ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 1

 - Introduction


Professor Hammer introduces students to the material that will be covered in the course of the semester. Course readings and requirements are also addressed. Early publications of poems are discussed as they appeared in small magazines such as BlastBroom, and The Criterion. Book publication of the same poems and other poetry collections are then discussed in contrast. A number of modern English poets are presented such as Eliot, Hughes, Moore, Yeats, and photographs are shown in order to introduce students to the major poets of the early twentieth century.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 1 - Introduction

Chapter 1. Introducing the Course and Requirements [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Now, this is not only a course for English majors, but for other majors too. The poets we’ll be reading – well, they knew about science, music, politics, economics, and they presumed to talk about those things, in their poetry and out of their poetry too. My lectures are going to presume no special knowledge on your part. I see this as a course that’s an introduction to the literature of a period, to modern poetry. We’ll be studying several poets in some detail. The presumption is that they all reward and demand a certain amount of close reading. At the same time, I do mean to give you some sense of the period in which they’re writing, some sense of modernism as a field, as one of the richest fields in English language writing. Finally, though, this really is a course in poetry, plain and simple. I mean to introduce you to particular poems, to give you ways to possess them, enjoy them, be puzzled or frustrated by them too; to learn something from them and to care about them and to carry them with you as you go forward after this class. So, that’s a sense of what I want to accomplish in these lectures. It will mean reading a lot of poems and writing about them some.

The syllabus you’ll see notes the general topic of each lecture and the reading that I want you to have done for that day. There’s a Midterm. That will be a short answer test that’s intended to give you a chance to show how diligently you’ve been reading and coming to class. The Final will include both a short answer component and then some essay questions. There are two papers, a shorter and a slightly longer one. The first paper is going to ask you to write about one short poem; the second will ask you to write about two or more poems, or poems perhaps by two authors, or perhaps a poem and some other kind of text or image.

The teaching fellows in this course, I’m lucky to work with and you are too. They are trained and have an interest in modern poetry, and this is a happy collaboration for me with them. As I say, we’ll start to get our discussion sections organized on Monday and they should be set, I hope, by the Wednesday lecture next week. I want you to come to lecture on time. I did today, I started on time. I don’t always do that but I’d like to, and I can if you come at 11:30. Bring your books; I’m going to be talking about the texts and I hope you’ll have them open. And of course you will come to your discussion sections in the same state of joyful preparedness. As I say, the syllabuses should be accessible on the Classes*v2 server; however, I’ve had problems with that in the past and you should please let me know if it’s not.

There are just two books for the course; they’re both at Labyrinth. One is the first volume of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Third Edition. It’s edited by Jahan Ramazani, formerly a Teaching Fellow in this course. There’s also Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems. There will be a packet that you can order from RIS [copy center] that gathers a few supplementary readings. There will be the visual images that I’m going to talk about in lecture, and that I will make accessible to you on the class’s server. There are also audio recordings of the poets that we will be reading that come from Sterling and you can get to on the Center for Language Study website. All those things we can talk about more as the semester develops, and I hope you will talk to me. You can do that on email, you can do that in my office, which is downstairs on the first floor of this building, in LC-109. You can catch me after lecture or before. We can have lunch – all sorts of opportunities for talking, and I hope you’ll take advantage of it.

Chapter 2. Modern Poet Introduction: Robert Frost [00:05:50]

For Monday, we’re going to start talking about Robert Frost, and I’d like you to pay special attention to his poem “Mowing,” in the RIS packet, and to his poem “Birches” in The Norton. And as you read, pay special attention to images of tools, work, play. Read Frost’s short poetic statement, prose poetic statement in The Norton called “The Figure a Poem Makes.” So, The Norton Anthology, this book, this heavy book, I order it as a way to, well, reduce your expenses. Here’s just one big book to buy. It also provides needed annotation. Modern poetry is in need of annotation. This new edition of this old book is an excellent one. You should read Jahan Ramazani’s introduction, read his prose notes that preface his various selections.

