Major American Writers: Williams, Stevens, And Eliot–Edward Brunner, Southern
Illinois Unviersity Essay, Research Paper
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
iambic pentameter establishing a highly musical and sensuously rhythmic
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,
(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"
(Tuesday) Working Beyond the British
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,
(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"
(Tuesday) Sonnet Sequences (II)
Gwendolyn Brooks, "Gay Chaps at the
Edwin Rolfe, "In Praise Of"
(Thursday) Sonnet Sequences (III)
James Merrill: "The Broken Home,"
"Lost in Translation"
Free Verse Forms
(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:
(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"
Ezra Pound, "Do’s and Don’ts of
Pound, "In a Station of the Metro"
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
(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
(Tuesday) Female Gazes
Elizabeth Bishop, all selections but note
"The Fish," "Filling Station," "Questions of Travel,"
Mona Van Duyn, "Toward a Definition of
(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
Henry Dumas, all selections
Galway Kinnell, "The Porcupine,"
Sylvia Plath, "The Colossus,"
Ai, all selections
Sharon Olds, all selections
Mary Doty, all selections
(Thursday) Native Americans
Adrian C. Louis, "Petroglyphs for
Ray A. Young Bear, all selections
Sherman Alexie, all selections
Week Eleven Halloween Break
(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
T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land, Parts
(Tuesday) Responses to Eliot
Ezra Pound, "Cantos I, IX, XLV"
Hart Crane, "The River"
Harry Crosby, all selections
(Thursday) Versions of the Documentary
Charles Reznikoff, all selections
Kay Boyle, "A Communication to Nancy
Edwin Rolfe, "Elegia"
Robert Hayden, "Middle Passage"
Robert Pinsky, "The Shirt"
Philip Levine, "They Feed They Lion"
Week Fourteen Some Versions of Mass
John Ashbery, "Farm Implements and Rutabaga
in Landscape," "Mixed Feelings," "Daffy Duck in Hollywood,"
"Paradoxes and Oxymorons"
Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead"
(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
(Tuesday) Prose Poems
Carolyn Forch?, "The Colonel"
Robert Bly, "Dead Seal Near McClure’s
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