Teaching Modern Poetry

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When I was appointed to the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University, I asked the chairman of the department, the late James W. Tuttleton, if I might be treated as a generalist--one who might be allowed to teach any courses in the Department that he regarded himself as competent to teach, without having to confine himself to a particular "area" or "field." Professor Tuttleton had no problem with that request. Years later, when NYU elevated me to a University Professorship, the then-president, L. Jay Oliva, told me to discuss my teaching duties with the Chair. I saw no reason to do that; I was quite content with my conditions, specifically with my unquestioned movement among the literatures of England, Ireland, and the United States.

Over the years at NYU, I have taught lecture courses in the history of English poetry from Beowulf to Paradise Lost, Shakespeare--the sonnets and about ten plays--the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, and "Yeats and Modern Irish Poetry." (When I taught this Yeats-and-after course, I included Austin Clarke, Louis MacNeice--not the expected Patrick Kavanagh, whose poems I don't warm to--Beckett, Kinsella, Longley, Heaney, Muldoon, and Mahon: I should have included Montague and MacGreevy, too.) I have also taught graduate seminars in Jane Austen, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Joyce. I recall with some affection one graduate seminar I taught in "The Language of Literary Criticism;' in which for each class I chose one word, offered a list of readings in it, and suggested how it might validly be used in literary criticism. The words included: form, action, meaning, structure, plot, poem, fiction, metaphor, voice, tone, and a few others that I have forgotten. Normally I would teach such a course and then set it aside for a year or two. But there was one course I got into the way of offering year after year, "Modern British and American Poetry," a graduate seminar, to begin with, though I was happy to see some interested undergraduates join up. "British" was deemed to include "Irish" without any political to-do being made about the inclusion. The class was supposedly a seminar, but I must report that my voice appeared to reduce other voices to a whisper and then to silence. Students, normally voluble, seemed to think they should withhold themselves in my favor.

For some years, I taught the course in two parts. The first part started with Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), went on to Dickinson, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats, sometimes E. A. Robinson, always Frost, Stevens, sometimes William Carlos Williams, sometimes D. H. Lawrence, then Pound, and the early Eliot, culminating with The Waste Land (1922). The second part started with Hart Crane, and went on through Beckett, Empson, Auden, Roethke, and Olson, to Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Hill. The students found part two of the course to be either difficult or otherwise tiresome. Gradually, I lapsed into teaching only part one, as in the Fall of 2011.

The first problem we met was how to understand the word "modern" in the tide of the course. I indicated that many of the most alert writers of that period thought of themselves as living at a time of cultural crisis, but I confessed that it was not clear to me what the crisis was. I referred to three such writers, not in chronological order. The first was Yeats and I quoted one of his cryptic poems, "Three Movements," a mere three lines:

    Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away
                                       from land;
   Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;
   What are all those fish that lie gasping on the

I did the little I could with that poem: noted the three lines, each with fourteen syllables and seven main stresses, the monosyllabic masculine rhyme at the end of each line, the first two lines being indicatives, set off against the third, a rhetorical question, one of Yeats's favorite devices when he was being grand or apocalyptic. …