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American Poetry

ENGL 088.401
instructor(s):
TR 10:30-12

In 1823, a full 200 years after the first settlements of English speakers in New England, William Ellery Channing sent forth a call for an literature to express "the nation's mind in writing." Two decades later, Ralph Waldo Emerson re-issued his call for a national poet, as certain as Channing had been that a great nation needed a great poetry, and certain, too, that that poetry had not yet begun to emerge. What had been written before, Emerson seemed to imply, was devotional verse or doggerel, jingles or imitations, but no true poetry. It was only when he received a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in 1855 that Emerson was ready to pronounce the project of American poetry at last begun. "I rubbed my eyes a little," Emerson replied to the unknown poet, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion." Doubtless, Emerson was right to recognize Whitman's genius, and to recognize too that America's Declaration of Independence, a political document, was incomplete until the American imagination found what Dickinson would call its full "possibility." Less sapient, perhaps, was Emerson's judgement about all the poetry to have come before and his characterization of the determining or salient qualities of the emerging American poetry. Poe's nerve- strung, hallucinatory poetic experiments, produced in the same years in which Emerson mourned America's cultural poverty, borrowed the sulphurousness of the Puritan poets even as they looked forward to the surrealist and modern experiments of a century hence. In her meditations on the psychology, sociology and theology of size, as well as in her unusual methods of composition and "publication," Emily Dickinson renewed the New England theology, making her poems vessels of intense "experience" while at the same time debunking the New England Way: in poem after poem, for instance, Dickinson represents herself as a starving or incarcerated church mouse or rat, a woman and a poet subsisting on what imagination can scrounge for itself from the cupboard. But Anne Bradstreet, America's first published poet, had, in certain ways, preceded Dickinson here. And Robert Frost, turning Dickinson's elliptical lyrics of the female mind encaged into haunting lyrical stories, would follow in her stead. These are poetic trajectories stranger, more interesting and more revealing of America culture in its strangeness than than Emerson or Channing had imagined.

This survey of American poetry will treat poets writing between the 17th and the 20th centuries, also exploring the culture of 17th, 18th and 19th century America along the way. Students are urged to use this course as a foundation for their subsequent studies of 20th century poetry and culture. Majors and US Literature and Culture concentrators will find it possible to complete pre-1800 requirements in this course.