chapter 1.1 (week 1)—Whitman & Dickinson, two proto-modernists
Week 1 of ModPo 2020 runs from Saturday, September 5 at 9 AM through Sunday, September 13 at 9 AM. For those doing ModPo on their own or in small groups, the week 1 materials are open and available all year.
In this first week of our course, we'll encounter two 19th-century American poets whose quite different approaches to verse similarly challenged the official verse culture of the time. As a matter of form (but also of content), Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were radicals. What sort of radicalism is this? In a way, this course is all about exploring expressions of that radicalism from Whitman and Dickinson to the present day. Such challenges to official verse culture (and often U.S. culture at large) present us with a lineage of ideas about art and expression, a tradition that can be outlined, mostly followed, somewhat traced. In this course, we follow, to the best of our ability — and given the limits of time — that tradition and try to make overall sense of it.
You will find that we do this one poem at a time. Here in week 1, we will explore Dickinson first, Whitman second, and then begin to sketch out the major differences between them, which, some say, amount to two opposite ends of the spectrum of poetic experimentalism and dissent in the nineteenth century. Which is to say: on the spectrum of traditional-to-experimental poetry, these two poets are on the same end (experimental); on the spectrum of experimentalism, their approaches can put them on opposite ends. In short, they offer us alternative poetic radicalisms, and their influences down the line (which we will explore in week 2) are both powerful but are also largely distinct. One question you'll be prepared to ask by the end of the course: Is the Dickinsonian or the Whitmanian tradition more ascendant and apt in today's experimental poetry?
ASSIGNMENTS: During this week, there are two quizzes due (see below); there are no writing assignments or peer reviews due. There is a live webcast on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, at noon (Philadelphia time).
chapter 1.2 (week 2)—Whitmanians & Dickinsonians
Week 2 of ModPo 2020 runs from Sunday, September 13 at 9 AM through Sunday, September 20 at 9 AM. For those doing ModPo on their own or in small groups, the week 2 materials are open and available all year.
During this week, the second half of chapter 1, we will read the work of two poets writing in the Whitmanian mode and three poets writing in the Dickinsonian mode. We will encounter our Whitmanians, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, again later in the course—Williams as a modernist and Ginsberg as a Beat poet. The Whitman/Williams/Ginsberg connection is a strong one; Ginsberg wrote directly in response to both Whitman and Williams and saw the lineage as crucial to the development of his approach. Our Dickinsonians are more disparate in their response to Dickinson’s writing. Of the three—Lorine Niedecker, Cid Corman, and Rae Armantrout—only the last could be said to be a direct poetic descendant of Emily Dickinson's aesthetic.
ASSIGNMENTS: During this week, there are two quizzes due and a writing assignment. Writing assignment #1 is open for submission between 9 AM on 9/13/20 and 9 AM on 9/20/20; after that, peer reviews will be submitted any time between 9 AM on 9/21/20 and 9 AM on 9/27/20. There is also a live webcast on Wednesday, September 16, at 3 PM (Philadelphia time).
chapter 2.1 (week 3)—the rise of poetic modernism: imagism
Week 3 of ModPo 2020 runs from Sunday, September 20 at 9 AM through Sunday, September 27 at 9 AM. For those doing ModPo on their own or in small groups, the week 3 materials are open and available all year.
Modernism in poetry had many beginnings; imagism marks just one. But in a fast introduction, this brief but influential movement gives us a good place to start. Imagists had no use for late Victorian wordiness, flowery figuration and “beautiful” abstraction. They rejected such qualities through staunch assertions demanding concision, concentration, precise visuality and a sort of super-focused emotive objectivity. In this first of four sections of chapter 2, we will ask ourselves whether each poem meets the impossible or nearly impossible standards set out by imagist manifestos. If any given poem “fails” to meet such standards, it is by no means a sign of “bad poetry.” But one way to learn about the rise of poetic modernism is to make discernments based on the poets' own (momentary) programmatic demands.
