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Modern American Poetry

Dr. Norman Finkelstein, Xavier University


Nelson, ed., Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford UP)
Accompanying website for Modern American Poetry:
Course handouts and texts on e-reserve

 Modern American Poetry: Rupture and Continuity

The first half of the 20th century, especially the years around World War I, witnessed unprecedented changes in literature, as well as in the other arts. These changes, many of them as abrupt and violent as the times in which they occurred, can be seen perhaps more clearly in the genre of poetry than in any other. Our course will explore American poetry of this era, considering its formal and thematic transformations as a chapter in the cultural narrative to which we now give the name modernism. Although this term is often used to indicate a particular span of historical time (as in "the modernist period"), modernism also denotes a large set of occasionally contradictory aesthetic qualities, which in turn may be understood as only one moment in an ongoing historical dialectic—as indicated by our inevitable recourse to terms like modernity and modernization as well. As we shall see, modernism takes many forms, and at the outset, it may be best not to think of as a uniform or monological phenomenon.

Modernism, then, may be synonymous with change, and even though American poets were often exponents of change, they take on this role with greater or less misgivings. In the arts, revolutionary change also implies (and sometimes explicitly articulates) connections with pre-existing traditions, which may have been eclipsed by more recent developments. As modern American poets forge their various aesthetic ideologies and position themselves in relation to historical movements and events, we will see them coming to terms with older traditions, judging them and using them as sources of strength or as artistic constraints against which they must struggle. Likewise, we will see how their poetry draws them into various alliances with other writers, artists, intellectuals, and cultural figures, all of whom recognize the need to articulate a vision of the new social, political, economic, and technological conditions of the 20th century.

Because our subject is poetic modernism, and not individual modernists, we will read a relatively large selection of poets. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge the sustaining and convincing power of the modernist canon, and so we will give more time to the study of some major figures whose influence has extended from the period in which they wrote up until the present day. In order to use our time more effectively, students will also be expected to read a number of works which we will not discuss directly, and will also read additional poets for assignments to be done outside of class.


Note: I strongly recommend checking the Modern American Poetry website for additional background material on each of the poets we study, before we discuss the poet in class.

August 28 Introduction

August 30 Masters, 22-24; Robinson, 25-30

Sept. 4 Dunbar, 37-41; Sandburg, 107-113.

Sept. 6 Frost, 84-105

Sept. 11 NO CLASS (Academic Convocation)

Sept. 13 Frost

Sept. 18 In-class assignment (Rosh Hashanah)

Sept. 20 Pound, 202-231

Sept. 25 Pound

Sept. 27 In-class assignment (Yom Kippur)

Oct. 2 H.D., 232-243

Oct. 4 NO CLASS (Fall Holiday)

Oct. 9 Williams, 164-170

Oct. 11 Williams, 171-191 Comparative Paper due

Oct. 16 Williams, 191-201


Oct. 23 Stevens, 124-144

Oct. 25 Stevens

Oct. 30 Stevens; Moore, 250-276

Nov. 1 Moore

Nov. 6 Crane, 384-408

Nov. 8 Crane

Nov. 13 Rukeyser, 655-690

Nov. 15 Rukeyser

Nov. 20 Millay, 320-330

Nov. 22 NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)

Nov. 27 Hughes, 502-525

Nov. 29 Hughes

Dec. 4 Brown, 473-485 Research paper due

Dec. 6 Reznikoff, 354-370 & additional material on e-reserve

Dec. 11 Zukofsky, 551-556 & additional material on e-reserve

Dec. 13 Oppen, 603-607 & additional material on e-reserve

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