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Thinking Outside the Box of Modernist Time

When I started my current position in the fall of 2010, I inherited an upper-level course with a simple title: “American Poetry.” The course description noted that the seminar would “trace the ‘Romantic’ and ‘Modern’ sensibility from Emerson to T. S. Eliot and beyond to living poets of the Americas.” To fulfill this aim, my predecessor had started with Whitman and Dickinson, passed through Frost and Hughes, and concluded with Sharon Olds, Derek Walcott, and Yusef Komunyakaa.  

Having just arrived from graduate school, with a dissertation that focused primarily on U.S. modernist poetry, the historical scope of the course struck me as far too ambitious. One hundred and fifty years of American poetic history seemed too large a canvas upon which to trace out the intricate relationships of modernist verse, my field of expertise. So, with the permission of my Department Chair, I promptly renamed the course “Twentieth-century American Poetry and Poetics” and shrunk its historical range to about seventy years. The first half of the course would introduce students to a range of canonical modernist poets—Eliot, Crane, Hughes, Moore, Stevens, and Williams—and the second half would focus on postwar poets such as Bishop, Ginsberg, Plath, Rich, and Ashbery. I thought my aims were both practical and obvious: to convey a basic sense of the intellectual and aesthetic “project” of modernist poetry—to show why many twentieth century poets felt obliged to become formally and conceptually difficult—and to explain why a good number of other poets eventually rejected this premise, whether by continuing to write in traditional forms, responding to innovations in popular media, soldiering on with the confessional lyric, or documenting social conflicts based on race, gender, and labor.  

The course did not go very well. Even though the syllabus spanned just seventy years, it still covered too much ground. My students did not really grasp what “modernism” meant—they were largely confused by the term and its suggestion of formal or historical progress. The course had been designed to challenge the idea that modernist poetry stood for a single consistent tendency, whether that was defined formally, thematically, or historically. I did not anticipate how much a non-linear and pluralistic approach to the modernist canon would get in the way of my students’ desire for a digestible narrative with conspicuous heroes and villains. The version of modernism that I wanted to explore was internally contradictory, full of discrepancies and internecine disputes with no single winner, but rather a series of dramatic successes and fascinating failures. My modernism was white and black and Jewish and gay and nationalist and internationalist, with no leading figure or movement at the center. I didn’t want to fall back on the old polemical frameworks—the era of Pound or Eliot or Stevens, or the conventional opposition between “high” modernism and mass culture—that so much recent scholarship has discredited. And of course, without a clearly defined idea of “modernism,” it was hard to make a case for the coherence of “post” modernism. What comes after a historical period that has no center or focus, no clearly defined narrative arc?

A second problem with the course lay with my students’ lack of background in American literary history. Despite being advanced English majors, few possessed the skills to close read poetry of any era, much less modernist poetry. Given my department’s limited personnel (there are five full-time faculty responsible for all eras of English, American, and world literature), most of my students had been exposed to a slight sampling of Renaissance, Neoclassical, Romantic, and Victorian poetry, but practically nothing by Emerson, Melville, Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Stephen Crane, or the Fireside poets. Without a broader knowledge of the poetry that precedes the rise of modernist verse, as John Timberman Newcomb has argued, our students will not have the historical perspective to appreciate what makes modern American poetry modern.[1]

When I taught the course a year later, I knew that I needed to supply a stronger background narrative for the emergence of modernism. I had to make it old before I could make it new. But how? It would have been possible, of course, to design a syllabus around a set of explicit comparisons across conventional period boundaries—pairing Emerson’s Merlin with Eliot’s Prufrock, setting Longfellow’s Hiawatha against Crane’s Pocahontas, Bryant’s Manhattan versus Hughes’s Harlem. This approach would have allowed us to break open and inspect those “boxes of time” that Linda Charnes identifies with the ideology of periodization. As a pedagogical strategy, though, such explicit parallelism seemed likely to become schematic and repetitive, generating the same questions and the same answers week after week: American poetry was old, and then it was new; old, and then new.[2]

