Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Help a Prof Out (1): Modern Poetry


Sixteen years ago, at a campus-visit interview somewhere in the Southwest, I found myself grilled by an English professor who wanted to know exactly who would be on my modern American poetry syllabus, were I to get hired.

I tossed out a few different models that came to mind: I might teach it this way, with this focus; maybe that way, with another. He was unimpressed. "You're the professor now," he said. "You have to decide!"

Did I? I've now taught a dozen or so sections of DePaul's Modern American Poetry (and Modern Poetry) courses, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, but I've never taught the course the same way twice.

Some years I've focused the course on a particular theme ("Faith, Doubt, and Myth" last fall; "Long and Longer Poems" a few years back). Other years I've chosen an anthology or two and had the students read every page, cover to cover, without organizing the poets into schools or movements or ranking them in importance. Last quarter I planned to do the "read every page" approach at the undergraduate level, for the first time--then balked, realizing that it wouldn't work, since the reading just wouldn't get done. Instead, I sorted the poets into loosely organized groups and worked through those, more or less chronologically, first on one side of the Atlantic and then on the other. (My anthologies were Cary Nelson's Modern American Poetry and the Bloodaxe book of 20th Century British and Irish poetry.) It worked pretty well, except for the fact that I'd assigned a lot of poems which I'd never taught or even read before--and I didn't have nearly as much time as I'd hoped to get them prepped.

So: here's my dilemma.

To simplify my life in the next four years (my countdown to 50--and to my son's departure for college), I'd like to design one Modern American Poetry syllabus and one Modern Poetry syllabus and then stick with them, teaching them over and over again. What, though, should they look like?

The simplest solution would be for me to narrow the scope of the course to the first half of the 20th century, and teach it from an anthology that includes both modern American and modern non-American poetry. Three come to mind:
  • The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which includes about 900 pages of 20th century poetry, along with plenty of older poems, from Caedmon's Hymn onward.
  • Poems for the Millennium, the Jerome Rothenberg / Pierre Joris-edited anthology of international modernist poetry, much of it in translation.
  • The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, which runs from Whitman to Stephen Spender and Keith Douglas, and includes a bunch of manifestos and other ancillary documents at the end.
Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages. Consider the Norton Anthology of Poetry (or NAP, for short):
  • It would give the students plenty of context for any given modern poem, which is a plus. I can't assume they've read anything prior to my classes--so if I want them to think about, say, Stevens and Keats, it might be useful to have the Keats right there at hand.
  • The NAP is also a book I could use for my Introduction to Poetry course, so that students could go from one to the other without buying a new textbook.
  • On the other hand, the NAP offers essentially no biographical or other contextual information for any of its poets, and it necessarily includes fewer poems by its modern folks than an anthology just of modern poetry will give.
What about Poems for the Millennium?
  • Having taught from it before, I can testify that its description of modernism--overall, and as a group of related 20th century -isms--has the most potential to excite and seduce students.
  • On the other hand, that excitement tends to come, for my students, as much from the headnotes and afterwords supplied by the editors as it does from the poems they choose. In fact, it may come more from those notes than from the poems, which are sometimes more fun to read about than they are for my students to read.
  • Obviously the scope of this anthology goes well beyond the Modern American purview, which means that I'd really have to use it only for the Modern Poetry survey, and work up a separate syllabus, with a separate book, for the other. Not the most efficient approach.
That leaves the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (NAMP). How does it measure up?
  • I don't love some of the inclusions--the older versions of early Yeats poems, for example, that this edition uses instead of the superior later revisions, or the particular selections of Stevie Smith. I could, of course, supplement these with handouts or links.
  • I find it annoying that this "modern" anthology includes poems from the 1960s and later (all of the George Oppen offerings, for example), while shunting modern poems from the 1930s into a second, separate anthology of Contemporary Poetry (e.g. Muriel Rukeyser's The Book of the Dead). Would I make my students buy both for a handful of poems? Use some second text or on-line links? Not ideal, but doable, I suppose.
Of these three, I suppose I like NAMP the most, and I have taught with it more or less successfully before, structuring my course around a series of topics and themes, rather than authors. (As you'll see below, I used both volumes of the Norton that quarter, the Modern and the Contemporary.) Here's what I did that last time; after I post it, I'll publish this, take a break, and come back to the question of whether I should teach a survey or a course on particular authors (say, 8 or 9 of them) later.

