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Teaching Modern Poetry

Introducing a collection of pedagogy essays in 2008, Helen Sword noted an ironic discrepancy. As teachers of modernism, we spend much of our professional lives engaged in a common and challenging pursuit: guiding students through notoriously difficult texts. Nevertheless, teaching is often what we don’t talk about when we come together to talk about modernism. Listen for mention of the classroom in conference talks or read for it in the pages of literary journals, and you might conclude, with Sword, that the subject is nearly “taboo."[1] The six essays presented here, like Sword’s 2008 cluster, grew from a Modernist Studies Association Pedagogy Roundtable, an event created to help offset this imbalance by inviting discussion about teaching. Our roundtable and the present collection direct that conversation to the literary genre that many students most fear and resist: poetry.

Modern poetry presents particular pedagogical hurdles but also offers enticing resources for teaching. The difficulties are well known. Modernist poems can seem to reinforce a sense that students sometimes bring to poetry, that poems require forbiddingly specialized training, to read and, even more, to have anything to say about them. Modernist poetry and those who first professed it have even been blamed for intimidating and alienating readers into a wider cultural disaffection with poetry.[2] Alternatively, we might find students arriving in our classes with the belief, bolstered by modernism’s open forms and ambiguities, that, when it comes to making meaning, in poetry anything goes and there’s therefore not much to learn. Innovation has remained a keyword in modernist pedagogy, but as modern poetry’s newness turns eighty, ninety, a hundred years old, how might we cultivate a sense of adventure, of pleasure as well as challenge for students reading modern poetry now?

The essays gathered here respond to this charge in a variety of ways. Their authors are creative and thoughtful poetry teachers with diverse specialties in the field and experience at a range of institutions (large and small, public and private, in the U.S. and the U.K.). Each contributor describes a method, class plan, syllabus, or assignment devised to address a specific pedagogical challenge. Several essays treat design choices of the modern poetry syllabus to consider how modern poetry has been and might be defined and presented, from American, British, and international perspectives and as a resource for creative work.[3] Others suggest exercises for involving students as readers and even writers of modern and avant-garde poems. Examining the aims of teaching political and social history alongside aesthetics, the essays reflect as well on the politics of teaching. Even as they detail field-tested teaching strategies, the contributors highlight new ways of thinking about modern poetry—in various historical contexts, in relation to other poetry, within and without standard periodization.

A fuller conversation about teaching modern poetry would include more extensive treatment of major topics not covered at length here, including prosody and historical poetics, twentieth-century African American poetry and poetics, and teaching with sound files and digital texts and archives.[4] We hope that this cluster will be a springboard for continuing exchange, facilitated by the platform it helps to inaugurate—and inaugurate as a space for ideas about how we teach. If the classroom is “the most unloved and understudied aspect of our discipline’s history,” as Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan have written, scholarship has nonetheless begun to recover classroom practices from modern poetry’s past.[5] The reflections collected here begin to suggest how much we have to think about, to talk about, to study, even to love in the varied ways we teach modern poetry now. The essays point ahead, too, to let us imagine how such discussion might shape semesters and poems to come.


We thank Siobhan Phillips, Suzanne W. Churchill, Marsha Bryant, and others whose encouragement and conversation helped bring this cluster into being.


  1. ^ Helen Sword, Introduction: MSA Teaching Forum Cluster, “Making It New: Innovative Approaches to Teaching Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 16, no. 3 (2008): 471.
  2. ^ See for example Joan Shelley Rubin, Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
  3. ^ The heated response to Rita Dove’s selections as editor of the 2011 Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry reminds us how contested choices of canon—decisions about which poems and poets get taught—remain. See Evie Shockley’s “Shifting the (Im)balance: Race and the Poetry Canon,” Boston Review June 06, 2013; Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” Boston Review May 18, 2012; Dove’s “Defending an Anthology” and Helen Vendler’s reply, both in The New York Review of Books December 22, 2011; and Helen Vendler’s “Are These the Poems to Remember,” The New York Review of Books November 24,  2011. The essays themselves offer a resource for pointing students towards questions of value that our varied canons raise and to the field beyond them.
  4. ^ Several contributions to the previous MSA Teaching Forum Cluster also treat the teaching of modern poetry: see Alan Golding’s “Faking it New” (474-77), Marsha Bryant’s “Counter-Intuitive Innovation” (482-84), and Suzanne W. Churchill’s “Modernism in Black & White” (489-92) in Modernism/modernity 16, no. 3 (2008).
  5. ^ Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, “The Common Reader and the Archival Classroom: Disciplinary History for the Twenty-First Century,” New Literary History 43, no. 1 (2012): 116. Pedagogy of the past has become an increasingly popular object of study. Buurma and Heffernan trace the style and methodologies of Cleanth Brooks’s and Edmund Wilson’s poetry and American literature classes of the postwar era through their archives. In “‘An invincible force meets an immovable object’: Gertrude Stein comes to Chicago,” Modernism/modernity 17, no. 2 (2010): 331–61, Liesl Olson recounts Stein’s interactions with the Great Books faculty at the University of Chicago and speculates on what went on when the writer took over a two-hour seminar during one of her visits in 1934. See also Laura Heffernan's post on The New Disciplinary History.