Fall 21 HUMS 024 Lucas Bender
Two bighorn sheep sit in Wilcox Pass in Jasper National Park, Alberta, behind them a forest of evergreens with a mountain rising in the distance.
Bighorn Sheep in Wilcox Pass, Dan Minkin source


This year, we begin with a hypothesis: that poetry offers a useful space for exploring the problem of how to relate universals to particulars. This may be a universal problem: across cultures and epochs, most of us confront the difficulties of instantiating our ethical ideals in our actual lives, the problem- atic relationship between our individual experience and truths that transcend it, and the injustices that result from society’s refusal to treat all alike. But this universal problem has no universal solution: it both takes different forms across times and cultures and, by its nature, can only be engaged by individuals themselves. Poetry, this course hypothesizes, has the ability to live between the universal and the particular, providing not timeless solutions but compelling and often beautiful examples of individuals navigating shared issues.

In order to test this hypothesis, we will be reading six pretty good poems: Du Fu’s “Song of My Feelings, Going from the Capital to Fengxian”, The Imperial Princess and Great Kamo Priestess Senshi’s “Omoedomo”, Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s “Primero Sueño” and Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz”.

These poems are all “pretty good” by the standards of their own traditions: each is, to one degree or another, among the most famous poems in their languages. They are all, however, very different. In order to understand something about the individuals and cultures that created them, and also about the cultures that have decided they are “pretty good,” we will be reading other works by our poets; historical accounts of their lives and times; secondary scholarship on the poems themselves; and important background works, running from The Analects of Confucius to Plato’s Symposium to medieval Kashmiri literary theory. Every unit will begin with a blank-slate reading of a “pretty good poem,” and over the roughly two weeks that follow for each, we will begin to flesh out our initial impressions by contextualizing it within a variety of historical, intellectual, and artistic frameworks.



Tuesday, Thursday
11:35 am — 12:50 am


12:30 am — 3:30 am


Lucas Bender

Assistant professor of East Asian Languages & Literatures, teaching courses on Chinese literature from the Han dynasty through the Song, Chinese philosophy, and on comparative topics


Title Date Link
Syllabus Sep 1, 2021 File
Listing Sep 1, 2021 Visit