Having said that, there’s really nothing so dead as The Norton Anthology, or ponderous, and I do order it with a little – well, some misgivings for that. The poems come to you abstracted from the contexts in which they were originally produced and read, from their place in a body of work, in a book, in a magazine, in a life that produced it. In order to counteract the packaged and monumental form of The Norton, I will be using Beinecke’s [Yale library for rare books and manuscripts] and Sterling’s [Yale’s main library] resources, using Power Point digitized files. This will allow me to project images in class and for you to look at them later at home. There’ll be files for not all but most of the poets that we discuss, and the aim is to give you some sense through those images of modern poetry in its historical, material dimensions, to represent it as something that was lived, and in many ways is living now.

Chapter 3. Modern Poet Introductions: T. S. Eliot and Marianne Moore [00:08:46]

Now, the poems that you’ll be reading, we’ll be talking about, did not, of course, always exist in the form that you find them. Their first form was very often a manuscript. If you go to Beinecke, you can find – and we will go to Beinecke, those of you who want to come with me – and look at manuscripts that were early versions of texts that you now find in The Norton and other books. When poems that had gone through their processes of revision and so forth and came to publication, they very often were published first, not in book form certainly, but rather in Little Magazines that are now more or less lost to us today but were in fact the essential vehicle for the creation of modern poetry.

What is a Little Magazine? Well, very often they were big – big in format and size. They were little because their circulation was small. These were the funded-on-a-shoestring magazines that rose up and very frequently faded away just as quickly in the 1910s and 1920s, and that were in many cases the first avenue of publication for Stevens, Eliot, Moore, the poets that you will be reading in this class. These magazines were acutely aware of their differences from the popular literary magazines of the nineteenth century, general interest popular magazines of the twentieth century, magazines with wide circulation, polite audiences. The Little Magazine was written by, addressed to, new young writers and artists, and they were determined to make trouble.

Nothing, I think, captures the nerve of these magazines like the cover of Blast, which meant “kaboom,” a magazine as a kind of bomb, or maybe a curse-damn you, blast. Pound was one of the contributors. Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night appeared here in this number of the magazine from July, 1915 in the midst of the First World War; Rogue – another, also from 1915. Notice the price – five cents. Stevens appeared here, in this magazine. You could contrast the roguish and fanciful, clearly done by hand, title of the magazine, with that machine-type Blast. Both of these are mischievous, oppositional magazines but with very different styles and attitudes. Here’s another, Broom. This is a magazine just slightly later. This is an issue of 1922. It’s a cover by Ferdinand Léger; Hart Crane would appear here. Broom meant to make a clean sweep of things, a clean sweep of what had come before. It also clearly meant to have fun doing it. Oops, I have gone too far. This is the back of the magazine. I don’t know how well you can make it out but there’s a little broom guy there with glasses, playing air guitar with his broom, and I guess this is meant to capture the spirit of the contributors.

Contrast that with the magazine that flashed there a moment ago, The Criterion. This is a long way from Broom. This is October 1922, comes out just before Broom is created. Here you’ve got a magazine that doesn’t present itself as attacking anything at all, but rather as what? As setting the standard, The Criterion. It looks official, doesn’t it? The editor is T. S. Eliot. This is the first number of the magazine. The magazine, in many ways, announced and facilitated Eliot’s rise to a kind of cultural authority as a taste maker, and with it certain ideas of modernism. This issue here, October 1922, includes The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. It also includes a little bit further down the page of review and essay by Valerie Larbeau on a new novel by James Joyce called Ulysses. That’s some sense of the spectrum of magazines that are coming out, and all with different roles to play in this culture and that position their writers and poets and artists associated with them in different ways.