What’s a Poem? What’s a Poet?
In Vol. 1, read the selections from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Yeats, “The Fisherman,” “Adam’s Curse,” “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”; Masters, “Petit, the Poet”; Stein, from “Tender Buttons,” read “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass,” the four poems called “Chicken,” and the selection from “Rooms,” also “Susie Asado”; Amy Lowell, “The Pike” and “Venus Transiens,” Stevens “Thirteen Ways…” “The Poems of Our Climate,” “Of Modern Poetry,” Loy, “Songs to Joannes” parts 1 and 2; Williams, “The Young Housewife,” “Portrait of a Lady,” from Paterson (302-307), Pound, “The Return,” “A Pact,” “In a Station of the Metro,” Cantos I and II; H.D., “Epitaph,” Moore, “To a Steam Roller,” “Critics and Connoisseurs,” “Poetry,” Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Geronition,” The Waste Land, Reznikoff, “The Shopgirls Leave their Work,” “About an Excavation,” Toomer, “Gum,” Bunting, “What the Chairman told Tom,” Niedecker, “New-Sawed,’ “Poet’s Work,” “Something in the Water,” “Popcorn-Can Cover,” Zukofsky, “From Poem Beginning ‘The’”; read the manifestoes from pp. 895-925 and Pound’s “A Retrospect” (929-938).

In Vol. 2, read Thomas, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” Lowell, “Epilogue,” Koch, from Days and Nights, “One Train May Hide Another,” Ammons, “Corson’s Inlet,” “from Garbage,” Ginsberg, “Howl,” “Sunflower Sutra,” O’Hara, “A Step Away from Them,” “A True Account of Talking to the Sun…,” Ashbery, “the Instruction Manual,” “Farm Implements and Rutabegas in a Landscape,” Howe, “from Thorow,” Ali, “Ghazal,” Bernstein, “Autonomy is Jeopardy,” and “from The Lives of the Toll Takers.”
Gender and Sexuality
In Vol. 1, read Robinson, “Miniver Cheevy” (166), Stevens, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” Williams, “The Young Housewife,” “Danse Russe,” “Portrait of a Lady,” Pound, “Portrait d’une Femme,” “The Temperaments,” “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” part I, Canto VII, H.D., “Sea Rose,” “Garden,” Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Whispers of Immortality,” “The Waste Land,” Millay, “First Fig,” “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed,” Bogan, “Women,” Smith, “This Englishwoman,” Niedecker, “Well, Spring Overflows the Land,” “What Horror to Awake at Night.”

