Modernist Poetry
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Text:  Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellman, and Robert O'Clair, ed. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: Volume One, Modern Poetry. 3rd ed. New York: WW Norton and Co, 2003.

Course Objectives

  1. To learn to read the full complexity of Modernist poetry;
  2. To become familiar with the literary figure of the Modernist period;
  3. To become familiar with the literary themes and techniques associated with the Modernist period;
  4. To come to a greater understanding of early twentieth-century history;
  5. To hone your research tools, and critical writing and speaking skills.


Let's get this straight, right at the start of class:

I love modernist poetry.

I say this because very soon your reading and intellectual skills, as well as your patience, are likely to be tested in the extreme and you're going to ask yourselves:  what in the hell does Willhardt think he's doing inflicting such torture upon undergraduates?

I'll tell you what I think I'm doing:  I think I'm making you smarter, better English majors.  That's what I think I'm doing.  Modernism makes you work at reading, and I think that's a valuable thing to be forced to do, since it's only by working at your skills that you get better.  Modernism, taken seriously and diligently, will make you better.

Yeah, but what is Modernism?

Modernism, for those of you who don't know, is a literary period, which means that we generally distinguish it from the historical period, The Modern.  The latter can be traced back to the sixteenth century while the former really denotes a period ranging from approximately 1910 to 1930 or so.  (The dates for "Modernism" are notoriously slippery, the reasons for which we'll address during the course of this class.)  In any case, what we all ought to be thinking about at the outset is that we're not addressing a time period, but rather that we're thinking about a set of works which address related themes in some related ways.

As part of our "what" discussion, we ought to lay out some of the themes which authors were reacting to during this literary outpouring.  I'm going to detail some here and the rest we can add in as the semester wears on.

bulletKilling the Victorians.  Of course no author is going to set out to kill another author.  However, one of the things which the Modernists consciously did was to "kill" the assumptions which populated the generation of texts which preceded them, the Victorian texts. 
bulletWorrying the World.  Thus, instead of lauding the spread and capitalist empowerment of the spread of the British Empire (which happened under Victoria's reign), the Modernists talked about the deleterious effects of politics, the downside of ruling the world.  No single effect was more important for them in the face of a world on the brink of World War than the inability to remain unified any more.  Countries were being pulled apart and their texts reflected it.  More importantly, individuals found themselves fragmented because of the different demands that were made of them and Modernist texts create and reflect this fragmented self.
bulletWho Reads This Stuff?  The Modernists also overthrew the assumptions about audience which the Victorians took for granted.  No longer was it true that there was an "ideal reader" -- genteel, educated, informed, appreciative of political conservatism and the roles of social classes -- who could be assumed.  Instead, Modernists made their readers by making texts which had to be worked on to be understood.  No longer was literary realism the rule of the day; instead, experiment took precedence over mimesis.
bullet"Make It New!"  This was Ezra Pounds dictum for Modernism.  His goal was to shake up the world, literary and otherwise, by doing something daring that hadn't been done before.  We will see the various ways that artists attempted to create the "new," sometimes in direct competition with each other. 
bulletGod Paring His Fingernails This image comes from James Joyce's seminal Modernist novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  In it, the main character reflects on God as a backstage director: watching, controlling without effort, distracted.  This has become metaphoric for the position which Modernist authors take.  For all their killing of Victorian assumptions and techniques, they will still attempt to remain in control of their texts, thoroughly, if from a "backstage" position.  This will distinguish them from the next generation of writers, the Post-Moderns who will often eschew this control.  In any case, Modernists indulged their own intellects -- and expected their readers to find the same joy in the play which they did.  (This would be a return to the "making their readers" point.)

This will be our starting point, or points.  Now let's get digging into the fertile dirt of the poetry and see what we come up with on our own, huh?

But first, a couple of useful reminders...

The Mellinger Learning Center

The Mellinger Writing Center is available for all students: strong as well as inexperienced writers can benefit from suggestions and help from others. Even professional writers get feedback from colleagues, friends, and editors. Our writing fellows provide confidential help with any stage of the writing process: generating ideas; organizing paragraphs; writing introductions, conclusions, or transitions; or developing an analysis or topic.


Precision in Writing and Plagiarism


Writing is central to the English major; therefore, the Department of English has implemented a policy to encourage excellence in writing:


The faculty in the Department of English will return papers written by English majors, if they


do not follow correct MLA documentation (including failure to integrate quotations correctly, misplaced punctuation, incorrect work cited entries, etc.)


include more than one major grammatical error (run-on sentences [including fused sentences and comma splices], subject-verb agreement errors, and fragments);


contain excessive minor errors (i.e., misuses of commas, semicolons, misspellings, etc. which display a failure to proofread).


Instructors will return papers, final papers will be reduced by one letter, and students will have forty-eight hours to revise and re-submit papers. In many cases, instructors will not have read the entire paper once they have determined that an essay fails to meet the minimum requirements; consequently, students will need to review and revise essays from beginning to end to make corrections. If essays fail to meet these minimum standards after re-submission, students will earn Fs for those assignments.

With such emphasis upon the quality and care that you ought to take with your writing, the following about PLAGIARISM ought not have to be said, but I will include it anyway. It is really simple:  if you copy someone else's direct words or exact ideas -- intentionally or not -- without giving them credit you fail the class.  Universities and colleges are built upon the notion that ideas matter; if you plagiarize someone else's ideas, you're denying that fundamental tenet.  Thus there will be zero tolerance for plagiarism in here.  If you do it, you will fail the course, period. (Please see also p. 24 "Academic Dishonesty" in the college's  2004-05 catalog and Section 54 of Hacker's Bedford Handbook.)


Date Class/Reading (N.B. If it just gives an author's name alone, it means to read all of her or his work)
1/19 Opening Chat
1/21 Modern But Not Modernist:  Hardy "Neutral Tones"; Housman "Terence, This is Stupid Stuff"; Kipling "Shillin a Day"; E.A. Robinson "Miniver Cheevy"
1/24 Gertrude Stein, from Tender Buttons:  Objects
1/26 Gertrude Stein, from Tender Buttons:  Food
1/28 Ezra Pound
1/31 Ezra Pound      
2/2 Ezra Pound (The Cantos)
2/5 HD                                     Essay One Due (13%)
2/7 HD
2/9 Amy Lowell
2/11 Marianne Moore
2/14 Marianne Moore
2/16 Mina Loy
2/18 William Carlos Williams
2/21 William Carlos Williams
2/23 William Carlos Williams
2/25 Wallace Stevens                     Essay Two Due (17%)
2/28 Wallace Stevens
3/2 Wallace Stevens
3/4 Mid-Term Exam (15%)
3/7-3/11 Spring Break
3/14 Langston Hughes
3/16 Langston Hughes
3/18 Langston Hughes
3/21 Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen
3/23 Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen
3/25 Easter Break
3/28 Easter Break
3/30 Hugh MacDiarmid
4/1 Hugh MacDiarmid
4/4 TS Eliot
4/6 TS Eliot
4/8 TS Eliot
4/11 TS Eliot (The Waste Land)
4/13 TS Eliot (The Waste Land)
4/15 TS Eliot (The Waste Land)
4/18 WB Yeats
4/20 WB Yeats
4/22 WB Yeats                            Essay Three Due (25%)
4/25 WB Yeats
4/27 WB Yeats
4/29 WB Yeats
5/2 WB Yeats
5/4 WB Yeats
5/6 WB Yeats
5/? Final Exam (25%) {Participation: 10%}