Book publication can be just as interesting and it can tell us just as much about modern poetry as magazines. This is The Wind Among the Reeds, author William Butler Yeats, the year 1899, on the verge of the new century. It’s a beautiful book. It’s a book that wants to be beautiful, that’s happy to be beautiful. It’s rich in color and texture. It’s designed, embossed, gilt. It’s self-consciously Irish, Celtic. There’s a sense that you’re supposed to leave the bookstore with a kind of talisman that you have bought, with a Celtic charm. Contrast this book, Prufrock and Other Observations, the subtitle left off here of the cover of T. S. Eliot’s great book, published in 1917. This is a different object, isn’t it? Severe, unsentimental, dry, so much so as to be maybe even a little bit funny. And you laughed, right, and I think you’re supposed to. It’s not entirely serious, even as it declares its seriousness. If Yeats’s book was so explicitly Irish, look at this book. It has no observable nationality at all, does it? A certain kind of, well, you might say impersonality. Its rhetoric is so flat and unemotional, so overtly unrhetorical. It is, in fact, a very deliberate and self-conscious repudiation of that late romantic aesthetic that Yeats’s early book, and even the cover of that early book, represents. Prufrock isn’t beautiful and its author is not a bard.

Another book, another book cover, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, 1926. Unlike Prufrock, this one is full of color and of course it is the work of a poet of color. The image presents the book not as a work of poetry at all but rather as a kind of music, as a book of Blues, and it associates its poet singer with honky-tonk piano players; not Broom’s bohemian egghead air guitarist, but another kind of vernacular, another kind of celebration and another kind of music. It makes us think about black artists playing for a living in Prohibition Era back rooms.

Now, poems, like books, project an image of the poet who produces them. While the poet is creating her or his poems, the poet is also creating a poet, a certain figure of the poet, a public image of the poet. And this is an evolving project, a work in progress. That’s part of the work and part of the subject and part of what I will be talking about here. Let’s look, for example, at a series of photos of Ezra Pound. Together, they tell a kind of encapsulated history of this central, fascinating, problematic poet’s career. He begins as an aesthete. This is 1913, Pound in London, styling himself, isn’t he, after those Renaissance artists and poets whom he would write about, translate in this period. It could be a miniature worn by a Provencal damsel, no? Well, here he is a little later, Pound after the war in 1923, sort of full flower of modernism, still a young man but he’s got that cane, and he’s in Paris where he would meet Eliot and work on The Waste Land with him.

Well, fast forward twenty years. This is Pound, Pound accused of treason; Pound accused of treason by his country, accused of treason as he tries to bend the world to his vision of it, and he escapes trial only by reason of insanity when he is brought from Italy under charges of having made broadcasts on fascist radio, back to the United States, after an ordeal in a cage in Pisa. And he poses for this photo as an intake photo as he enters St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Washington. In this final photo from 1971, back in Italy in Rapallo, well, here’s Pound presenting us with an image of something that would have seemed impossible when he began, which is an image of modernism grown old, old and blasted, in many senses. Contrast this career, encapsulated in those images, with this one.

Who’s this? This is the author of Prufrock. In fact, this is the Harvard student who wrote Prufrock; Eliot wrote Prufrock largely when still at Harvard and in the years immediately following. Sexy? A little, maybe; those full, slightly parted lips, that windswept hair, the general J. Crew look. Notice the handkerchief. Here’s the editor, great editor of the publisher Faber & Faber, thirty years later, or more, surrounded by books, the cultural arbiter of the English speaking world; T. S. Eliot at sixty. That hair is now slicked down, there are glasses between him and us. This is the young man who’s become a monument. But really, the costume’s the same one, right? There’s the handkerchief. Pound’s descent into infamy and insanity and indignity and Eliot’s rise to the extraordinary cultural power and prestige that he occupied and that is represented by this and many other photos, well, these are key stories in modern poetry and they’re interestingly interlocking, just as their two lives were.

Another modern poet. This is an old woman called Marianne Moore who became a kind of civic icon, who became a celebrity even, as an eccentric New Yorker who wore tri-cornered hats and went to baseball games and the zoo, and here appears in, well, her hair braided and wrapped around her head; fanciful, virginal, kindly, safely out of fashion, full of a kind of civic virtue, the embodiment of a certain kind of popular idea of poetry. And you can’t read it but there’s a kind of stamp of approval here from the governor Nelson Rockefeller. Think of how far away this is from Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. This is another image of modern poetry. But Moore’s hair was not always done up. This is the image of a child, also named Marianne Moore, with delicious, prodigious locks. It reveals maybe a little bit of the power and extravagance and glory that you feel in her poems but that she preferred always to restrain and bind and control in extraordinary ways, and not always to hide.

