise⁠—is created in poems. My approach to the close analysis of three poems is based in cognitive poetics and was inspired by the work of Vera Tobin in her book Elements of Surprise (Harvard, 2018). In this book, Tobin explores a phenomenon she calls the well-made surprise in novels and films. A well-made surprise is one that surprises but that also offers “a flash reinterpretation of events” and instills in the reader a “feeling that the evidence for this interpretation was there all along⁠” (2). This type of surprise feels–amazingly–both shocking and deeply right. While the quality of well-made surprise has been discussed, and prized, by poets and critics such as James Longenbach, Matthew Zapruder, and Michael Theune, so far there has been no work into how well-made surprise works in poetry. In this paper, I apply Tobin’s, as well as other scholars’, cognitive approaches to understanding how the well-made surprise is created in novels and films to understanding how it can be created in poems. Ultimately, I show how a cognitive approach to understanding an as yet under-defined phenomenon in poetry can be productive both for readers looking to assess how their own cognition allows them to be surprised and for writers looking to create this type of surprise.

In his article “Rhyming Action,” Charles Baxter spotlights an element vital to the effectiveness of prose: literary echoes. Whether they be symbols, phrases, characters, or settings, these echoes reverberate within the confines of a narrative, endowing the story told with a subtle, innate rhyme that leaves readers metaphysically satisfied. Taking Baxter’s claim and applying it in practice, Fleshing Out Flash: Interconnectedness of Poetic Sensibilities in Micro Memoir aims to provide insight into how the careful composition of a collection may serve as a full course of verse that feeds the ever-hungry literary eye. This understanding is gleaned primarily through the amassed analysis of works within the micro memoir genre itself as well as the creation of an entirely new collection of micro memoir: Mathematics of the Great Schism.

“Bird of Our Worth” is an ongoing multi-form modern poetic sequence, combining confessional and documentary styles, on the topic of queerness and restoration ecology. The self-endangerment of identifying as transgender in a cis-normative society and the devastation of natural ecosystems are comparable for their proposed treatments: queerness and ecological restoration both depend on and mutually enable community organization. The poetry takes a multi-genre form. While reflecting on and confessing to an interior status of self—considering family and upbringing as essential to the author’s queerness—the work documents exterior changes in personhood (through the author’s engagement with gender-affirming testosterone), changes in family structure (spurred by the speaker’s family member’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis), and in modern environmental issues.

In describing the tone of Sylvia Plath's body of poetic work, critics have come to participate in a back-and-forth, labeling the work, by turns, "hysterical" and "eloquent." This limited conversation is the result of too-little consideration of the complexities of tone itself and overly simplified views of Plath's work. This essay offers an intervention in that conversation, approaching Plath's life and work from the standpoint of affect theory. As a result, this essay recognizes in Plath's existence and poetry the strong presence of what affect theorist Sianne Ngai calls the zany, an affective/aesthetic category marked by heated overproduction. By noticing the zany in Plath, this essay intends to reveal the zaniness of the critical conversation about Plath.

I have always been aware of the fact that my existence has been populated by numerous contradictions for the better part of my life. However, this has become especially apparent during my undergraduate years at Illinois Wesleyan University. This has resulted from some rather large revelations about myself in addition to the normal course that life has taken for me throughout my twenty-two years: I realized during my time at Illinois Wesleyan that I was bisexual, and I was later also diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These, in addition to many of my interpersonal struggles and mental health issues, furnished many, many contradictions within my life (one of the most prevalent examples regarding my mental health issues is the fact that I sometimes simultaneously hold the conflicting desires of wanting to die and wanting to live; for an example regarding my ASD, I often desire interpersonal connections, and yet also dread those same connections; and so on). I had a very difficult time conceiving on one cohesive theme that could encompass the work I would do on a research honors project, as my writings, like my life, contain many contradictions (both across works and even in the same works sometimes), but I eventually realized that I could specifically make the contradictory aspects of my life (and, by extension, my writings) the focus of the project. That is what this project is: a collection of writings that express the contradictory aspects of existing as I do in the world.

