At times, Violiâ€™s class felt more like story-time than a seminar. He often spent the good part of our two hours divulging anecdotes about poetsâ€™ mistresses, drug habits, and jail-times. While I found this charming and fascinating, I can certainly see how a student more interested in form than biography could get frustrated. Violiâ€™s also getting quite old, and late in the semester (with our six-person class), I still got the feeling he had no idea who I was. That said, take a class with him while you still canâ€”youâ€™ll get a perspective of American poetry that few others can offer.
Violi is oldschool. He can delve into the nuances of poetic structure but if you're looking for a good grilling -- someone to fill your head with formal minutiae and turn poetry into Calc 2 -- look elsewhere. He'll talk meter and context but mainly he's a down-to-earth guy and a lover of words. He's less interested in seeing how well you can square Byron via the square root of Whitman and more interested in what the poems say to you and how you as an individual human being react to them. Also, he's not too interested in the hackneyed political bs that has pretty much made the English Dept. an oxy-moron. Some would say this makes him a dinosaur; I happen to think it makes him one of the last real instructors in the department.
Prof. Violi is a nice guy and his heart is ultimately in the right place. I personally would have preferred if he had spent more time on workshopping so we could revise rather than having us workshop about a dozen pieces each but he got us to write and write and write. He's transferring to the Writing department (from English) and I think that the class will be more successful there as most students taking his class will know what to workshop.
Absolutely the best class I've taken at Columbia. Paul Violi is a talented poet with an excellent sense of humor, and, as someone in another review mentioned, this class is pleasingly no-bullshit. (I feel like in every other seminar-style class I've taken there's always so much posturing, or that one kid who doesn't know what he/she is doing but talks on and on anyhow, but this class really had none of that.) I liked the freedom of this class: there are no set assignments, only the occasional suggestion (e.g. "try a sestina!"), which you're free to ignore or take as you will. There are also no set reading assignments -- you're encouraged to find your style by reading and playing with whatever you please.
Best writing class I've ever taken. In the nine writing classes I've taken at other colleges and at columbia, I haven't come across a teacher who is so sensitive towards other people's writings, and still manages not to suck up to students so they'll like him. He is delightfully awkward, but always interested in encouraging you to find a voice or develop what you already had. Basically, while in most workshops you discuss form and basics like composition and structure, this is like taking a literature class where the studentsÂ’ writings are analyzed with respect and awareness of the fact that weÂ’re all between 17 and 22. The fact that Violi is a wonderful and distinguished poet himself just goes to show what little interest he has in being a typical university professor. This class is one of the first of its kind, started by Kenneth Koch (who was a friend of VioliÂ’s) and the one course book was written by him.
In response to a previous posting, I have to confess that I am a woman who likes contemporary work, likes "stream of consciousness type of writing," and found Violi to be one of the most helpful professors I ever had. Yes, he does like poetry written by white males between 1870 and 1950; but when such poets include the likes of Pound and Apollinaire, who can blame him? He also happens to like Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Rihaku (who isn't even from Europe), and many others, all of whom I remember reading at some point during his class. He does not like what he calls "soap-opera" types like Maya Angelou, or any writing that tries to substitute sagas of victimhood or marginalization in place of truth and imagination. Of course his taste is "limited"--all taste is limited, that's the entire point. In Violi's case, taste is limited to fresh, honest writing that doesn't go "clunk" or trip over its own social or personal agenda. The allegation that he doesn't care for "contemporary work" is even harder to understand, as he has produced nearly a dozen collections of it himself and, indeed, seems to view the creation of contemporary work as being the entire point of IW. If you are talented--male or female, white or not--you will gain much from this course.
I do not know if I would recommend this class. Prof Violi has distinct tastes which never change. He likes poetry that is white, male, and written between 1870 and 1950. We looked at one poem by a woman the whole semester. I don't think we read a poet that was outside of Europe. How he reads writing is limited by his taste, which is also limited. In my opinion, it seems that if you are a woman, or like contemporary work, or like stream of concsiousness type of writing, he is not the right teacher. he just 'won't get' what you are trying to say and you and he will emerge frustrated. Hes not a bad person though, just of his time.
Ugh. Violi's "teaching" usually consisted of reading a given poem out loud and then exclaiming, "Reminds you of Swinburne, doesn't it? Marvelous!" Then he would move on. Having not read any Swinburne, I can't really evaluate whether or not this was a useful analysis, but I sort of doubt it. This man may be an excellent poet, but apparently no one ever told him how to give a college lecture. His ability to give a coherent interpretation of a poem or an author was nonexistent. He typically ran out of steam about 45 minutes into the class and ended there -- which was a blessing because it was agony to listen to him, but certainly didn't make me feel that he wanted to be there any more than I did. Violi made a few abortive attempts to solicit class discussion that met with no success. There was TA who spoke excessively bad English (it was not his first language), and Violi never bothered to tell us his name (I'm not sure he knew what it was). Finally, I should note that if you are not (a) an obnoxious elderly female GS auditor, (b) unacceptably and obnoxiously pretentious, or (c) a Barnard student, you will be in a small minority. I did not like this class at all.
The best writing workshop at Columbia. Write whatever you're moved to--poetry, prose, playwriting, or any strange hybrid thereof--and turn it in when you can. Wonderfully encouraging of experimentation; low bullshit tolerance. Class discussion tends to be relaxed and humorous, with very little of the sniping and posturing that can happen in other workshops. Violi is an extraordinary poet in his own right and a damn satirical bastard. One caveat: this course will ruin you for any other workshop.