Teaching US Poetry from 1900-1950

I started teaching modernism as a graduate student, leading discussion sections for Walt Litz at Princeton in ’91. When I arrived at W&L in ’94, I resolved to teach much more diverse syllabi: I put the version of modernism I’d studied in conversation with the New Negro Renaissance and included many women writers (Walt’s syllabus was all white and male). Soon I was bringing in formalist modernism, too–featuring the so-called “songbird poets” and analyzing various kinds of experiment that earlier discussions of the field hadn’t made much space for. Something I love about teaching, though, is that you can’t just rest on your laurels: I’m teaching you a version of modernism that’s fuller and more complicated than the one I received–aren’t I the greatest? Changes in scholarship and theory demand renovated approaches, but so do the students themselves.

I posted on Facebook recently that my students have never been so alert to questions of gendered and sexual violence in “The Waste Land” as they were this October. I was really glad I had this recent suite of short essays from Modernism/ modernity to bring to class, organized by Megan Quigley and centered on how #metoo has changed conversations about a modernist poetic monument. My current students think sexual violation, as reality and metaphor, is at the very foundation of modernism, and while I’ve always highlighted those elements in certain poems, I’m still trying to get my head around that as a perspective shift on the whole field. They’re very interested, too, in modernist portrayals of mental illness and how it’s persistently feminized; the more I consider those questions, the more foundational they seem, as well. Honestly, I wish I had more than twelve weeks with these students, so we could deepen our reading together.

We are, however, past midterms already! This weekend I’m reading their first essays, and the scholar to whom I owe the most for the success of this assignment is Suzanne Churchill at Davidson, a scholar of modernist little magazine culture and another Princeton survivor (it was a messed-up place back then). When W&L’s Digital Humanities cohort brought Suzanne here a few years ago, she visited a version of the class I’m now teaching; for the occasion, she loaned me a little magazine assignment she’d been using in her own courses. I’ve since modified it into a sequence of steps: we read Suzanne’s essay “Little Magazines” from Companion to Modernist Poetry; used class time to compare poems from our texts to their original presentations in little magazines; and read this excellent website on Georgia Douglas Johnson that Suzanne created with her students. Then we devoted a session to informal presentations of this response paper assignment:

“Go to the Modernist Journals Project site and either browse through the magazines or search for an author you’re interested in and follow the links (search last name, first name—it’s not case sensitive). Find an issue of a journal that interests you. It should be published between 1900 and 1945, and it should include at least one poem. Then post a brief reflection (~300 words) in which you identify and briefly describe the issue you chose and why you chose it, saying something about how a poem within it relates to other content and/or design elements. What kind of readership does the magazine seem to be projecting? How do font, layout, juxtaposition, and/or illustration affect the poem’s meaning?”

Finally, they wrote 8-page essays comparing poems in little magazines to other published versions, either building on that response paper or switching focus, if they preferred. I shouldn’t report on their discoveries here because this assignment resulted in some actual original scholarship–illuminating publishing circumstances that haven’t been discussed in print before, to my knowledge, although, of course, we’d all have to do a LOT of work to determine that for sure. This means that grading their essays has been slow (I have a lot of backtracking to do, as everyone wrote on different pieces/ publications) but genuinely exciting.

I had originally cancelled this coming Friday’s session, requiring them to go to at least part of a department retreat instead, but the scholar whom we had invited to visit cancelled. So, I asked these students, what would you prefer? Go to a different lecture or reading as class make-up, or reinstate that class and choose readings for it, anything you like? To my surprise, they wanted the class back, and they wanted to focus it on contemporary poems responding in some way to the modernists we’re studying. I’ve had a lot of fun assembling a reading packet! Not surprisingly, many of my own poems have been triggered by modernism, but I’m mostly steering clear of my own stuff in favor of Bishop on Moore; Wendy Cope and Jeremy Richards on Eliot; Evie Shockley on Anne Spencer; Honoree Fanonne Jeffers on Helene Johnson; William Woolfitt and Cynthia Hogue on H.D.; David Ray, Lauren K. Alleyne, and Hilde Weisert on Frost; Kenneth Koch on Williams; Terrance Hayes and Franny Choi on Hughes; and more (many of these great poems are not online). Thanks to Diane Kendig, Max Chapnick, and others for suggestions–please post more in the comments!

In short, in a busy season, this class is absorbing a lot of energy and creativity. I could use an extra weekend every week, one for the work and one for some downtime…but I’m also really happy that I can teach this class for so many years and still, well, make it new.