In Vol. 2, read Swenson, “A Couple,” Rukeyser, “The Conjugation of the Paramecium,” Jarrell, “Next Day,” Berryman, “Dream Song 4,” Levertov, “Song for Ishtar,” Ginsberg, “Sphincter,” “Personals Ad,” Sexton, “Her Kind,” Rich, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” “Orion,” “Planetarium,” “Power,” Plath, “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” Clifton, “homage to my hips,” “poem to my uterus,” “to my last period,” Atwood, “from Circe / Mud Poems,” “Manet’s Olympia,” Boland, “Mise Eire,” “The Pomegranate,” Goodison, “Nanny,” Nichols, “Invitation,” Doty, “Homo Will Not Inherit.”
Faith, Doubt, Myth:
In Vol 1, read Dickinson, “Brain is Wider” 38; Hardy, “Hap” (44); Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” “As Kingfishers,” “Spring,” “The Windhover,” “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.”
War and Genocide:
In Vol. 1, read Hardy “Drummer Hodge” (47), “In Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations’” (59), Kipling, “Shillin’ a Day,” “Recessional,” “Epitaphs of the War” (150), Yeats, “Easter, 1916,” “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “The Second Coming,” “Leda and the Swan,” “Politics”; Sandburg, “Grass,” Thomas, “Rain,” Loy, “Der Blinde Junge,” Pound, “Lament of the Frontier Guard,” Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, parts IV and V, Canto LXXXI, Sassoon, “Dreamers,” “The General,” H.D., “from The Walls Do Not Fall,” McKay, “If We Must Die,” Rosenberg, “Break of Day in the Trenches,” “Louse Hunting,” Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “Strange Meeting,” “S.I.W.,” Reznikoff, from Holocaust; “I sing of Olaf glad and big,” Jones, “In Parenthesis,” Auden, “Spain,” from “In Time of War,” “September 1, 1939,” “The Shield of Achilles.”

In Vol. 2, read Olson, “Pacific Lament,” Rukeyser, “Poem”; Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Duncan, “Up Rising / Passages 25,” Larkin, “MCMXIV,” Hecht, “The Book of Yolek”; Hill, “Ovid in the Third Reich,” “September Song”; Simic, “Prodigy,” “Eastern European Cooking,” “Cameo Appearance,” Palmer, “Sun,” Komunyakaa, “Starlight Scope Myopia,” “Facing It,” Fenton, “Dead Soldiers,” Forche, “The Colonel”
A Botched Civilization?
In Vol. 1, read Yeats, “Meru,” “Long-Legged Fly,” Williams, “To Elsie,” “The Yachts,” Pound, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” from Canto XIV, XLV, Jeffers, “Shine, Perishing Republic,” “Ave Caesar,” “The Purse-Seine,” “Carmel Point,” cummings “the Cambridge ladies,” “next to of course god America I,” Brown, “Sporting Beasley,” Hughes, “from Montage of a Dream Deferred,” Auden, “The Unknown Citizen.”

In Vol. 2, read Olson, from “The Maximus Poems” (6-11, 12-14); Hayden, “Middle Passage,”; Rukeyser, “from The Book of the Dead: Absalom; Alloy,” Lowell, “For the Union Dead,” Brooks, “Vacant Lot,” Larkin, “Homage to a Government,” Creeley, “I Know a Man,” Ginsberg, “Howl,” “America,” “Mugging,” Levine, “They Feed They Lion,” Gunn, “The Missing”; Harper, “American History,” Cervantes, “Poema para los Californios Muertos.”
Against Empire as Such:
In Vol. 1, read Yeats, “September, 1913,” “Easter, 1916,” Johnson, “O Black and Unknown Bards,” “The Creation,” Loy, “English Rose,” Moore, “England,” “A Midnight Woman to the Bobby,” “The Harlem Dancer,” “If We Must Die,” MacDiarmid, “O Wha’s the Bride?” Reznikoff, “It Had Long Been Dark,” Tolson, “from Harlem Gallery,” Bunting, from Briggflatts, Brown, “Memphis Blues,” “Slim in Atlanta,” Hughes, “Weary Blues,” “Madam and Her Madam,” Cullen, “Heritage,” Kavanagh, “from The Great Hunger,” “Epic.”

