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Modern American Poetry
Dr. Nancy Berke

This course is not a history of modern American poetry. As critic Cary Nelson has argued, no such narrative of the genre can be conveniently told. Instead we will do close readings of a variety of poems by a variety of poets. We will explore prominent themes, trends, problems, and disputes among poets; we will investigate the historical, cultural, and political contexts in which the poems were written, as well as consider social categories such as gender, class, and race in the work we encounter. Rather than read a large selection from a few poets, we will read a small selection from a wider range of poets. Such a reading strategy will hopefully suggest the breadth and variety of modern American poetry, rather than enforce limitations through selections from a small group of "major" poets. Although we will concentrate primarily on the modern period (1910-1945), we will look at work before and after this time frame we well.

Requirements: This is a discussion based course and will involve your participation heavily. Each week students will be selected randomly to interpret and/or lead discussions on select assigned poems. To make sure that effort is put into these presentations, a one/two page typed transcript must accompany them. (see attached). It is therefore absolutely necessary that you do all the readings and come to each class prepared. Since reading poetry is a subjective process you will not be graded on how accurately you read a poem, but on what you put into your reading. It is hoped that lively class discussion will evolve out of your readings of the individual poems. It is strongly advised that you purchase a loose leaf binder in which to keep class notes on the poems we discuss; there will also be a few photocopied poems, plus ancillary "informational" material not in our text that you will need to keep in your notebook. There will be a final exam. Students will also be responsible for three short essays (about three pages), which might include consulting our text's accompanying web site. These essays will be detailed readings of poems we have read during the semester. Please be aware that six or more absences will lower your grade significantly.


50%    three essays.
25%    class participation and presentations
25%    final exam.

Required Text:

Cary Nelson, ed. The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry.
Nelson, et al, web site for The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry.

Texts on Reserve:*

Nelson: Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945.
Perkins: A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode.
Pound: The ABC of Reading.

*If this is your first course in poetry or modern American literature, I strongly urge you to read through the material on reserve.

Please note that since we will be reading a good deal of obscure material, it is imperative that you buy the textbook listed on the syllabus; other texts will not have this material.

Syllabus: (the amount of time spent on each poet is not fixed and is subject to change. Therefore you should always read ahead!) (Before reading the assigned poems in the Anthology of Modern American Poetry, please read the biographical information that introduces the poet).

Weeks One / Two: (9/1, 9/5, 9/8)

Course introduction, reading short "modern" poems.

American Originals: Walt Whitman, Anthology of Modern American Poetry, all poems on pages 1 through 3.

Weeks Three / Four: (9/12, 9/15, 9/19, 9/22)

American Originals: Emily Dickinson, AMAP, poem #s 303, p. 10, 465, p. 11, #657, p. 14, #712, p.15. Edwin Markham, "The Man with the Hoe, AMAP, 18-19, (& appendix 1226). Edwin Arlington Robinson: "Richard Cory," 26, Miniver Cheevy, 27. Paul Laurence Dunbar: "We Wear the Mask," 37, "Sympathy," 39. Robert Frost: "The Road Not Taken," 90, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," 100; Carl Sandburg, "Chicago," 107, "Planked Whitefish," 110, "Grass," 111.

Weeks Five / Six: (9/26, [9/29 NO CLASS], [10/3 Paper #1 Due,] 10/6)

Modernism A: Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," 127, "Study of Two Pears," 141. William Carlos Williams: "The Young Housewife," 164, " Queen Anne’s Lace," 166, "The Great Figure," 167, "This is Just to Say," 191. Ezra Pound: "A Pact," 204, "In a Station of the Metro," 204. H.D. (Hilda Doolittle): ("Imagism," photocopy,) "Oread," 233, "Sea Rose," 234, "Garden," 234. T.S. Eliot: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," 278.

Weeks Seven / Eight: (10/10 NO CLASS, 10/13, 10/17, 10/20)

Weeks Nine / Ten: (10/24, 10/27, [10/31 Paper #2 Due,] 11/3)

Harlem Renaissance: Angelina Weld Grimke: "Tenebris," 145, "A Mona Lisa," 146. Georgia Douglas Johnson: "The Heart of a Woman," 147, Claude McKay, "The Harlem Dancer," 315, "Outcast," 317. Langston Hughes: "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," 503, "The Weary Blues," 504, "The Cat and the Saxophone," 505. Gwendolyn Bennett: "To a Dark Girl," 528, "Street Lamps in Early Spring," 529. Countee Cullen: "Heritage," 531. Jean Toomer: "Reapers," 352.

Weeks Eleven / Twelve: (11/7, 11/10, 11/14,11/17)

Protest A: Claude McKay: "If We Must Die," 315, John Beecher: "Report to the Stockholders," 557. Herman Spector: "Wiseguy Type," 371 Kenneth Fearing: "Dear Beatrice Fairfax," 495, "Dirge," 497, Joseph Kalar: "Paper Mill," 583. Edwin Rolfe: "Asbestos," 609. Langston Hughes: "Come to the Waldorf Astoria," 510 (& appendix 1230,) "Goodbye Christ," 512. Lucia Trent: "Breed, Women, Breed, 376. Richard Wright: "We of The Streets," 584. Margaret Walker: "For My People," 735.

