In modern poetry courses and American literature surveys, I’ve often used Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts” (1927) to begin a unit on protest poetry focused mostly on the 1930s. Among my central goals in such courses are to explore the richly varied forms of social engagement found in modern American verse, and to establish that every poem has some degree of sociopolitical resonance.
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.
Let me start with a debatable, if not terribly new, proposition: that we should conceive of and teach modern poetry as a set of texts with origins in the 1850s and aftershocks in the poems of the present day. I advocate inclusivity because I find it difficult to separate poets considered canonically “modern” from earlier or later poets whose breaks with tradition and formal innovations, whose newness and strangeness in their own time, give them as sure a claim to the ideals of modernism as many of the poets who were writing half-a-century before or after them.
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."