Monday, June 01, 2009

Best Books on Modern(ist) Poets?

So here's the question.

I've been mulling over the syllabus for next year's Modern Poetry course. Ten weeks, meets once a week (nights), undergraduates. Last fall I taught a crazy, sweeping survey, organized by topic, built around the two-volume Norton Anthology of Modern / Contemporary Poetry. The assignment for a week's reading looked something like this:
Faith, Doubt, Myth: In Vol 1, read Dickinson, “Brain is Wider” 38; Hardy, “Hap” (44); Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” “As Kingfishers,” “Spring,” “The Windhover"; Yeast, “Hosting of the Sidhe,” “The Magi,” “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Frost, “Design,” “Directive,” Stevens, “Sunday Morning,” from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” (on-line; Google it); Pound, “The Return,” HD, “from The Walls Do Not Fall” and “From Tribute to the Angels,” Eliot, “Preludes,” “The Waste Land,” “Journey of the Magi,” “Little Gidding,” Graves, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” Smith, “Our Bog is Dood,” “God the Eater,” Kavanagh, “Canal Bank Walk,” Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “In Praise of Limestone,” Oppen, “Psalm,” “from Of Being Numerous.” In Vol. 2, read Bishop, “At the Fishhouses,” “Over 2000 Illustrations…,” Duncan, “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” Larkin, “Water,” “Church Going,” “Faith Healing,” “High Windows,” Kumin, “In the Absence of Bliss,” Merrill, “b o d y,” Ali, “Ghazal.”

Needless to say, I sometimes had some doubts as to whether all the reading was done. Needless to say, my students felt a bit overwhelmed--frustrated, too, that they'd read vastly more for any given class than we could discuss at length or in depth. On the other hand, this had the advantage of letting those students who had a taste for Yeats find Yeats, Oppen find Oppen, Smith find Smith, and the like.

I'm up in the air as to whether I should teach the course the same way again next fall, with some sort of minor tweaking--a different anthology, say, or pair of them for contrast--or whether I should (as I usually do) try something quite different.

One "quite different" model I've mulled over for several years now would build the course around books about modern poets and modern poetry. Earlier this evening I paged through Frank Lentricchia's Modernist Quartet, for example, and was struck by how much knowledge students would gain from it about not only the work of the four poets he discusses (Frost, Stevens, Pound, & Eliot) but about their lives, their times, their contacts, and so forth. Of course, these are all American poets--Eliot switch-hits, but is treated here as American--, all of them are white, and all of them are men. I won't teach a class like that, even if I do like the associated video:

But if I were to build my course around some books about modern poetry, in English or even more comparatively, what are the best texts out there to choose from? Not textbooky texts, but books designed to be read for pleasure, however erudite. Biographies, cultural histories, that sort of thing.

Alternatively, if you had to pick 9 essential "modern poets"--not exclusively American--who would they be? Anglophone only lists are good, but I'm open to teaching folks in translation, also, if good translations are out there.

Suggestions, anyone?


Norman Finkelstein said...

I'd be happy to make some suggestions, but let's start with a cutoff date: 1860? 1890? 1914? And who could you possibly have been chatting with the other night?

E. M. Selinger said...

Hmmm... How about Baudelaire and after, so in the 1860s, more or less. (Michael Hamburger's "Truth of Poetry" was one book I've been toying with. Teach 'em a bissel Brecht in the bargain.)

Ross Brighton said...

What about Celan for "Faith, Doubt, Myth"? "Psalm", "Zurich, zum Storken", "Zahle die Mandeln", "Einmal" und "Die Niemandsrose"

Josh said...

I'll be curious how you resolve this question, Eric. I'm also teaching a modern poetry class this fall, though I have a few more weeks than you do because of the semester system, and the last time I taught the class the students were also overwhelmed by the reading which tended to be read-lots-of-an-author oriented as opposed to read-the-great-poems oriented. This time I'm doing dueling anthologies: the Norton Modern but also at least the first volume of Poems for the Millenium, so as to avoid being totally Anglo-American. But I'm still not sure how much to ask them to read, nor have I thought of any sort of companion text like the Lentricchia. It's a fine idea and would probably do a lot to get students oriented.

I think what my students need from a course like this is #1, some training in the reading of poetry (increasing their tolerance for confusion is a big part of that) and #2, a road map. I see my ultimate goal less the imparting of great poems than the supplying of tools that will make it possible for the students to better navigate the field of poetry on their own hereafter.

Mark Scroggins said...

Brainstorming, without necessarily recommending:

Louis Simpson's group bio of WCW, EP, & TSE, Three on the Tower

Bits & pieces of Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets, for rapid overviews

ML Rosenthal's Lives of the Modern Poets

Ross Brighton said...

and Jerry Rothenberg's Revolution of the Word.