Hurry Up Please Its Time
Volume 5, Cycle 2
In the fall of 2019, I taught an advanced undergraduate course I had not offered for three years: “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Even in previous versions called “Modern Poetry,” my agenda was to decenter the version of modernism handed down to me; in this project I felt fellowship with feminist scholars I read as a graduate student in the early nineties. Decentering involved, at the time, remixing white female experimental poets into the company of male modernist giants. I also included poets from the New Negro Renaissance, who were making poetry new in New York City and elsewhere, although often in separate salon and magazine coteries.
A more inclusive syllabus starts bulging at the seams, so “Modern Poetry” became multiple courses organized around different obsessions. The version of “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950” I taught in the first decade of the twenty-first century highlighted performance and other media, topics my undergraduates and I found energizing. However, I had to nudge many, at this tradition-minded liberal arts college, to think harder about how modernism is premised on racism as well as anxieties about gender and sexuality—how emphasizing certain kinds of innovation is, by design, a means of exclusion. We continued to read T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, but I framed their contributions within a wider context. I didn’t yet have Paul Saint-Amour’s memorable phrasing at hand—about “equating modernism with…muscular idol smashing and warrior masculinity”—or Michael Bibby’s influential discussion of US modernism as “the product of a complex, diverse, and profoundly multicultural social moment”—but theirs are similar to the critiques I had in mind.
In the gap between the course’s last two iterations, however, student alertness to the issues driving the cluster “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” increased dramatically, and I realized my position had receded considerably from the edge of the field. My college tends to absorb cultural change belatedly; earlier in 2019, for instance, I asked for preferred pronouns on a student questionnaire, and a bewildered first-year asked me what that question meant. I’m nevertheless convinced that my lively and skeptical 2019 seminar will not be an anomaly and that teachers at many kinds of institutions will need more provocations like the essays Megan Quigley curated. New readers are responding differently to old monuments.
“Not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”
I was ready for my fall 2019 students to be more interested in the racial exclusions of modernism than in previous years, with an awareness of intersectional oppressions. The protests of Black Lives Matter, the violent Unite the Right rally in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, and Ku Klux Klan leafletting on campus and in town have illuminated, for those who weren’t already acutely aware, how problematic it is to work at a place called Washington and Lee. Robert E. Lee, college president after the Civil War, is interred beneath the chapel where many signal university ceremonies are held. This history confers obligations. After all, it was at the University of Virginia that Eliot delivered the anti-Semitic lectures collected in After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. When we read Georgia Douglas Johnson amid the formalist modernisms of Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, using a website Suzanne Churchill created with Davidson students for context, the class became deeply interested in intersectionality and Johnson’s poetic performance of motherhood, several writing essays on the subject.
I was not prepared, however, for how my undergraduates would receive other aspects of the course material. I had put “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” on the syllabus for the session after our first discussion of The Waste Land, suspecting the arguments Quigley marshalled might surprise my students, even trigger resistance. I had, after all, spent many years coaxing people to venture any opinions at all about this infamously challenging poem. Their reluctance to talk about sex and sexuality in The Waste Land tended to be stubborn, even after I began to pair the poem with Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay about “homosocial literary relations” between Eliot and Pound, “shadowed by a sometimes disguised misogyny.” In retrospect, I should have sensed seismic movement beginning in the 2016 version of the course; feminist anger percolated in that room, although students were more cagey than now in expressing it. Yet even after a few weeks of conversation with the 2019 group—comprised of seventeen English majors and Creative Writing minors—I wasn’t expecting such an intense reaction to Eliot’s poem.
The first student comment on our first day discussing The Waste Land shook me, reminding me of Quigley’s remark that her classes “are often enraged” by modernist texts and “are taking me to task for my blind spots.” The comment came from the student who always sat to my immediate right: “I was so disturbed by the feminization of mental illness in this poem,” he said. Instead of trying, as I had before, to persuade this crowd that sexual violence is at the heart of The Waste Land, I listened as undergraduates discussed it as a poem centered on rape —a repetition of “the silencing of women and the violence of sexual assault,” as Cécile Varry puts it. Was normalizing sexual violence, they wondered, fundamental to Eliot’s enterprise? To modernism generally?