Many prominent scholars of color have argued that British and European subjects were building what we now refer to as race the moment that globalization in the Mediterranean increased in the Renaissance. Studying the prominent Black characters in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Titus Andronicus shows how racial stereotypes were created and portrayed in early modern theatres. The characters Prince of Morrocco, Othello, and Aaron the Moor respectively also each bring their own way of reacting to the racist treatment by their fellow characters and asserting themselves when faced with racial discrimination. Insight into the plays is gained through historical context and the work of scholars like Kim Hall, Ayanna Thompson, Ian Smith, among others who have spoken extensively on race and blackness in these plays as well as the state of race studies in the study of Renaissance literature. The plays display the socioeconomic situation in England regarding the desire to define self and other which influenced works like Shakespeare’s to include and contribute to the construction of racial narratives. Understanding the construction and motivation of racial narratives and stereotypes then can help us deconstruct them now.

[From the author's introduction]

I do not think that this collection [of poetry] is revelatory, but as so many mystics, believers, and people of faith have come before me and written down their conversations with God, this collection is my contribution to the body of work that worships, questions, and liberates relationship with God. I did not find my voice and freedom in faith until I had read the struggle and acceptance of the poets before me, and that is the blessing of people collecting their spiritual hope and writing it down; maybe the next person on the path will find what I have found and enjoy their place even more than I have.

May this collection refute scarcity, praise God.

In Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women, the main character Jo March demonstrates a fluid, open understanding of femininity and masculinity, and the novel explores how they are performed in men and women alike. Though the novel has been beloved for generations, there is a glaring absence in conversations about the book centered on Jo’s masculinity, gender and gender identity. The most common interpretation of the masculine Jo March is that she is a tomboy who behaves masculinity to escape the expectations and confinement of womanhood. However, I argue that the tomboy argument is not adequate for fully understanding Jo March because tomboyism is defined through the adoption of masculine behaviors and activities, whereas Little Women exhibits evidence that Jo identifies as male, or that Jo’s expressions of masculinity are not entirely adequately described as motivated by a desire to be free of feminine constraints. Jo’s relationship to femininity and masculinity is not a “one versus the other situation,” and her gender identity is not simply a rejection of the constraints of womanhood. Jo March is a character who does not easily fit in one category or another, but rather opens up questions about the relationship of those categories. In addition to the scholarly gap about these topics in the novel, no scholarship to date has explored the film adaptations and how they interpret this aspect of the novel. Film adaptations are special because they reach a wider audience, and as the novel continues to age, more people will rely on the films for their knowledge of this literary work. Therefore, this research explored how the 1933 and 1949 adaptations address the novel’s views on gender. I found that these films both favor the tomboy interpretation of Jo March. Therefore, I concluded that the queerest version of Little Women is the original.

In recent decades, key scholarship and projects have affirmed—at long last—the importance and independent literary quality of John Keats’s personal correspondence. And while creative endeavors like Tom Clark’s Junkets on a Sad Planet have further engaged Keats’s remarkable letters, none have gone so far as to audaciously assume a personal acquaintanceship with the long-dead Romantic. Uniquely processing a personal trauma which echoes Keats’s biography in numerous, intriguing ways, “Keatsian Correspondences: A Tragedy in Five Acts” does just that. Communicating a semi-autobiographical narrative via a phantasmal prose-poem and accompanying analytic preface, this project uses Keats’s letters—specifically, his lengthy September 1819, journal letter to George and Georgiana Keats—as a template and, with the necessary casualness of someone who has—in reality—voyeuristically probed the writer’s many revealing letters, is addressed directly, intimately, and improbably to John Keats himself.

On the morning of November 20, 2014, my father, David Michael Whitfield, suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. Before that, he lived a wonderful, invaluable life, in which he enriched and brightened up the lives of everyone in his various communities, whether it be with friends, with family, with business, or his neighborhood. Along with my mother, he taught my siblings and me what unconditional and irreplaceable love looked and felt like. He worked tirelessly for his family for most of his life, deciding only to step away from his work in order to ensure that he had time to spend with those he loved. After both his life and death, however, my life and the lives of all the people he had an impact on, of course, continue. This project explores the concept of grief, what sort of legacy is left in the wake of a major loss, and immortalizing memories of someone or something that is no longer there. Furthermore, in this preface, I will discuss the life and impact of my father, the tradition of elegy and elegiac writing, and how I engage with those two through my poetry.

Michael Theune - Robert Harrington Endowed Professor of English and Chair of English

Department - English