Pound, Eliot, and vintage radios

I’m between stations with a head full of static. I just finished teaching–submitted my last grade, for an honors thesis on Wallace Stevens–but my sabbatical doesn’t officially begin until July 1. I’m also signing off on an interim year as Department Head, and the final hours involve an unbelievable amount of writing. The letters for colleagues feel important, the reports feel trivial, but in any case, none of it is remotely literary. I’ll be glad to remove my needle from this particular groove in a few weeks.

Another reason I’m not fully here, or anywhere, is that modernism’s greatest hits have been playing relentlessly in my head. I recently visited Washington and Lee’s Special Collections to visit a dazzling new acquisition: 100 letters from Ezra Pound to Thomas Henry Carter, once a student editor of Shenandoah. Old issues of the latter literary magazine aren’t online, so you can’t easily look up Andrew J. Kappel’s 1980 article about the correspondence: “Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of An American Literary Magazine” (31.3: 3-22), but librarian Jeff Barry sent it to me and it’s pretty interesting. In 1952, Carter was a W&L sophomore who wrote to Pound at St. Elizabeth’s for publishing guidance. Carter was also hoping for, say, a Canto or two, but Pound didn’t oblige for a few years. When Pound finally did send in part of Canto 88, a different student editor rejected it–and Carter died young, at home in Martinsville, Virginia. The letters had been housed at Patrick Henry Community College for decades, and now a Digital Humanities class at W&L is trying to figure out how to preserve and promote the legacy. There are also boxes full of other materials, including Carter’s great little magazine collection and a Wyndham Lewis portrait of Pound that really should be hanging somewhere (I vote for Payne Hall). I will be thinking about how these collections can inform my teaching of modernism, but in the meantime I’m preparing to give a lesson to the DH class–Pound 101, basically, or Modernism: Quick and Dirty. Whoops, did I say I was done with teaching?

In the meantime, I’m preparing to review a new biography: Young Eliot by Robert Crawford. At some point you’ll find my remarks in the T.S. Eliot newsletter, but the short version, although I’m only up to Tom’s undergrad years, is that so far the book is rich, detailed, fresh, and useful. I guess it’s trivia if you’re not a fan, but it’s satisfying to learn that the poor air quality of the early poems–all that soot and yellow fog–is not just informed by Boston or European cities, but by St. Louis, where industry was fueled by burning soft coal. Eliot seems more American all the time (even as biographied by a Brit who really should write “tornado” instead of “cyclone”).

AND my teenage daughter just wrote an essay about “The Hollow Men” so she’s reading further and demanding on-the-spot “Waste Land” lectures over grilled chicken. AND, as I finally relax a bit, seeing enough time enough next year to finish my current critical project about 21st century verse, Taking Poetry Personally, I start wondering what comes after. Is it some version of Taking Modernism Personally? From contemporary poetry, back to golden oldies?

Well, before that comes a quick trip to Swarthmore, and graduation here, and finishing the damn assessment report. Plus, I have to finish pulling together my fall poetry collection, Radioland. Photographer and vintage radio collector Mark Meijster of Amsterdam has just given me permission to use his gorgeous photograph on the cover. I am jazzed. Hey you out there in radioland: stay tuned.

Radioland cover image

PS: what my essay on “The Waste Land” repressed

eliot1bTo frame an argument in words always entails filtering signal from noise: you can’t include all the evidence, so you try to assemble the best evidence in the best order. Making arguments about contemporary poetry, though, may be a particularly messy enterprise. Just look at the Reading List posted by the September Poetry contributors. We’re all reading different books—I think the only poet who comes up twice is Mary Ruefle. Even voracious readers of poetry haunt different neighborhoods, and we’re often ignorant of what’s happening elsewhere, because the scene is so big and fragmented. So how can anyone make believable qualitative generalizations about the whole field?

My “Undead Eliot” essay in the same issue sticks out a microphone and records echoes of “The Waste Land” in contemporary verse. I had been collecting examples from books, magazines, and web sites for a couple of years—whenever I spotted an Eliot allusion I stuck a copy of the poem in a little pile on a high shelf. I shore such fragments against my ruin all the time, though sometimes I lose track of them before a writing project materializes. In this case, I ended up seeing a pattern in the debris: lots of the poems emphasize sound, voice, cadence. And I found time to pound out part of an essay in the summer of 2012, before I dropped the project, pressed for time. Then Don Share was named Poetry’s editor and I thought, hey, he might like this. (I’d heard a memorable presentation from him years ago about curating audio archives at the Harvard Vocarium.) So I finished a draft, submitted it in June 2013, and a few revisions and 15 months later, I’m singing about unreal cities to all you folks out there in radioland.