By the end of the hour my students seemed dispirited, exhausted. Our conversation occurred around midterms, and in sympathy, I dialed down my original assignment for the next session, which had been to read the whole Modernism/ modernity cluster. Instead, our common reading would be Quigley’s introduction and Sumita Chakraborty’s essay “No.” I assigned each of the other essays to groups of two or three and asked them to come in ready to report on three issues:
- What’s the gist of this essay?
- What’s one point you find especially interesting?
- Are there any aspects of the essay you don’t agree with or don’t understand?
Their answers, in the next class, included appreciation for the frequent allusions across the cluster to the site of the classroom, particularly in Ria Banerjee’s account of teaching The Waste Land to community college students. They liked the forthrightness of Michelle Taylor’s discussion of affect and discomfort, although, again, their own affect during class was disheartened—the persistence of gender violence and silencing across a century is overwhelming. The very existence of this essay cluster is exhilarating to me, but my students’ response was more along the lines of: shouldn’t these critiques be history now? They expressed a need for an updated discussion of how the poem refracts mental health disorders, being skeptical of Koestenbaum’s invocation of Freud; while Janine Utell and Erin E. Templeton treat related questions, my students are acutely conscious of how depression and anxiety intersect with disempowerment. While appreciating Carrie Preston’s essay, they also wished for more conversation about gender fluidity in Eliot’s poetry and in modernism generally, putting me on notice that I need to queer my poetry teaching, too.
Chakraborty’s treatment of consent and witness was especially pertinent, full as it was of “struggles with texts that reference, but do not unambiguously denounce, such sites of violence.” As I reread Chakraborty’s essay on the day of the Harvey Weinstein conviction, I found the “provocation” at the end—about the power and the ethical consequences of ambiguity—compelling and to me, so far, irresolvable. Yet my class didn’t even come close to unpacking it. That task would probably be too ambitious for an undergraduate seminar in which most of the students are encountering most of the material for the first time, but I absolutely agree with Chakraborty that those are the stakes of reading Eliot right now.
I did ask my students at the end of the term to whether I should radically reshape my syllabus in the course’s next iteration. We had already agreed that Native American modernism, another history shaped by violence, deserves fuller representation than I’ve yet given it; they appreciated my ending the course with George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics, which raises great questions about poetic, gender, and racial definition. But, I pressed, should I frame The Waste Land differently, or at least not position it smack in the middle of the course? Do we topple the monuments, or reposition them, or counter them with recontextualizing signage?
Wherever you put The Waste Land, do teach it, they answered, anticipating how Quigley and Aimee Armande Wilson reject the idea of eliminating Eliot from syllabi. Maybe their ambivalent but unambiguous replies begin to address Chakraborty’s challenge: there’s no understanding #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, or any social justice movement without analyzing monumental achievements that consolidated power and overshadowed whole fields. Yet The Waste Land and other modernist landmarks retain a twisty force, presenting difficult counter-questions to whatever concerns we bring to each reading.
 Here I follow a point many scholars have made, including Steven Tracy in an overview article: “While critics have used the term ‘Harlem Renaissance’ to characterize this literary and sociopolitical moment in American history, in recognition of the geographical location of a major outpost for some of the important writers of the era, New Negro Renaissance is a more comprehensive and accurate label” (Steven Tracy, “The New Negro Renaissance,” in Mark Richardson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Poets [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015], 271-285, 273).
 Paul K. Saint-Amour. “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism.” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437-459, 437. Michael Bibby, “The Disinterested and Fine: New Negro Renaissance Poetry and the Racial Formation of Modernist Studies.” Modernism/modernity 20, no. 3 (2013): 485-501, 487.
 I discuss modernist ways of working in received forms in Lesley Wheeler, “The Formalist Modernism of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Helene Johnson, and Louise Bogan,” The Cambridge History of American Poetry, ed. Alfred Bendixen and Stephanie Burt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 628-649. Suzanne Churchill with Nathan Argueta, Peter Bowman, Leigh Chandler, Audrey Lane, Wade Morgan, Andrew Rikard, and Rachel Wiltshire, “Georgia Douglas Johnson: Rereading the Harlem Renaissance.”
 Wayne Koestenbaum, “The Waste Land: T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound’s Collaboration on Hysteria,” Twentieth Century Literature 34, no. 2 (1988): 113-139, 120.