Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shaping Up

With some trepidation, I've decided to ditch Whitman and Dickinson from my modern poetry course and to focus on the twentieth century instead. The texts I've ordered for the class are:
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems
William Carlos Williams, Imaginations
Ezra Pound, Selected Poems
Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind
Gertrude Stein, Selections
Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems
Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems
John Ashbery, Selected Poems
Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
Gabriel Gudding, Rhode Island Notebook
I've decided to trust that my students will have at least some familiarity with Whitman and Dickinson (this trust based in part on the fact that at least a couple of students signed up for the fall studied those poets in my Nineteenth-Century American Lit class last year (which I'm also teaching again this fall). Which is not to say I can't start the course off with a little sampler handout, just so they can begin to appreciate and start noticing some of the most elemental modern tactics: whether a poem has short lines and a basically vertical movement on the page, or long lines and a horizontal movement; musical effects in the absence of rhyme; leaving-it-out versus putting-it-in; etc.

Strategy versus tactics: I read with interest the comments of Nada Gordon and others on my original post about the course's composition. I definitely think I've constructed the course less as a theory of influences and more with a pedagogical framework in mind: as Kasey says in his comment, my theory is that "the majority of contemporary practice which might appear strange or challenging to the uninitiated reader has been anticipated in one way or another by the particular methodological and presentational choices made by the [poets] in question." In other words, I'm thinking primarily as a reader, seeking to provide a map (there's navigation again) for less experienced readers. I would never presume to create some kind of schema that looked like (Pound + Stevens)/Stein = Ashbery; I know that influence is a much stranger and more unpredictable beast than that. I doubt I'm even aware of every one of my own poetic influences: any such list is potentially of infinite length, given the fact that other poets are far from the only influence on a poet's writing. (Annette Funicello, anyone?)

I haven't tried to free myself or my students from the canon, because of the shaping force it's had, for better or worse, on my own ideas about poetry. I can conceive a course in reading poetry that ignored all canonical figures and poems and instead focused entirely on the contemporary, and maybe I'll try that next time. But I fear this would only deepen, or rather fill in further, the shallow sense of literary history that most undergraduates have. Which raises an interesting question: how can you teach the history of an art form without resorting to canons (or counter-canons through a feminist approach, a Marxist approach, etc.)? Maybe one of my cleverer readers could enlighten me.

Eliot, Williams, Pound, and Stein remain the core quartet, the poets whom I believe have done the most in terms of innovating and creating the field of modern poetry. Then I decided I couldn't leave out Stevens, if only because he's been the greatest single influence on my own work and I might as well cop to that. After those five we move into the postwar period and a sampler of poets of varying canonicity who all, I believe, adopt tactics the core five would recognize—collage, found texts, parataxis, imagism, association, page-as-field—but with wildly different strategic goals. Ginsberg is someone my students have probably read, but Howl is such an epochal poem and I doubt they've read it very closely. O'Hara's mannerisms are maybe over-influential, but what really interests me about him is how, to use a Heideggerianism, he dwells poetically in New York and New York-ly (queerly, visually, cacophonously) in poetry. Brooks is a very different urban poet and a Chicago poet too; I'm interested in how she uses narrative to reconcile aesthetic and political purposes. Ashbery is Ashbery. Mullen combines playfulness and serious critical intent to a high degree, and students love her. And Gudding's book is almost certainly too long a book to end a semester with, but it was one of the most moving reading experiences I had last year, and I think he'll give my writing students permission to write about dimensions of experience they may not have realized are possible to bring into poetry. Plus one of the other elements I want to weave into the course is the function of long poems versus short poems: to finish with a long poem that calls itself a "notebook" and consists of innumerable fragments should leave us with interesting questions.

Obviously I've left out many, many poets who are important to American poetry and to me personally: Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, H.D., all the Objectivists, Charles Olson, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, etc., etc. We only have fifteen weeks. But if I get to teach this course on a recurring basis, I'll mix up the reading list, and I might even specialize in a given school or movement to further test my theory about teaching transferable reading strategies. It would be amazing to teach a "modern poetry" class that focused exclusively on the Objectivists, for example: Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker, Reznikoff, Rakosi. A course in the generations of the New York School would also be a no-brainer, or a course in Language poetry. I hope this time around to learn a great deal from my students: what they already know or think they know, what their expectations for poetry might be, who or what they see in their mind's eye when they hear the word "poet." We shall see.

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