I encompass some aesthetic and regional diversity in the essay, but not much—there just isn’t room for more than a handful of examples. What I found myself considering, during the final weeks of back-and-forth about galleys, was what got left out and why. Several of the poems I cut from consideration, because they just weren’t as obsessed with sound as the others, happened to be authored by women. Most of the poets to whom I ended up giving extended attention happened to be authored by men.

So, is contemporary response to “The Waste Land” gendered? That’s hard to answer in the brief thinking-space I can give to blogging, as I perch on the precipice of fall term (classes start today). That question would be hard to answer, frankly, in a book-length argument pondered for years. “Women poets” is an unruly, diverse category, and hallelujah for that. But it may be that women are a little more prone, even when they respond affirmatively to Eliot’s poetic power, to take note, too, of Eliot’s misogyny and/or the poem’s focus on sexuality. There’s the disturbing section about Fresca, a woman poet whose literary productions are compared to passing “stool,” for example—that’s in the manuscript edition. The final version features a few scenes of men and women failing to communicate; the typist’s debased sex with the young man carbuncular; many references to how the rape of Philomel enables song-voice-poetry; and catty pub-talk about abortion. Tiresias stands conspicuously between genders and there are coded references to homosexuality in the Smyrna merchant passage and elsewhere. I hear Eliot’s love for Jean Verdenal resonating through the poem, and wonder if the secret he alludes to in the final section (“the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”) has to do with erotic attachment to the young man he knew in Paris and who died later in the Great War. The role of gender in the poem, and the history of its composition, has been key to its reception by many poets, including me.

By way of postscript, then, here are a couple of poems that didn’t fit my essay’s paradigm but that nevertheless testify about how Eliot sounds now. From “Her Nerves,” by Jeannine Hall Gailey, quoted by permission of the author:

You are afraid—not just of me,
but what I see and hear that you don’t—
the crusts of blood, slippery dirt-gorged voices.
You like it when I curse creatively,
hate it when the paper piles like excrement around me.

Fresca’s revenant presence in the above lines fits the logic of Gailey’s book Becoming the Villainess: to gain mature power, a heroine must become monstrous, and certainly powerful middle-aged women are not represented generously by modernist poets, male or female (think of those portraits of ladies, for starters). Like Eliot, too, Gailey is rewriting myth, with particular interest in Philomel. Gender scripts create a stifling catastrophe for several characters in Gailey’s collection as well as in “The Waste Land” itself.

After my essay was published, Daisy Fried sent me a link to one of her own Eliot-influenced poems, “Elegy.” Fried associates Eliot with a scene of schooling, but also with sexual adventure, and, ultimately, with loss. She even recasts Tiresias as “Transgendered Professor Y.” “Elegy” isn’t about what Eliot means to writers today; instead “The Waste Land” is sort of playing in the background, setting off weird harmonies between past and present. Of course we’re all still wasted by sex, grief, and all the great art we’ve inherited and can’t live up to. Inspired, too.

PPS: I talk about some of this stuff with the editors in a Poetry podcast, although how I ended up on a recording with John Ashbery remains a cosmic mystery to me. Also, thanks to Poetry Daily for featuring the essay this week and amplifying its range.

Noise, Voice, and the T. S. Eliot Society

Last week, on the night of my birthday, I dreamed that my father phoned from the afterlife. The strangeness of hearing his voice made me think, the next morning, of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s elegies for the voices of lost loved ones: photographs were common then but since audio recordings were very rare, a person’s timbre and accent really did fall silent forever. It wasn’t clear, in my dream, that my father knew he’d died, but I did, and even asleep I was amazed at how he sounded perfectly like himself. I’ve looked at lots of pictures of my father since his death but, although there are probably recordings of his Brooklyn vowels somewhere, I’m unlikely to hunt them down and listen. Even for twenty-first-century me, voice remains more ephemeral than image.

That strange dream-signal was part of the noise I brought to the T. S. Eliot Society’s annual meeting in St. Louis this weekend. Michael Coyle invited me to lead a seminar on sound in Eliot’s verse, which turned out to be pretty fabulous. Members of this small group had prepared papers on Eliot’s poems, criticism, and plays in print and in performance: John Melillo, who wrote an honors thesis for me at W&L ten years ago, now listens for the shifting relations of voice and noise in “The Waste Land,” with Dada playing in the background; Elizabeth Micaković had fascinating things to say about Eliot’s relationship to elocution (I’d forgotten that Emily Hale taught speech!); Fabio Vericat took on Eliot’s shifting relationship to poetic genres as he became more involved in BBC broadcasting; Julia Daniel discussed a recorded performance of Murder in the Cathedral, particularly how Eliot developed the chorus with help from a celebrated expert in choral verse speaking; and actor Michael Rogalski described his work on a performance of Four Quartets. This was an auspiciously noisy seminar: conversation began on the shuttle bus and stayed lively straight through the session and lunch after. We agreed that it had been the best seminar in recorded history and it’s a shame all of you other human beings missed it.

