My Graduate School Statement

Wesley Raabe has just posted his Statement of Interest for graduate school here, and I am immediately struck by its similarities and differences to my own, which I’m pasting below. Here, too, I see the effort to demonstrate interest and establish, if not expertise at least some sense of the lay of the land. I’m much less able to prove my chops than he was, and my final paragraph is much weaker.

 

I took my first literature courses so that I could learn to write better poetry. In my first year at Columbia, I leapt at the chance to study with practicing poets. Listening to Paul Violi and Charles
Bernstein’s readings of poems stretched my understanding of what poetry was and how it could work: I still have my side of an email exchange with Professor Bernstein in which we debated whether a physical object, like a brick, could be a poem. After a semester of this sort of stretching, I took a course in Shakespeare almost to relax myself, confident that I would find something central in his sonnets and plays in light of which Zukofsky and Eigner and Silliman
could be safely identified as peripheral. Instead, Anne Prescott’s Shakespeare I lectures—fascinating both in their insight and in their insistence on the fundamental weirdness of the period—led me to take her English Renaissance course. And there I stumbled upon Richard
Stanyhurst.

Stanyhurst’s verse translation of the Aeneid astounded me. It was preposterous in effect, but the very extent of his failure made it seem possible to read through his obscure orthography to understand what it was that he was trying to accomplish. I cross-referenced his lines to those in Mandelbaum’s translation, and then Surrey’s and Pahyer’s, and ultimately back to my Latin textbook to figure out certain difficult locutions. Similarly, naive searching through Literature Online led me to many of the classic works on poetry of the period: Gascoigne’s Certayne Notes, Sidney’s Defence, Campion’s Observations and Daniel’s response, and parts of the exchange between Thomas Nash and Gabriel Harvey.

I don’t really know whether my immersion in the language of these texts caused me to develop an interest, or if an incipient interest made me immerse myself, but by the end of that week of heavy reading, I was in up to my eyebrows. The vitality and energy of the language was a small revelation in itself, but even more appealing was the moral importance these writers assigned to the questions of poetics that I had studied the year before. Underscoring their debates about
rhyme, meter, and language were larger questions about the morality of fictions and the nature of the world.

My next two years were busy ones—I ran for, and was elected student body president and wrote a senior thesis on Columbia’s student center—but I stayed fascinated by these texts and these questions. I took elective courses on the English Renaissance whenever I could, and, my senior year, I signed up for seminars on Marlowe and Shakespeare and an independent study with Molly Murray on Sir Philip Sidney. The two long papers I wrote that semester—about Sidney’s uneasy triangulation among “will,” “wit,” and “Virtue” and Marlowe’s treatment of the material objects in desire—quickly became variations on a theme. Both papers began as investigations into the mechanics of desire in these texts, exploring how these two authors exploited the inevitable gaps between desire and its representations to create dramatic tension and elicit affective response. Ultimately I argued that in the small moments of substitution, elision and exchange through which these representations were manipulated, Marlowe and
Sidney found a new source of dramatic energy and a new way of conceiving of character.

As I work towards my Ph. D. in English Literature, I plan to continue to investigate the aesthetic strategies of early modern verse fictions in light of the heated arguments about the proper functions, style, and subject matter for verse itself. I am particularly interested in considering the negative conceptions of “sweetness” in early modern lyrics—baits, “sugred lies,” and “balductum”—in light of similar problems laid out in period poetics and anti-poetic polemics: that poetry induces sinfulness, that poets are liars, and that rhyme, as Campion writes, produces “childish titillation.”

Princeton’s graduate program in English stands out for me as a place to continue my studies, primarily because of its first-rate faculty. In talking with my professors and reviewing course catalogs, curricula vitae, and faculty publications, I have learned that the Princeton department is particularly strong in poetics, aesthetics, and the intellectual history of the early modern period. I would be thrilled to work with many of the scholars in the department: Jeff Dolven’s
knowledge of the early modern cultural debates around poetry coupled with his interest in style and metrics would be invaluable for my own research, and Lawrence Danson’s skill in reading and interpreting dramatic language would aid greatly in developing my facility with the
same. Moreover, the entire department’s commitment to teaching will help me in my efforts to become an undergraduate teacher. Though I hope that the remainder of my career is full of as many profitable detours and changes of directions as it has been so far, I would be honored if Princeton could be my next step.