Weeks Thirteen / Fourteen: (11/21, WEDS. 11/22, 11/28, 12/1)

Protest B: Genevieve Taggard: "To the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade," 342. Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Say That We Saw Spain Die." ("The Spanish Civil War" photocopy), ("The Abraham Lincoln Brigade" photocopy). Langston Hughes: "Letter from Spain," 517. Sol Funaroff: "The Bull in the Olive Field," 627. Muriel Rukeyser: "The Minotaur," 688, "(To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)," "Poem, " 690. Joy Davidman: "For the Nazis," 734. Genevieve Taggard: "Ode in Time of Crisis," 339. Japanese American Concentration Camp Haiku: 718-120, ("Haiku" photocopy).

Weeks Fifteen / Sixteen: (12/5, 12/8, 12/12 Last Day of Class, Paper # 3 Due).

Edwin Rolfe: "Little Ballad for Americans," 619. Allen Ginsberg: ("America," photocopy), "Howl," 848. (J.C. Holmes, "This is the Beat Generation," photocopy). Frank O’Hara: "A Step Away from Them," 828, "The Day Lady Died," 829.

Oral Presentation

The week before reading assignments are due, students will be selected at random (volunteers are welcome, however) to present readings of poems to the class. For shorter poems you will be expected to read the poem to the class and then discuss it, focusing on both form and content (the attached handout with seven questions about poetic form will be helpful to you and should be consulted.) Because in previous semesters students often did the minimum, and as a result there were a number of poor presentations, you will be expected to hand in a typed transcript of your presentation to me in class the day it is due.

The presentation should be between three to five minutes in length, but not longer than ten minutes. You may not have time to discuss every aspect of a poem, so focus on what you particularly like or what you find most significant or challenging about the work you have been asked to read and analyze. You do not have to understand the poem completely or even like it to do a decent presentation. But you should avoid making empty comments such as "I found this poem boring" or "I don’t get it." Remember that in poetry, structure, imagery, and sound is equally as important as what the poem is saying. You may need to read the poem over several times to really pick up on what the poet is trying to get across to her/his audience. I am primarily interested in hearing your interpretation of the poem, but you will need to be aware that most of these poems were written before most of us were even born. Thus what is part of your world as the reader may not have been part of the world of the writer whose work you have been asked to analyze. For additional help, consult our text’s web site; although you must make sure that you credit the author of the page you visited, both in your presentation and in your written transcript.

Presentations are one-quarter of your grade, so missed presentations can substantially lower your grade for the course. 

 Critical Conflicts

There is no correct way to read a poem; however numerous methods have been employed to make sense of poems. This semester we will be working with a variety of modes of literary analysis. Below are competing, yet significant, methods that we will encounter this semester.

New critical methodology:

"The New Criticism [is] a type of formalist literary criticism that reached its height during the 1940s and 1950s. . . New Critics treat a work of literary art as if it were a self-contained, self referential object. Rather than basing their interpretations of a text on the reader’s response, the author’s stated intentions, or parallels between the text and historical contexts (such as the author’s life), New Critics perform a close reading, concentrating on the relationships within the text that give it its own distinctive character or form. New Critics emphasize that the structure of a work should not be divorced from meaning, viewing the two as constituting an "organic unity." Special attention is paid to repetition, particularly of images or symbols, but also of sound effects and rhythms in poetry. New critics especially appreciate the use of literary devices, such as irony and paradox, to achieve a balance or reconciliation between dissimilar, even conflicting, elements in a text.

Because of the importance placed on close textual analysis and the stress on the text as a carefully crafted, orderly object containing observable formal patterns, the New Criticism has often been seen as an attack on romanticism and impressionism. . . It has sometimes even been called an "objective" approach to literature. New Critics are more likely than certain other critics to believe and say that the meaning of a text can be known objectively. For instance, reader-response critics see meaning as a function either of each reader’s experience or of the norms that govern a particular interpretive community, and deconstructors argue that texts mean opposite things at the same time."

Three principles named and rejected by the New Criticism.

1) Intentional Fallacy: an attempt to figure out the author’s intentions. Q: What is the poet saying in this poem?

2) Genetic Fallacy: to examine the context that created the work. Q: What social or historical factors might have influenced the making of this poem?

3) Affective Fallacy: to talk about your emotional responses to the work. Q: How does the poem make you, the reader, feel?

Essay Assignments

You are required to write three essays, about three pages in length. They will be "close readings" of a poem or groups of poems we have read so far in the semester. For example, essay #1, which is due October 3rd, should deal with material covered in the "American Originals" or "Modernism A" sections listed on the syllabus. You can compare two poems, or you can look at an idea or recurring image in one or several poems. You may look at a work thematically, but you must also look at its formal aspects. You may use the web site for "information" about the poem, but you must document the material you use; MLA parenthetical citation is preferable.

The paper should have an introduction, detailed body, and conclusion. It should be free of grammar and spelling errors, and should be organized in a manner that gives easy access to your textual interpretations.

The paper must be typed--double-spaced using 10 or 12 cpi--paginated, and titled. You should quote from the work to clearly explain your position and to enhance your reading of it. When you quote from a poem you must type it out exactly as it appears on the page. Quotes of more than two lines should be indented ten spaces from the left-hand margin as follows (do not use quote marks for indented material):

If you deny her right to think,
If you deny her pride of ink,
She will smile like a slave,
Trick like a knave,
She will be lonely as a wild boar,
And quick companionable as any whore.

When quoting two lines of verse, (one or two are not indented) a forward slash should separate the first and second lines as follows: "No one worth possessing / Can be quite possessed." Quotes should always be introduced with an appropriate context.

The first of the three papers may be rewritten if you are dissatisfied with the grade you receive. The second and third essays may not. The three essays together make up 50% of your final grade. Late papers will be marked down one grade per day late.

 Return to Syllabus Index