ASSIGNMENTS: During this week there are two quizzes due (see below). This is also the week in which peer reviews of writing assignment #1 are due. Peer reviews should be submitted any time between 9 AM on 9/21/20 and 9 AM on 9/27/20. There is also a live webcast on Wednesday, September 23 at noon (Philadelphia time).
chapter 2.2 (week 3 cont.)—the rise of poetic modernism: Williams
-Now in the second of four parts of our chapter on the rise of modernism—in the second part of week 3—we take a closer look at William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). We met Williams as a “Whitmanian” in chapter 1, the middle figure in a poetic line running from Whitman to Ginsberg. But that focus on him was a little misleading. The Williams of the late 1910s and 1920s was a poet fascinated by currents of formal experimentation—imagism, yes, but also Dadaism, cubism (especially drawing on innovations and painting) and a little later, objectivism. It's not the purpose of this course that we learn what all these “-isms” mean. Rather, let's start with a few poems by Williams that befit the imagist moment, and go from there. Quickly we'll find that Williams (always aesthetically restless) was interested in a writing that might capture the dynamism of its modern subject matter and was (mostly) willing to face problems created by traditional approaches to description and portraiture. When these conventions seemed to him to fail, he was prepared to include such failure in the poem itself—disclosing the troubled process of representation.
chapter 2.3 (week 4)—the rise of poetic modernism: Stein
Week 4 of ModPo 2020 runs from Sunday, September 27 at 9 AM through Sunday, October 4 at 9 AM. For those doing ModPo on their own or in small groups, the week 4 materials are open and available all year.
Gertrude Stein's contribution to modernist poetry and poetics cannot be overstated, so now, in the third section of chapter 2, we turn to her, spending the better part of week 4 of our course on a selection of her supposedly “difficult” writings. The difficulty of deriving any sort of conventional semantic meaning from the short prose-poems that comprise Stein's Tender Buttons turns out for many readers to be a helpful inducement to look for other kinds of signifying. As we hope you'll see from the video discussions in this section, such difficulty need not excuse us from close reading. Stein's poems really can be interpreted. They might reject representation, but by no means do they turn away from reference. The hard work you do in this part of chapter 2 will be amply rewarded when we get to chapter 9. Stein is a particular influence on John Ashbery in chapter 8, but she is a crucial influence on nearly every poet we'll read in chapter 9. As a matter of fact, here in chapter 2 we have a chance to listen to Jackson Mac Low (a chapter 9 poet) talk about why he finds Stein's opaque and difficult Tender Buttons so nonetheless meaningful. And we hear Joan Retallack (another chapter 9 poet) paying homage to Stein's “Composition as Explanation.”
ASSIGNMENTS: During this week there are two quizzes due (see below). There is also a writing assignment due. Writing assignment #2 should be submitted any time between 9 AM on 9/28/20 and 9 AM on 10/4/20; after that, peer reviews will be submitted any time between 9 AM on 10/5/20 and 9 AM on 10/11/20. There is also a live webcast on Thursday, October 1, at 6:30 PM (Philadelphia time)
chapter 2.4 (week 4 cont.)—the rise of poetic modernism: modernist edges
-"The Baroness" (Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven) was way out there. But because she so intensely embodied modernist experimentalism, our effort to learn something about her life and writing is an apt way, in part, to end our brief introduction to poetic modernism from roughly 1912 to 1929. The three instances of modernist extremity we will encounter in chapter 2.4 are very different expressions of “High Modernism.” Well, the Baroness was certainly high on highballs when she wrote the poem we'll read — or rather, her language remarkably simulates a reeling discombobulation, such that its critique of 1920s-style commercialism (not in itself unusual at the time) has a very sharp edge. She was “New York Dada” epitomized, while Tristan Tzara's ideas about cutting up newspapers to form “personal” poems were, among his many other radical notions, crucial to the Dadaist import. And John Peale Bishop, with whom we will end our two weeks of chapter 2? Well, as you'll see, Bishop's is another story altogether; his sonnet sets us up for our approach to doubts about modernist antics as expressed by the poets of chapters 3, 4 and 5.
chapter 3 (week 5)—communist poets of the 1930s
Week 5 of ModPo 2020 covers chapters 3, 4, 5 & 6 and runs from Sunday, October 4, starting at 9 AM, to Sunday, October 11 at 9 AM (Philadelphia time). For those doing ModPo on their own or in small groups, the week 5 materials are open and available all year.
