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Teaching/Writing Correspondence, Part I

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Lexington, Virginia
September 1, 2016

Dear modernism-obsessed blog-readers,

If I were Edna St. Vincent Millay, I might begin this letter by describing some bit of local foliage I’d enclosed, its leaves pressed among scrawled endearments. But by the time broadband has advanced enough to transmit an actual crape myrtle blossom, it would be very faded, I’m afraid. So a photograph from my front yard will have to suffice.

 

I am in an epistolary frame of mind because I am preparing to teach a letter-focused version of my undergraduate course, American Poetry: 1900-1950. This blog concerns the writing process, but I want to argue that teaching can be very much part of how scholarship comes into existence. In a daily way, I tend to be frustrated by the competition between these activities—teaching consumes not just hours but creative energy, of which my personal supplies are limited. I get drastically less writing done during a teaching term. Yet research certainly informs my pedagogy, and I am a better writing instructor because I regularly submit my own prose to the judgment of editors and reviewers. The influence flows in the other direction, too. Teaching modernism, while it sometimes slows my wheels as a critic, also informs me what to write about, and how.

Here’s the latest challenge and opportunity. Special Collections at my university recently acquired a cache of letters relating to the founding of Washington and Lee University literary magazine Shenandoah. One of the first editors, sophomore Thomas Henry Carter, had the audacity to petition Ezra Pound for advice in 1952, and a lively correspondence followed in Pound’s manic style, full of cryptic abbreviations and neologisms. Tom Carter, however, returned to Martinsville, Virginia after graduation and became ill, dying at thirty-two. His mother gave the letters to Patrick Henry Community College, where they were consulted by a researcher only once—Andrew Kappel references the documents in a 1980 essay published in Shenandoah, “Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of an American Literary Magazine.”[1]

Discovering Kappel’s article by chance, while researching another topic, Associate University Librarian Jeff Barry learned of the letters’ existence and made a call. He learned, to his surprise, that this trove had survived the decades. Barry and our Head of Special Collections, Tom Camden, then drove down to view the collection and arrange its donation to Washington and Lee. Last year, when I was on sabbatical, Barry and Digital Humanities Librarian Mackenzie Brooks co-taught a seminar in which students digitized the letters, making them available online to the university community (not more broadly, yet, for copyright reasons).

Now the task is annotation. English majors in my fall course will help. Here at the hinge of September, I am both excited and alarmed at the prospect. Some of my concerns are scholarly: my own editorial experience is minor, and I’m a modernist but not a Pound expert, so my students and I will have to learn together, on the job. In the past, such ventures have worked out well—talented liberal arts students tend to feel energized by joint exploration—but I still crave a conversation with my future self in order to hear now what I will wish I had known.

Other worries are pedagogical. Our semesters are only twelve weeks long, so my students will have to ramp up fast—they have lots of basics to learn about poetry and the period. I’ve christened this iteration of the course “Modernist Networks,” so as we read Eliot, H.D., Hughes, Moore, Stevens, and as many other members of this ill-assorted gang as I can shoehorn onto the syllabus, we’ll pay special attention to publishing contexts and webs of influence. Suzanne Churchill will drive up from Davidson to talk about modernist little magazines, for example, and I’m adapting her excellent “Artifact Analysis” assignment for the occasion. We’ll read published letters by some authors, too, including those in the new Selected Poems of Millay, annotated by Timothy L. Jackson.

 

Yet while I’ll prepare students for the annotation assignment as best I can, I’m keenly aware this is a writing experiment for my students and for me. Ambition of argument and quality of interpretation have always been primary drivers in my grading. Annotations, however, do not employ a “they say, I say” structure. The protocols of evidence are similar, but string some good annotations together and any overarching thesis will be subtle at best. How do I handle evaluation, then? Those other letters, As and Bs and Cs with their dangling pluses and minuses, matter quite a bit to my students. My current thought is to devise a rubric and then conference about it together in November, when annotations are underway, so students have a chance to influence the process.

I like adventures of the literary variety, and I’m lucky enough to teach in a climate hospitable to them, but this is definitely an experiment. How modernist of me.

Will it lead to new scholarly writing on my part? It’s hard to say. I will follow up in a few months with a “Part II” to this post, but an update in five years would probably be more revealing. I can testify that my last scholarly monograph, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present, would have been a very different book had I not been teaching related material. My obsession with the term “voice” was nourished by student curiosity. I was learning on the job how much it enlivened a session to play and analyze a recording of a modernist poem in performance. I asked students, too, to perform difficult poems—to “interpret” them in an elocutionary sense, or dramatically, or via another art form—with compelling results. All this convinced me of the urgency of my project. It became more and more important to me to write without jargon, as well, the better to reach students and others outside my narrow subfield. Scholarship is teaching, from a different kind of podium.

I’ve always been interested in textual voices as well as voiced texts, so an intellectual turn toward the epistolary could make sense for me. I grew up reading and writing letters, having family across the Atlantic, so I have personal feeling for the subject. And letters have always been instrumental to my understanding of modernist poetry. It was only after reading Richard Aldington’s letter about H.D.’s stillborn daughter, for instance, that I fully grasped the importance of wind in her collection Sea Garden. “I haven’t seen the doctor,” he wrote to Amy Lowell in May 1915, “but the nurse said it was a beautiful child & they can’t think why it didn’t live. It was very strong, but wouldn’t breathe.” As I wrote in a 2003 essay, poems such as “Sheltered Garden,” read in light of that letter, remember “a perfect but lifeless baby whom she cannot resuscitate.”  

I combed through Millay’s letters last year, too, for literary record of her abortions. I plunge right into a vanished world when I begin the letter to Edmund Wilson dated July 20th, 1922. “Bunny, I adored your drunken letter,” she begins, and then goes on to describe Shillingstone, the Dorset village where Vincent was taking long walks and consuming herbs to induce miscarriage. “The place is beautiful, not so barren as Truro. I love it. You would probably hate it. I have been sick as a dog for months, and so entirely convinced of the elaborate uselessness of everything…” These moods and images illuminate Millay’s verse, especially “Memories of Cape Cod,” the poem Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg read at her mother’s funeral (another interesting “publication” context).

My primary mission as an undergraduate teacher is to cultivate a readership for the poetry I love, and by embedding poems in the echoes of an author’s life, I hope to embed the poems in my students’ developing identities, too. I don’t know if I’ll inspire them to produce their own letters, except the missives I’ll require them to submit with their annotations, addressed to future students with advice on the assignment. Pound-themed Instagrams, maybe? 

I’ll let you know in December or January. Until then, I beg to remain, as ever, your most obedient humble servant,

 

Notes

[1] Andrew J. Kappel, “Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of an American Literary Magazine.” Shenandoah: The Washington & Lee University Review, 31, no. 3, (1980): 3-22.

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