Isn’t the avant-garde always pedagogical, she said, I mean altruistically bugbearish
—Lyn Hejinian, My Life
In teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) to undergraduates in a course on modern poetry, I have asked them to think about these prose poems through the act of making a poem in response. While this is a literature and not a creative-writing course, the strategy of assigning a creative-writing exercise is effective in Stein’s case because through making a poem the students prove to themselves that what might at first appear nonsensical can be, if one reads—and then writes—word by word, startlingly lucid.
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.
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."