Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Modern Poetry: Portraits & Ladies

Last night was the second meeting of my MA-level Modern American Poetry class--the first in which we've actually had some poems on the table to discuss. As we did, I noticed what might be a promising new unit tucked inside my syllabus, which I'm noting here for three reasons:
  1. so I don't forget it
  2. so other teachers can steal it
  3. so other poetry readers can suggest additional texts, contexts, and resources.
The reading assignment for the week was this:
In Vol. 1, read the selections from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; also “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “Calvary Crossing a Ford”; read Dickinson, poem 657 (“I dwell in Possibility”), Masters, “Petit, the Poet”; Stein, from “Tender Buttons,” read “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass,” the four poems called “Chicken,” and “Susie Asado”; Amy Lowell, “The Pike” and “Venus Transiens,” Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” 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”; Jeffers, “Ave Caesar” and “Carmel Point”; Moore, “To a Steam Roller,” “Critics and Connoisseurs,” “Poetry,” Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Geronition,” The Waste Land, PART ONE; Reznikoff, “The Shopgirls Leave their Work,” “About an Excavation,” Niedecker, “New-Sawed,’ “Poet’s Work,” “Something in the Water,” “Popcorn-Can Cover”
That may seem like a crazy quantity of reading. OK, it is a crazy quantity of reading, deliberately so. I like to immerse my students in a lot of poetry right away, partly so that they can begin to find poets and poems that they like (Robinson Jeffers? Who knew?), and partly so that I can see, as this course goes on, which poems particularly jump out to me as interesting, teachable, and fun.

Two main topics framed our discussion: first, questions of form (i.e., organic and constructivist varieties of free verse, a first taste of collage poetics and other experimental forms, etc.); and, second, some of the modernist unsettlings of the lyric speaker, whether through irony and persona or through the fracturing of syntax and paraphrasable meaning.

These went...OK. What I need to do next time is group the poems with those goals in mind, and make them more explicit right from the get-go; also, I may need to sift out a secondary goal that I had in mind--namely, to introduce students to Imagism and some other literary schools--and do that on a separate night.

(NOTE TO READERS: what American poems would you suggest for teaching about Symbolism--the school, not the technique? When I'm doing an international class I can bring in early Yeats or French poets in translation; who among my compatriots, though?)

But I digress.

The little mini-unit that went best, and that might make for a fun assignment or lesson on its own, centered on three poems: Williams's "Portrait of a Lady," Amy Lowell's "Venus Transiens," and Gertrude Stein's "Susie Asado." All three are "portraits of ladies," but fractured and surprising. They let you talk about different sorts of free verse, about issues of gender and representation, about uses of allusion, about the lives and careers of the poets.

But why stop at three? If I were to do this again, I'd want to add, at the very least, Ezra Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" (in the Norton already) and T. S. Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" (not in the Norton, but readily available, thanks to the Poetry Foundation). What else is out there? I can think of others by men--say, Wallace Stevens's "So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch," although that's from several decades later, well into the '40s, if memory serves:
So-And-So Reclining on Her Couch

On her side, reclining on her elbow.
This mechanism, this apparition,
Suppose we call it Projection A.

She floats in air at the level of
The eye, completely anonymous,
Born, as she was, at twenty-one,

Without lineage or language, only
The curving of her hip, as motionless gesture,
Eyes dripping blue, so much to learn.

If just abover her head there hung,
Suspended in air, the slightest crown
Of Gothic prong and practick bright,

The suspension, as in solid space,
The suspending hand withdrawn, would be
An invisible gesture. Let this be called

Projection B. To get at the thing
Without gestures is to get at it as
Idea. She floats in the contention, the flux

Between the thing as idea and
The idea as thing. She is half who made her.
This is the final Projection C.

The arrangement contains the desire of
The artist. But one confides in what has no
Concealed creator. One walks easily

The unpainted shore, accepts the world
As anything but sculpture. Good-bye
Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks.
Any other late-Victorian or early-modernist portrait-poems come to mind? Would love a few more by women, whether of women or of men. I think this has legs, as they say, as a teachable unit--especially since it gives me the chance to show some nifty slides of actual art if the conversation flags!


Since I'm writing a piece about Midrash and Mashups, here's an oldie but goodie from DJ Earworm. Enjoy!

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