Chapter 3 is a very brief look at communist poetry of the 1930s. These were years of economic crisis — the Depression. Like most other people, poets felt the urgency induced by privation, lack of opportunity, segregation and desperation. But poets had all along been inclined toward social as well as aesthetic experimentalism, and as they could write effectively, many felt they could be useful in the larger effort to find solutions — some modestly reformist, some more extreme — to the nation's and the world's huge problems. When the Depression set in, many poets embraced radical critiques of the economic status quo, and some even joined revolutionary groups such as the Communist Party of the United States. Such ideological journeys were often quite brief, however, and most once-Communist poets regretted joining the Party later, and said so. One of the myths created in the 1950s is that all modernist poets had repudiated modernism's embrace of opaqueness, indirection and self-referentiality and had decided suddenly to write clearly and “transparently” so that masses of people could understand their language. This is not true — many pre-1930s modernists continued to write in experimental modes and remained committed to cubism, surrealism, Dadaism, etc., as well as joining radical political causes. But for our purposes in this very brief chapter 3, we look at two poets whose poems might be said to contain radical content but to deliver that content in traditional — one might even say conservative — forms. What can we make of this apparent contradiction or irony? What can we learn here about modernism's relation to political life?
ASSIGNMENTS: During week 5 (covering chapters 3, 4, 5 & 6), there are two quizzes due (see below). There are no writing assignments due. Peer reviews of writing assignment #2 are due and should be submitted anytime between 9 AM on 10/5/20 and 9 AM on 10/11/20. There is also a live webcast on Wednesday, October 7, 2020, at 3 PM (Philadelphia time) .
chapter 4 (week 5 cont.)—the Harlem Renaissance
-We continue ModPo week 5 with chapter 4 and Harlem Renaissance poetry. We look at poets whose concept of the relation between traditional stanza form and the content of racist hatred helps us understand the limits of formal experiment. For example, Harlem Renaissance writers such as Jean Toomer (in works like Cane) engaged a modernist sense of genre, and Sterling Brown closely studied and admired the modernist “New”-ness of Ezra Pound even though Brown chose to write his own poems in rhymed blues verse and sometimes vernacular "folk" language. Claude McKay's strategic use of the Shakespearean sonnet is as powerful a refusal of free verse as can be found anywhere — his sense of the complicated inheritance of English prosody will come back to us at the very end of the course (watch for it in week 10). Countee Cullen uses the ballad form to similar effect, and for similar reasons. These poets, and others such as Langston Hughes, emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, but the influence of what was called “The New Negro” artistic renaissance (after the anthology compiled by Alain Locke) extended well beyond its time and deeply influenced later poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, whose poems “truth” and "Boy Breaking Glass" we will also read and discuss here in chapter 4. Brooks's idea of the truth is honored but also challenged, in turn, by a poet still later associated with the Black Arts movement: Etheridge Knight. Knight's response to Brooks (discussed in the PoemTalk episode linked to this week's syllabus) both reveres Brooks and at the same time urges further progress, just as Brooks's “truth” had revered and also moved beyond the McKay/Cullen mode. In "Boy Breaking Glass," Brooks understands a young man's "cry for art" as requiring a sympathetic modernist fragmentation in her own poem. Poetic influences are cultural ripples, never more so than here — an emanation but also a widening. Langston Hughes's “Dinner Guest: Me” is partly about how such ripple effect and communality sometimes must be taught. And because it must be taught, we felt it apt to add a special video (prepared for ModPo's Teacher Resource Center) on how teachers might teach that challenging poem by Hughes.
chapter 5 (week 5 cont.)—Frost
-We continue ModPo week 5 with chapter 5. Robert Frost is widely considered a major modern American poet, but in fact his relationship to modernism is mostly antagonistic. In our series of short chapters featuring poets’ doubts about aspects of the modernist revolution, we consider just one poem by Frost — "Mending Wall" — for its frank but also witty way of raising the issue of subject-object relations. The speaker and a second figure find themselves on either side of a wall. Should that wall come down? Does Frost’s answer to that question have anything to do with his famous anti-modernist complaint — that free verse is “like playing tennis without a net”? We also offer a video recording of a ModPo-hosted symposium in which four poets debate Frost's wall.