One of the enduring works written in 1922, the amazing year that The Waste Land and Ulysses appeared and The Criterion started its publication – one of those amazing works is Marianne Moore’s poem called Poetry. You’ve got a sample of it on your handout. Moore, who revised her poems, just the same way she ended up binding her hair, republished this poem eventually in short form, very short, where three pages were reduced to two sentences. The first two sentences you see:

I, too, dislike it: there are things important
beyond all this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine. Some of what she cut out of the poem, cut out of its later version, is a list of what she had in mind as the genuine, as examples of it, which is the first quotation there; again, on your handout:

The bat, holding on upside down [and so on]
A flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician –
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and
school-books”; all of these phenomena are important.

The drive to include the world – Moore’s omnivorous poems claim for poetry all the subjects that she mentions here and indeed many, many more. All these are new, modern subjects. Because they represent dimensions of experience formerly excluded from the elevated, idealized discourse that is poetry, dimensions of experience excluded as prosaic. Moore is quoting here in that phrase “business documents and school-books,” as she tells us, from Tolstoy, a prose writer. But she goes further than Tolstoy in her commitment to the seemingly non-poetic. She will not only include Tolstoy’s prose, she will not even discriminate against business documents and school books. Moore exemplifies in this way a key aspect of modern poetry – its radical heterogeneity, its will to mix many kinds of materials and discourses, to make poetry reach out from the rarified and limited domain of the poetic to keep including more and more of the world.

The next quotation on your handout – this is another example of this. I won’t sing for you or give you my Italian, but these famous lines, “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down” and so on, these come from the conclusion to The Waste Land. They thrust together different texts, different languages, writing from different historical periods, all there, compressed in that remarkable mad song that concludes the poem. In the next quotation, Eliot tells us that a various and complex civilization, such as ours, produces, he says, various and complex results, as if inevitably, lest we think that there’s anything particularly forced or outlandish or willful about his own remarkable poetry in lines such as those I just quoted for you. Eliot was there, in that essay on the metaphysical poets that I’m quoting from, defending as necessary what is the primary characteristic, not only of his own poetry, but really of modern poetry generally, what is often called its difficulty.

Whatever else it may be, everyone’s always agreed that modern poetry is difficult. You will probably too. By “difficult,” it is meant, I think, well, first of all that it is in some sense set apart from common speech, as a specialized and highly self-conscious use of language. Eliot would go further and say that there is no common form of modern speech, and that’s the problem. According to Eliot, the modern world lacks a center, a kind of set of collective beliefs and commitments that would enable communication between us. Modernity for Eliot, as for Moore, as for Pound, is marked by a profusion of languages, both national languages such as French or Russian, which turn up in The Waste Land; also, a bewildering array of specialized types of discourse, technical genres, varieties of speech, business documents and school books. There’s an extraordinary sense of verbal chaos, a kind of word hoard that modern poetry and modernism – generally, a kind of linguistic environment of great complexity from which modern poetry and modernism emerge.

This is an image called “Rotterdam” by the artist Edward Wadsworth. It’s a woodcut image from Blast. I like it because it’s a kind of image of the modern city that makes the modern city look like language, look like letters, look like a kind of scattered alphabet, a kind of babble. It’s a kind of picture for me of the linguistic environment, if you will, of modern poetry. Behind this environment are the great social processes of migration and modernization that produced that new urban form, the metropolis. All of the poets we read, even that New England hayseed, Robert Frost, begin their careers in metropolitan centers, primarily in London and New York. “All that is solid melts into air,” Karl Marx said, evoking the accelerating transformation of modern economic and social life. The metropolis is the center of this unsettled world that Marx describes. Coming to the metropolis a hundred or ninety years ago now entailed, for the writers that we’ll be reading, as much as for anyone else, a kind of break with a world that they had known, a break either with a native language – this is what the emigrant or the expatriate experiences – or perhaps with native ways of speaking and knowing, familiar spheres of reference.

