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Major American Writers: Williams, Stevens, and Eliot

Edward Brunner, Southern Illinois University

When American poetry shook itself free of the conventions it had inherited from the English tradition at the end of the nineteenth century, its young poets tended to re-invent the poetic from one of three different angles: some took a vernacular approach which championed the cause of plain speech in free verse; some took an orchestral approach that lavishly amplified the principles of traditional formalist verse (iambic pentameter, stanza break, rhyme); and some took an experimental approach that unleashed a series of rhetorical and lexical strategies that were constantly and unexpectedly shifting. Each of these approaches encouraged the development of its own distinguished representative – William Carlos Williams (vernacular), Wallace Stevens (orchestral) and T. S. Eliot (experimental) – whose work we will use as a basis for understanding the prosodic assumptions that govern each approach. The vernacular favors line break and syntax, the formalist rhythm and meter, and the experimental choices of diction and changes in register.

These three approaches to the poem are still available for contemporary poets. Robert Hass, reading a year’s worth of poetry as editor of The Best American Poetry 2001 (2001), observed

there are roughly three traditions in American poetry at this point: a metrical tradition that can be very nervy and that is also basically classical in impulse; a strong central tradition of free verse made out of both romanticism and modernism, split between the impulses of an inward and psychological writing and an outward and realist one, at its best fusing the two; and an experimental tradition that is usually more passionate about form than content, perception than emotion, restless with the conventions of the art, skeptical about the political underpinnings of current practice, and intent on inventing a new one, or at least undermining what seems repressive in the current formed style.

Hass also remarked that traditions "are always in flux" and he noted that "the best work is often being done in the interstices between them" – an observation that we will come to appreciate.

This course will trace the history of American poetry through the twentieth century three times, each time emphasizing a different set of contours. We will begin with Wallace Stevens and (with help from Robert Frost) the invigoration of the formalist poetic line with its basis in iambic pentameter. We will trace that form of discourse through work by Claude McKay, Edna St Vincet Millay, Edwin Rolfe, Gwendolyn Brooks, and James Merrill. We will then return to the opening decades of the century and consider the invention of free verse, along with its companion "Imagism," tracing that form of poetic discourse through the twentieth century, along the way investigating the work of such others as Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Lorine Niedecker, Frank O’Hara, Ray Young Bear, Sharon Olds, Adrian Louis and Sherman Alexie, among others. Finally, the course will return for a third time and take up the work of T. S. Eliot and the experimental writing of cultural critique and trace that poetic discourse through the work of Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Kay Boyle, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen and Thylias Moss. As a concluding point, we will examine several of the prose poems that represent work that places itself inside and outside all three traditions.

At the end of this course, students will have been introduced to the poetry of Williams, Stevens and Eliot. In addition, we will be working with models of prosody that are appropriate to each discourse. And finally, we will look in detail at a number of individual poems by a range of different figures.

Requirements and Grading. Each student will be asked to write three 750-word papers on each of the three major forms of poetic discourse. Papers are due after the end of each period in which we study a distinctive type of poetic discourse. Papers will be graded according to three general attributes: Here is a more specific breakdown of areas that will be calculated in grading the paper. These attributes are (1) "Construction". (one-third of the paper’s grade), or the ability to construct an argument that is stated with clarity and that is followed throughout the course of the paper and that ends conclusively; (2) "Citation" (one-third of the paper’s grade) or the ability to use particular examples (with a prosodic awareness) to explain passages in a poem; and (3) "Evidence" (one-third of the paper’s grade) or the ability to determine how a set or series of details in a work are connected with the overall meanings in the story. Papers cannot be longer than 750 words. A paper over the 750-word limit will be returned to you as a late paper. The paper is acceptable only when it meets the limit. All words in the paper except marks of identification (your name, course number, etc.) count toward the limit. There will also be homework assignments that will involve applications of prosody, and a final exam. The short papers are each worth 20% of the grade, with the final exam another 20% and the homework assignment the last 20%.

NOTE: On a fairly regular basis we will be downloading material from the internet site that has been assembled as a companion to the anthology we will be using as our text.


Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson

Week One Introduction
handout and discussion on Prosody

Three Representative Poets

James Weldon Johnson, "O Black and Unknown Bards"
    iambic pentameter establishing a highly musical and sensuously rhythmic base

Walt Whitman, "I hear America Singing"
    Free verse establishing a sense of spontaneity, freedom and abundance within a pattern

Emily Dickinson, "I started Early – Took My Dog" (520)
    Experimental writing mixing up diction, toying with perspective, raising questions


"Formalist" Poetry

Week Two

(Tuesday) Vernacular "Rhythms" within Blank Verse

Robert Frost: all selections, especially "Mending Wall," "The Witch of Coos" and "Birches"


Robert Frost: "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," "The Road Not Taken"


Week Three

(Tuesday) Working Beyond the British Tradition

Keats "Ode: To Autumn"

Wallace Stevens, all selections, but note particularly "Sunday Morning"

Marianne Moore: "An Egyptian Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish"

(Thursday) Self / Identity / Context

Focus on "Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock," ‘Floral Decorations for Bananas" and "Mozart, 1935"