In Vol. 2, read Bishop, “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” Hayden, “Witch Doctor,” “Night, Death, Mississippi,” some Louise Bennett?, Ginsberg, “from Kaddish,” Walcott, “A Far Cry from Africa,” “The Sea is History,” “The Schooner Flight,” Brathwaite, “From The Arrivants,” “Calypso,” “Ogun,”; James Wright, “A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow…”; Baraka, “Poem for Black Hearts,” “A New Reality is Better than a New Movie!” Clifton, “I am accused of tending to the past,” “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation,” Heaney, “Punishment,” “Casualty,” “Terminus,” de Souza, “De Souza Prabhu,” “Conversation Piece,” Goodison, “Guinea Woman,” Ali, “Ghazal,” Nichols, “Wherever I hang,” Marilyn Chin, “How I Got That Name,” “Autumn Leaves,” Alexie, “On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City,” “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” “Crow Testament”
Birds, Beasts, and Flowers:
In Vol. 1, read Frost, “The Most of It,” Williams, “Spring and All,” DHL, “Medlars and Sorb-Apples,” “Southern Cyclamens,” “Snake,” “Lui et Elle,” “Bavarian Gentians,” Jeffers, “Fawn’s Foster Mother,” Hurt Hawks,” “Vulture,” Moore, “To a Snail,” “The Pangolin,” “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron,” Auden, “In Praise of Limestone.”

In Vol. 2, read Bishop, “Roosters,” Swenson, “Unconscious, Came a Beauty,” “Strawberrying,” Duncan, “A Little Language,” Ammons, “Gravelly Run,” “Small Song,” “The City Limits,’ Merrill, “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™Windbreaker,” Merwin, “For a Coming Extinction,” Snyder, “Milton by Firelight,” “Above Pate Valley”; Hughes, “The Horses,” “Pike,” “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” Oliver, “The Black Snake,” “Hawk,” Heaney, “Death of a Naturalist.”
Modern Love:
In vol. 1, read “Poems of 1912-13” (54-57, up through “The Voice”); “Adam’s Curse” 100, “No Second Troy” (101), “Eros Turannos” (167), Lowell, “A Decade,” “From Songs to Joannes,” WCW, “This Is Just to Say,” “The Ivy Crown,” DHL, “You,” Pound, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” HD, “Fragment Sixty-Eight,” Parker, “One Perfect Rose,” Crane, “Voyages,” Hughes, “Lament Over Love,” Reznikoff, “from Love Poems of Marichiko,” Auden, “This Lunar Beauty,” “Lullaby,” “As I Walked Out One Evening.”

In Vol. 2, read Swenson, “A Couple,” “In Love Made Visible,” Larkin, “An Arundel Tomb,” Levertov, “The Ache of Marriage,” Merrill, “Days of 1964,” Creeley, “For Love,” O’Hara, “Les Luths,” Rich, “Twenty-One Love Poems,” Snyder, “The Bath,” Plath, “The Applicant,” Lorde, “Love Poem,” Atwood, “[You fit into me].”

3 comments:

JG Hanekom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E. M. Selinger said...

It's funny you should say this, JG: one reason I've taught the course differently every time has been precisely to avoid that kind of boredom--boredom on my part that would (I've always feared) translate into boredom among my students.

On the other hand, my comp-lit Love Poetry class settled into a routine (with minor variations) in the fourth or fifth iteration, and has been wonderful, even after.

Maybe what I'm looking for isn't a single syllabus so much as a single structure--a "head" and set of chord changes, in jazz terms, which I can then vary, or even work against, without feeling quite so all at sea every quarter.

Interesting! Thanks!

even pretty girls need to read said...

When I took your graduate level class the iteration of your syllabus was to read the anthology (Cary Nelson) cover to cover. It was at once a challenge, but also something I could sink my teeth into.

Each week, being able to choose from the 100ish pages of reading the poems I liked, that spoke to me, and then focus on them was a wonderful freedom. You sent us out to play in a world of poetry and let us meander through, experimenting and picking up favorites along the way.

The sense of accomplishment finishing the book and knowing I could speak on its contents was and is priceless.

On the other hand, whatever the format, I think what students will also remember is what I remember: the process of learning you took us through. Regardless of the level of student (grad, undergrad, high school), you showed us how to access poetry and challenged the reasoning of poetry and why we read it.

So I vote cover to cover even if the undergrads laugh in your face when you hand over the syllabus as I have faith you will draw them in.

- Claire