chapter 6 (week 5 cont.)—formalism of the 1950s
-We conclude ModPo week 5 with chapter 6. There are several ways of looking generally at U.S. poetry in the postwar (post-World War II) period, 1945-60. No single generalization will do, but our course implies two main trends. First, there was a retrenchment, a “coming home,” a consolidation — a mainstreaming of modernism and for some, a new formalist (or "neo-formalist") reaction against what was deemed to be modernist experimental excess. This consolidation coincided with a general renewed cultural conservatism or quietism, generally understood as caused or aided by several factors: fears of communism, concerns about women who had entered the wartime workplace and were now expected to resume domestic life, the apparent ease of daily life during a time of economic growth, the "massification" of university education, the flight from cities, and the suburbanization of values and lifestyle. For some, this meant assuming modernist gains — free verse, wide choice of subject matter, everyday diction — while suppressing radical experiment. For others, it meant an outright antimodernism, though it was now more conservative than the antimodernism of poets in chapters 3 and 5. The latter impulse expressed itself in a neo-classicist use of satire and irony — a kind of new Augustan poetics. Chapter 6 gives us a very brief look at this postwar neo-formalism.  A second, very different, trend was the explosion of a new poetic radicalism fueled by a sometimes ecstatic and often antic negative response to the above-mentioned quietism and poetic conservatism. Drawing on the experimental spirit of modernism and sometimes celebrating the influence of individual modernist poets, this trend generally came to be known as the “New American” poetry. The Beats of chapter 7 and the New York School poets of chapter 8 are instances of this trend. There are other New American approaches and groupings, to be sure, but we will not have time to consider them except in passing references. First, let us quickly end week 5 — our rapid tour through the doubters and troublers of chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 — with a glance at two neo-formalists: Richard Wilbur and X. J. Kennedy.
chapter 7 (week 6)—breaking conformity: the beats
Week 6 starts at 9 AM (Philadelphia time) on Sunday, October 11, 2020, and ends at 9 AM on Sunday, October 18, 2020.For those doing ModPo on their own or in small groups, the week 6 materials are open and available all year.
The so-called “New American Poetry” that emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s went in many directions; some trends, styles, and approaches overlapped, while some were (or seemed to be) more distinct and separable than others. The “Beat” poets were a fairly distinct community of writers, making it easier than it would be otherwise to study as a coherent movement their ecstatic, antic, apparently anti-poetic break with official verse culture. Our approach, in just one week, looks at two “classic” Beats (Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) and then quickly moves off to adjacent figures. Robert Creeley was not a Beat poet, but his most famous poem engages poetic, psychological, and social matters with which Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the others were obsessed. Anne Waldman is an “outrider” poet and is more closely associated with the second generation of “New York School” poets (see chapter 8), but she was a dear friend of Ginsberg and learned a great deal from his political pedagogy. Amiri Baraka, as Leroi Jones, was a Beat poet for a few years and then broke away. The poem by Baraka that we study here gives us a chance to look back on Countee Cullen's traditionally formal poetic response to racist hatred. The prose-poem/manifesto by Baraka on how poets (should) sound extends a theme already important to this chapter: the primacy of sound (or music) as a form of freedom from linguistic convention. Jayne Cortez gives us a perfect example of this and permits us to suggest connections among the Beat aesthetic, Black Arts, the influences of jazz, and the emergence of “spoken word” performance. Our focus on Jack Kerouac in chapter 7 is a little unusual — he, of course, is known more as a novelist than a poet. But his “babble flow” has been a significant influence on contemporary poets, more than his narrative fictional stance as psycho-social itinerant. We will have occasion, then, to examine and question Kerouac’s — and implicitly, Ginsberg’s — claim to be writing naturally spontaneous language. Our chapter 9 poets for the most part doubt such a claim.
ASSIGNMENTS: During this week there are two quizzes due (see below). There are no writing assignments due, nor peer reviews. There is a live webcast on Wednesday, October 14, at noon (Philadelphia time).