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Modern American Poetry

Marsha Bryant, University of Florida

My Homepage:
MAPS site:


This course will assess the competing narratives and cultural constructs that frame 20th century American poetry in the 21st century. Besides asking what makes a poem, we will also ask how poetry has been used in American culture during the last hundred years. Our main text will be Cary Nelson’s new and controversial anthology, which continues to delight and enrage academics both here and abroad. We will make productive use of the anthology’s companion website, "MAPS," and will discuss recent reviews. You’ll be widening your exposure to a variety of poetry: from standard modernist figures (such as Stein, Eliot, Pound, H.D., Stevens, Hughes), from recovered women and minority poets (such as A. Lowell, Loy, Grimké, Tolson), from recovered Asian-American voices (haiku by Chinese immigrants and interned Japanese Americans), and from an especially controversial selection of contemporary poets.


Cary Nelson, Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford, 2000)
MAPS website {read relevant poets’ pages before class; see URL, above}
Small coursepak distributed from Custom Copies shop, across from Krispy Kreme


Explication Paper - 15%
Panel Presentation - 10%
Anthology Paper - 20%
Class Participation - 15%
Reading Quizzes - 10%
Parody of a poem - 10%
Essay Examination - 20%


1. You must complete all assignments to receive credit for this course.

2. Attendance: You are expected to attend all classes. Missing more than the equivalent of three 50-minute sessions earns you a lowered course grade. You will fail the course automatically if you miss more than six 50-minute sessions.

3. If you are absent, you are still responsible for knowing the material and for turning in any assignments for that day. I recommend getting several classmates' phone numbers so you can keep up.

4. Latecomers receive partial absences, and must see me after class so I can mark their attendance.

5. Paper Format: Please put your e-mail address on the front page of your paper. Be professional with the appearance of your paper; it should be clear enough to read without eye strain. Please leave roughly an inch margin on all sides, double-space the text, and number your pages. Grammatical errors will earn you a lowered paper grade.

6. Submitting Papers: Your papers are due in class on the assigned days (if you are absent, your paper should be in my office when I return from class). Late papers earn grade reductions; papers submitted a week or more after deadline earn an "E."

7. Save That Paper!: Always make disk copies of your work and save them until the term is over. Also, save indefinitely the graded work I return to you in case you ever request a letter of recommendation; my comments are crucial for writing a good letter.

8. Participation: The quality as well as the frequency of your contributions determine your participation grade. Your "default" participation grade is a C+, and you move up or down accordingly. If you’re shy about offering interpretations, you might try asking questions. Panels will help you feel more comfortable addressing the class.


As stated above, each of you must participate in one panel. For your panel you will prepare a one-page, double-spaced statement in response to the question(s) on the syllabus. Obviously the page limit forces you to make some over-simplifications, but you will have the opportunity to clarify your opinion during panel discussion. In order for the panel to run smoothly, you must do the following: (1) Panelists turn in copies of your statement 24 hours before your panel (Late statements earn a penalty). Place the copies (enough for me and for your fellow panelists) in the envelope on my office door. (2) Pick up copies of your fellow panelists' statements and study them before class begins. Panelists should not get together before class, but they should be prepared to comment on each other's statements. (3) In class, the panel will begin with each of you reading your statement. (4) Next, panelists will ask each other questions and may amplify their own views. (5) Finally, the rest of the class will join in with questions and comments.

TAKE-HOME EXAM TOPIC: Explore several poets in the anthology that were not included on our syllabus. Which 2 would you include in your own anthology of modern American poetry, and which 2 would you exclude? Give clear and convincing reasons for your editorial decisions, and ample evidence from relevant poems.

 SYLLABUS (all readings are from the anthology unless otherwise noted)


22 W Introduction
24 F Nelson’s preface, Whitman, Dickinson
27 M A. Lowell, Grimké, Johnson
29 W Stein
31 F Loy

PANEL 1 - How does "Songs to Joannes" challenge your expectations of love poetry? In your opinion, does Loy risk more or gain more thru her innovations? Use examples from at least 2 sections to support your answer.


3 M No Class: Labor Day
5 W Williams
7 F Frost
10 M Stevens
12 W Eliot
14 F Sandburg, Lindsay

PANEL 2 - Log onto Lindsay’s page on the MAPS website, and click on "Race Criticism of ‘The Congo.’" Whose comment do you find most convincing, and whose least? Give clear reasons and convincing textual evidence for your opinion.

17 M McKay, Millay (just the shorter sonnets, not the sequence "Sonnets from an Grafted Tree"
19 W Bontemps, Bennett, Cullen
21 F DUE: Explication Paper [panelist can submit it Monday]; Hughes

PANEL 3 - Do you find more connections or disconnections between Hughes’s radical poems of the 30s (such as "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria" and "Good-bye Christ") and his better known poems of the 20s (such as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "The Weary Blues")? Use one poem from each decade to support your answer.

24 M Zukofsky, Oppen
26 W Roethke
28 F Taggard, Rolfe

PANEL 4 - Choose one of today’s poets and use his/her work to support one of the following propositions: (1) it is imperative to separate aesthetics and politics; (2) it is impossible to separate aesthetics and politics.


1 M Bishop
3 W Rukeyser
5 F Hayden, Japanese American Concentration Camp Haiku

PANEL 5 - How does the inclusion of the haiku prompt us to rethink the definition of "American"? How effective do you find their arrangement in a narrative sequence, and their treatment as "a collective enterprise?"

8 M Berryman
10 W Lowell
13 F No Class: MSA Conference
15 M No Class: MSA Conference
17 W Brooks
19 F Ginsberg

PANEL 6 - Overall, is Howl an expansive vision of universal sympathy, or is Ginsberg’s sympathy extended only to an underground "elite" of Beats and other hipsters? What evidence in the poem supports your opinion?

22 M Duncan, Levertov
24 W O’Hara, Rich ("Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers," "Trying to Talk to a Man," "Diving into the Wreck")
26 F Rich, "21 Love Poems"

PANEL 7 - How does Rich’s sequence of blur boundaries between the "personal" and the "political"? Do you think this makes them more or less effective as love poems?

29 M Plath
31 W DUE: Anthology Paper; Baraka, Momaday, Lorde


2 F No Class: Homecoming
5 M Clifton, Harper
7 W Glück, Palmer
9 F Grahn, Olds

PANEL 8 - Today’s poets are often grouped as "women’s poets," and have appeared in women’s poetry anthologies. Do you find enough "common ground" (thematic, technical, or both) in the poets to justify the label? Why or why not?

Return to Syllabus Index