Modern American Poetry: Openings

In the opening days of my Modern American Poetry class I have been trying to get across three things: 1) What we mean by "modern" in the course title; 2) a sense of Whitman & Dickinson as founders; 3) some basic information about versification, which some of my students have but others don't -- the course has non-majors as well as majors. I think we've been pretty successful so far in accomplishing these goals & today, as a kind of pedagogical surplus, we concluded with a very interesting discussion of Dickinson's ability to portray altered states of consciousness, or consciousness in extremis. And this led to a reflection on the first point above -- we noted that both poets face the problem of the isolated self's relationship to nature & to other people. The insights, which are hardly original, are not so extraordinary as the intensity with which the class seems to be pursuing them. One of my students said that modern poems don't try to make death pretty. I added a little aside about the loss of teleological certainty, which ultimately amounted to restating her point in grander philosophical terms. I do a lot of that. On Wednesday, we take up some poems of E.A. Robinson, the neglected master of the early 20th century American lyric poem (the "epics" stink). In some ways, Robinson is an easier poet; unlike Whitman & Dickinson, his sentences don't require quite the same kind of unknotting.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

3 thoughts on “Modern American Poetry: Openings”

  1. I’m curious what makes modern poetry modern, because I used to think I knew but now I am not so sure any more. On one level, being modern meant that I could read the poem as contemporaneous with my own sensibility, on some level. That there wasn’t a gap there. So it made sense to have certain 19th century poets be modern if they were darlings of the twentieth, but not others if they weren’t. Baudelaire is modern. Longfellow is not, etc…

  2. Good points, Jonathan, and ones that came up at least briefly in class. When we asked ourselves why we felt Whitman & Dickinson were “modern,” students raised the issue of sensibility. “They don’t feel old-fashioned,” one student said. I wonder if it’s because we share with them in the crisis of the loss of a coherent teleological world picture. “All that is solid melts into air . . .”

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