Making A Start

To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means—
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? And to do?

-William Carlos Williams, Paterson

Reading, thinking with, and writing about poems––these are the three primary activities in this course. My aspiration is that you will discover in these activities the pleasures of poetry in your life. For reading, thinking, and writing engage the body and the mind and awaken our capacities for feeling and thought. So much depends upon your interest, curiosity, and dedication––in this case, to exploring and expressing what happens when poems enter into your life. You will be writing to discover what matters to you (not to me), organizing what you are learning in the unfolding conversation in poetry and poetics that you are joining, and sharing what you have to say with others who might benefit from what you have to say.

In his 1962 book The Continuity of American Poetry, Roy Harvey Pearce proposes a history of the poems that “teach us how to read our world, the better to think about it.” For Pearce, the continuity of poetry in the United States has since its inception been antinomian—resisting the inheritance of cultural tradition while at the same time renewing the enduring commitment to language as well as the values language transmits. As a consequence, Pearce conceives an “inside narrative,” a story of “commitments and results, aspirations and accomplishments, theory and practice” (10) as exemplified in the poems that have mattered—those “great inventors” who have made “a considerable difference in the way poets have made their poems and readers have had to read them” (420). As a class, we will test these assumptions and extend Pearce’s insights into the way a tradition of literary and cultural production continues.

To this end we will trace the history of American poetry from the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. One of my contributions will be to identify the poems and poets and ideas that shaped the tradition and that make possible imaginative and formal innovations in the art of making poems. We will explore formal developments in modern American poetry, in exemplary and representative poems, as well as pursue the critical and theoretical questions these developments raise—with a special focus on writing by working poets as they attempt to define, delineate and develop a poetics. Exploring the complex terrain of modern and contemporary poetry will make available to you the excitement and attendant controversies that circulate among readers and writers of poetry, and grapple with broader questions about language, culture and imagination.

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