Week Four

(Tuesday) Evolving Aesthetics

Focus on "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," "The Idea of Order at Key West," "The Plain Sense of Things"

(Thursday) Sonnet Sequences (1)

Claude McKay, "The Harlem Dancer," "If We Must Die"

Edna St Vincent Millay, "First Fig," "Oh, Oh, and You Will Be Sorry for That Word," "Well, I Have Lost You," "Love Is Not All" "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree"


Week Five

(Tuesday) Sonnet Sequences (II)

Gwendolyn Brooks, "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

Edwin Rolfe, "In Praise Of"

(Thursday) Sonnet Sequences (III)

James Merrill: "The Broken Home," "Lost in Translation"


Free Verse Forms

Week Six

(Tuesday) A Vernacular Tradition: "Voice" Vs. Object in Free Verse

Edgar Lee Masters, "Lucinda Matlock"

William Carlos Williams: "This Is Just to Say," "The Red Wheelbarrow," "The Great Figure"

Wallace Stevens, "Anecdote of the Jar"

Marianne Moore, "Silence"

(Thursday) Women Barometers

William Carlos Williams, continued

"The Young Housewife," "The Widow’s Lament in Springtime," "To Elsie"

Ezra Pound, "The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter"


Week Seven

(Tuesday) Enlivening the Inert

William Carlos Williams, continued

"Spring and All," In The Descent of Winter, consider just the verse sections

(Thursday) Musicality and Voice

Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "Weary Blues," "White Shadows," "Three Songs About Lynching," "Ku Klux"

Sterling A. Brown, "Memphis Blues," "Slim in Atlanta," "Slim in Hell," "Choices"

Michael S. Harper, "Brother John," "Dear John, Dear Coltrane"


Week Eight

(Tuesday) Imagism

Ezra Pound, "Do’s and Don’ts of Imagism"

Pound, "In a Station of the Metro"

H.D., "Oread"

Sadakachi Hartmann, all selections

James Wright, "Autumn Comes to Martin’s Ferry," "Lying in a Hammock …," "The Blessing"

W. S. Merwin, "On the Anniversary of My Death"

(Thursday) Imagism and Nature

Lorine Neidecker, "Paean to Place"

Charles Olson, "Variations Done for Gerald Van Der Wiele"

Mary Oliver, "The Lilies Break Open," "Black Snake This Time"

Anita Endrezze, "Birdwatching at Fan Lake"


Week Nine

(Tuesday) Female Gazes

Elizabeth Bishop, all selections but note "The Fish," "Filling Station," "Questions of Travel," "Pink Dog"

Mona Van Duyn, "Toward a Definition of Marriage"

(Thursday) American Landscapes

Frank O’Hara, all selections, but note "The Day Lady Died"

Weldon Kees, "Travels in North America"

Gary Snyder, "I Went Into the Maverick Bar"

Henry Dumas, all selections


Week Ten

(Tuesday) Confessions

Galway Kinnell, "The Porcupine," "The Bear"

Sylvia Plath, "The Colossus," "Daddy"

Ai, all selections

Sharon Olds, all selections

Mary Doty, all selections

(Thursday) Native Americans

Adrian C. Louis, "Petroglyphs for Serena"

Ray A. Young Bear, all selections

Sherman Alexie, all selections


Week Eleven Halloween Break


Avant-garde and Experimental Poems

Week Twelve

(Tuesday) Miniature Cultural Epics

T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Gerontion," The Waste Land, part I"

[Marianne Moore, "A Grave"]

(Thursday) "The Longest Poem in the English language"

T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land, Parts II-V"


Week Thirteen

(Tuesday) Responses to Eliot

Ezra Pound, "Cantos I, IX, XLV"

Hart Crane, "The River"

Harry Crosby, all selections

(Thursday) Versions of the Documentary Record

Charles Reznikoff, all selections

Kay Boyle, "A Communication to Nancy Cunard"

Edwin Rolfe, "Elegia"

Robert Hayden, "Middle Passage"

Robert Pinsky, "The Shirt"

Philip Levine, "They Feed They Lion"


Week Fourteen Some Versions of Mass Culture

John Ashbery, "Farm Implements and Rutabaga in Landscape," "Mixed Feelings," "Daffy Duck in Hollywood," "Paradoxes and Oxymorons"

Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead"



Week Fifteen

(Tuesday) Mock Epics

John Berryman, Dream Songs 1, 4, 14, 29, 45

Allen Ginsberg, "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

Gregory Corso, "Marriage"

(Thursday) History and Discourse

Ron Silliman, from Toner

Susan Howe, all selections

Harryette Mullen, all selections

Thylias Moss, all selections


Week Sixteen

(Tuesday) Prose Poems

Carolyn Forché, "The Colonel"

Robert Bly, "Dead Seal Near McClure’s Beach"

Robert Hass, "A Story about the Body"

Michael Palmer, "All Those Words," "I have Answers to All Your Questions"

C. D. Wright, "Over Everything," "Song of the Gourd"

Sesshu Foster, all selections

(Thursday) Summary

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