Life in the modern metropolis was de-familiarizing. It de-naturalized language. Where there are many languages in use, language comes to seem arbitrary rather than natural, as the product of convention; not as something you’re simply born into but something that you learn, something that is made and that can be remade. This is a presumption of all the poets we’ll be reading. Modern American writers and artists immigrated famously to London, to Paris. Another key event in the making of modernism is the great migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north. Langston Hughes’s poetry comes out of this experience in a community of black intellectuals and artists it created specifically in Harlem. And you’ll see on your handout two quotations from poems by Hughes, the first, “125th Street,” giving us well, here, images of black life in the rural south transposed to Harlem. There’s in those images, I think, a kind of utopian promise that the familiar, ordinary pleasures of rural life can be recaptured in a new society of plenty. But there’s also something hallucinatory and troubling about those images and vaguely disturbing that’s brought out, I think, in the related, famous poem, “Harlem,” on the next side of the page where if we’ve had faces as food in the first text, something possibly reassuring, those faces begin to look like dangerous objectifications in the second one where that raisin in the sun threatens to explode.

Metropolis is, in modern poetry, set against a backdrop of war and violence and conflict, and modern poetry, as it absorbs the world of the metropolis, absorbs that violence and energy as well. The metropolis, well, it’s a place of ambivalence, a place of promise and of threat, of exultation and also of dread. This ambivalence that I’m describing is at the center of modern literature generally. And the metropolis is crowded with language, crowded with faces, but there’s also a pervasive sense of absence and of loneliness and of loss captured also again paradigmatically in The Waste Land, and I’ve included there more lines from that poem. “The nymphs are departed,” Eliot says. Eliot’s speaking of a spiritual and imaginative state. Modern poetry arises, in Eliot’s case, with the death of God, with the loss of a theological justification for life, with a sense of disenchantment, a sense of depletion, depletion of meaning and value. The metropolis which uproots people, takes them away, takes them out of traditional cultures, also uproots traditional religious belief and practices.

Eliot’s poetry, the poetry he created out of this experience, is a poetry of spiritual agony. Modernity is, in his work, a condition of social and psychological fragmentation which is both a private, personal dilemma and a public one, as he understands it. Compare to Eliot’s city, Eliot’s sense of the city, this one. This is a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, City of Ambition. This is the modern city, not as a scene of fragmentation or despair, but rather a place of ascent and aspiration. It’s also a scene of crossings, bridging past and future. This is a photo by another American photographer, Walker Evans, a photo of Brooklyn Bridge. You recognize it. And here is another, another image by Evans of the bridge. This one comes from a page of Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge, and a book that you can go find at the Beinecke, a remarkable edition of Crane’s poem where Evans’s photos, grand photos, appear as almost miniature images surrounded by white space, as you get some sense in this image.

In Crane, in his great poem The Bridge- and here’s another photo by Evans, this time of Crane on the rooftop of the apartment building in Brooklyn, 110 Columbia Heights where he lived and where he began the poem, with the bridge in the background. In Crane, the emphasis is not on what is lost in modernity but what is found or what might be. Here’s another quotation from your handout, number 7:

New thresholds, new anatomies, wine talons
Build freedom up about me and distill
This competence to travel in a tier
Sparkling alone within another’s will.

Modern poetry is difficult and these are difficult lines. “New thresholds, new anatomies”, well, that’s not such a hard concept; that’s an image of what the modern promises for Crane, and indeed those Gothic arches of the bridge seem to emblematize for him. Yet, Crane’s poetry in those lines I just read really are difficult, just as Eliot and Pound are difficult, but not because as in those poets Crane presents us with obscure references or languages unknown to us, or learned allusion. Instead, what’s difficult in Crane is a kind of compression in his writing. They show us a poet taking language apart and putting it back together in new ways, new configurations, new anatomies.