Walt Whitman

The solution I settled on was to loosely structure the course around the figure of Walt Whitman and his formal and political legacy in twentieth century American poetry. Starting with Whitman has some obvious advantages in my institutional context: most students have already read Whitman at some point in high school, and his emphasis on democracy, sexuality, and race has a broad appeal. On the first day of class, I pass out a set of poems (Whitman’s “One’s-Self I Sing,” Williams’ “Apology,” Hughes’s “I, Too,” and O’Hara’s “Ave Maria”) and ask students to identify what—if anything—makes these poems “modern” or “American.” Almost invariably they respond by using words and phrases like “new,” “freedom,” “openness,” “equality,” or “the people.” Next, I press them to articulate the connection between a particular line, stanza, or image, and the idea of political liberation or historical rupture implied by these abstract words. This exercise encapsulates the sequence of poets that we will cover in subsequent weeks: two weeks on Whitman, two on W. C. Williams, two on Hughes; one session each on Rukeyser, Oppen, Brooks, Clifton, O’Hara, Ginsberg, and Ammons. Throughout the course, our guiding questions revolve around a set of historical and formal comparisons: to what extent do twentieth century poets draw on Whitman’s styles and methods of representation? In what ways do these poets fantasize about a specifically “American” poetry? Must “American” poetry be written within specific national borders? Is it supposed to reflect a certain type of speech or a certain economic ideology? How do these poets imitate or deviate from Whitman’s program for generating a modern poetics that strives to accelerate the conditions of social democracy?

Overall, this version of the course works much better, as my students have a specific yardstick against which to measure the individual poets they read each week. I am now able to present a coherent story (albeit, a highly selective one) about the ambition and fate of twentieth century American poetry. My students are able to situate the poets we read within a larger conversation about contested definitions of “Americanness” in the twentieth century and the general problem of how poetry might be said to promote democratic ends. 

Of course, this approach also generates its own set of problems. For one thing, it leaves out some of the modernist poets I most admire. The course features no Eliot, no Pound, no Stevens, no Moore, and no Crane. It also overlooks the many ways that scholars have categorized twentieth century poetry movements—by region, by city, by gender, by school. I don’t require students to differentiate in historical terms between “modernist” poets like Williams or Hughes and those like Brooks or Ginsberg who normally fall under some other rubric. These losses might also be perceived as gains, but I continue to feel somewhat awkward about sending students off to graduate school and high school classrooms with such large gaps in literary knowledge and scholarly method. In the end, my students have become better readers of modern poetry—more attentive to the continuities and innovations of poetic style, more alert to shared themes and preoccupations among disparate poets, more informed about historical pressures and events—because they have a clear framework in which to ask a fairly narrow set of questions. But asking those questions makes some answers impossible, renders some poets invisible, and leaves some thoughts unthinkable.

I have not discovered an easy way out of these dilemmas, only a sharper awareness of the costs of organizing a modern poetry course around an individual poet’s national legacy rather than a defined slice of historical time or across multiple nation states and languages. While many trends within Modernist Studies point away from the pedagogical model described in this essay, let me conclude by noting a few advantages to this way of proceeding, especially in the context of a small liberal arts college with limited faculty and institutional resources. Starting with the unit of the individual poet (Whitman) makes a virtue of my students’ ignorance about poetry in general and modern poetry in particular. There is something intellectually liberating about my undergraduates’ lack of experience: they have no prior expectations about who is supposed to be included on the modern poetry syllabus. When they walk into my classroom, my students do not expect a narrative that culminates in T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens, and they are not surprised when I place a poem by Rukeyser or Sandburg next to a poem by Pound or Oppen. There are no “major” or “minor” poets as far as they are concerned—just American poets. They do not assume that modernist poetry is supposed to be elitist, white, secular, authoritarian, or hostile to mass culture. Their lack of awareness about what’s being “left out” allows me to steer the conversation in fresh, surprising directions without inhibition or guilt.

From one perspective, using Whitman as a starting point is deeply traditionalist: the Whitman lineage forms the backbone of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and classic histories of modern poetry by Roy Harvey Pearce and David Perkins. But, from another angle, beginning with Whitman encourages a radical rethinking of the egalitarian possibilities of modernist poetic writing. When you start a course with Whitman’s claim that the modern era is an Age of Democracy—that to be modern is necessarily to be democratic—then the poetic experiments of Hughes, Williams, Rukeyser, Sandburg, and many others call into question a good many of our inherited definitions of the field, many of which still labor under the shadows of European fascism and totalitarianism. To my surprise, and I hope to my student’s edification, this sequence of readings offers a new way to think outside the box of modernist time—a new way to make it old to make it new.


  1. ^ John Timberman Newcomb, How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
  2. ^ Linda Charnes, “Reading from the Wormholes: Micro-Periods from the Future,” Early Modern Cultures (2007),, retrieved 7 November 2015.  On the limits of periodization as an intellectual and pedagogical concept, with explicit reference to modernism, see Eric Hayot, “Against Periodization; or, on Institutional Time,” New Literary History 42, no. 4 (2011): 739-756.