On the second day of the conference, Mike performed Four Quartets. His production-in-progress is fairly spare: a white screen, four white blocks he shifts around, and one actor in a gray suit. The setting, in contrast, was the posh St. Louis Women’s Club, where we had just been served a fancy lunch with monogrammed silver: a large chandelier glittered over Mike’s head as he spoke, white columns framed the space, and he paced on a dark green carpet patterned with vines and roses. Sometimes I was aware of Mike interpreting the poem; sometimes I fell unselfconsciously into the flow of language. The experience reminded me of another lost person, my dissertation adviser and a distinguished scholar of modernism, Walt Litz. I had confessed to Walt that I loved “The Waste Land” but couldn’t get excited about the repetitious, recursive self-corrections of Four Quartets. Walt chuckled at twenty-five-year-old me and reassured me it was a poem for middle-aged people. Well, here I am, getting older, and yes, Eliot’s disclosure of the “gifts reserved for age” is powerful now. So, though, is the noise, in this case the distant kitchen clatter of mostly African-American women doing the luncheon dishes and laughing, as the mostly white audience sat respectfully hushed. That counterpoint seemed important to me.

The “compound ghost” of Walt and my father—I have always associated them with one another, both men paternal to me, and drinkers, and more smart than honest—materialized again during the conference’s Saturday night festivities. While several scholars sang show tunes over a grand piano and others danced barefoot, I talked with a Washington University professor who had helped Walt during his crisis years just before retirement in the early 90s, when I was one of Walt’s final protégés. It turns out that my dissertation adviser, who was good to me but so destructive in other ways, who seemed almost to fall off the face of the earth, is still alive in a Princeton nursing home. If I can find out which, I can still contact him. I’m not sure if he remembers me, though—if I left an impression at all commensurate with his echo in me. He liked me and helped me land a job at Washington and Lee, but whatever I am now, I wasn’t a star then. It came back to me later (through Walt himself? through my eventual colleagues? I can’t remember) that he had called my interviewers, then a department full of men who’d had trouble hiring and tenuring women, and told them that I was “easy to get along with, but no doormat.”

Over the dream-telephone last week, my father said hello and apologized for not calling sooner, mumbling angrily about the doctors who had screwed things up. He also said, “It’s snowing here,” before the line was cut. So much of what we would say to people gets fuzzed out, lost in the snow. Sometimes the message would be so painful that memory’s degradation is a good thing. And sometimes it’s also good, as my own long-ago student so wisely does, to attend to the noise just as closely as the voices.

Undead T. S. Eliot

To my surprise, I’ve been asked to lead a critical seminar on sound in T. S. Eliot’s poetry at the next meeting of the Eliot Society, this September in St. Louis. Don’t tell, but coincidentally, I just published a poetic response to “The Waste Land” in Fringe Magazine. “Zombie Thanksgiving” brings together modernist poetry, George Romero, and family dysfunction with what I fear might be Frankensteinian hubris, but the union felt not monstrous but natural. Withered Sybil, ghosts flowing over London Bridge, buried life painfully reviving, “bats with baby faces” crawling head-first down the walls of Dracula’s castle (well, maybe)—“The Waste Land” has always been a horror story told by one of those erudite Poe characters as his sanity crumbles, right? Eliot’s allusion-gathering is a sort of grave-robbing in order to build a new creature from mismatched parts, stitches showing. (Does that make Ezra Igor?)

All of which has me wondering: where is Eliot’s influence in contemporary U.S. poetry? Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, H.D., Wallace Stevens and others have all had a pretty imposing afterlife haunting the House of Verse. I still hear them cited by young and mid-career writers, read new poems in magazines that echo theirs. He was enormously important to his contemporaries and to twentieth-century-poetry’s middle generation, but after that something knocked him out of the club of Literary Influences Cheerfully Acknowledged by Other Poets. His appalling politics or his expatriatism or his personal creepiness as portrayed by Willem Dafoe, perhaps.

I have the impression Eliot cast a longer shadow in Great Britain than in the U.S. My undergraduates still love/hate his otherworldly powers. I remember liking a poem Kim Addonizio had in Poetry a few years back; I haven’t found it yet but I’m pretty sure she shored some fragments of “The Waste Land” against her ruins. Who else is channeling Eliot, though, among contemporary writers? What proudly Eliotic cohort am I not thinking of?

Are half-rotted Prufrocks shambling through poems beyond my peripheral vision?