Crane is full of mixed metaphors; you’re not supposed to mix your metaphors and he does, all the time. “Wine talons,” there’s one. “Wine talons,” what are they? Well, think about it. Perhaps you too have felt wine talons grip you unexpectedly sometime and carry you aloft. The metaphor suggests ecstasy, the exaltation of modern life, that aspiration imaged in Stieglitz too. It suggests that ecstasy is like wine, and wine is like an eagle clasping you; it’s prey in its claws. And keep in mind when Crane wrote those lines too, it was illegal to buy and sell wine in this country. modernity, in Crane’s strange, gorgeous poetry, is all about getting high, about elevation, exultation. Crane was an alcoholic. And if you study this photo, you can see the qualities of a man struggling with alcoholism. This friendly and even dignified face has prematurely white hair. His cheeks are veined. Being drunk became for Crane a kind of grim literalization of the freedom that came with being modern; and that vision of freedom is something that his poetry preserves for us and carries forward for us and continues to give us as a gift.

Contrast his images of joyous or demonic assent with the images of catastrophe, of descent, of collapse in Eliot, “London Bridge is falling down.” The decay of Christian belief and practice is not a loss but rather an opportunity for poetry, in Crane. He says in The Bridge, he asks the bridge to lend a myth to God, and he suggests that this is something that every age must do because our names for God are always metaphors, poems, something imagined, acts of speech. Crane shares these general ideas with Wallace Stevens.

Chapter 4. Modern Poet Introduction: Wallace Stevens [00:42:52]

This is Wallace Stevens, Wallace Stevens who said, “Poetry is a means of redemption”, and meant it. Stevens began life as a choirboy and as a Christian, but his work is all about replacing Christian theology with poetry. For Stevens, when modernity takes away God what it does is unveil the poet’s Godlike powers, a power to create the world through imagination, imagination which created God in the first place. In Stevens, modernity shows us that the truth of religion was always a fiction, a fundamentally poetic construction.

Stevens’s world is secular and non-transcendental, and he is fully at home in it, so much so that he lives the life of a bourgeois businessman, as an executive of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, a great Connecticut burger and poet. Stevens celebrates the bourgeois world over and over again in a poetry that is about and itself enacts our perpetual recreation of reality through the mind and its special medium – language. Stevens understands tragedy, but he is a comic poet, a humanist who is concerned to preserve and exalt the human. The relativity of truth, the profusion of languages, these things that afflict Eliot are a source of faith for Stevens.

Modern poetry seeks absolutes, what Moore calls the genuine, what Crane calls the myth of America, the voice of the thunder in Eliot; Stevens’s supreme fiction; Pound’s Cantos, a poem that would, as he intended, include history. Modern poetry is, in all these ways, Promethean, astounding, arrogant, enormous, imprudent, visionary. But it also contains other positions, alternatives that open those over-sized cultural ambitions to critique, to imaginative alternatives of many kinds. And these are suggested, I’ll suggest briefly, by the last two poets we’ll read – W. H. Auden, to begin with here, pictured as an Oxford undergraduate, ever cheeky, who has written on the side of his photo, “The cerebral life would pay,” dry, cool, pragmatic; and Elizabeth Bishop, young in this glamorous George Platt Lynes photo.

While modern poetry in many of its forms strives to master reality, Auden reminds us, there on your handout, cautiously, that poetry makes nothing happen. While Stevens represents the poet as a kind of God, Bishop sees the poet rather as a sandpiper, that little bird skittering along the shore, not in control of the world but subject to it, subject to its continual fluctuation and awesome powers. Bishop’s sandpiper poet, there in your handout, is obsessed with the mere details of experience, those sand grains, quartz grains. Her aim is to get along in a world that is dominated by shifting forces that can be registered and reacted to by poetry, but not explained. This is, I think, really also a version of poetic activity that has some sources in and has a lot in common with Robert Frost’s, as we will see on Monday. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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