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Futures of American Poetry

ENGL 598.301

This course will be a broad-based introduction to American poetry, from the beginnings of English settlement to the early 20th century. Our approach will be historical, and it will be oriented towards English-speaking North America. But we’ll eschew national determinism. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the uncertain and dynamic futures that American poetry anticipates and helps bring into being. Looking ahead, 17th-century poets of the Colony of Virginia, for example, could not, and would not, have anticipated anything remotely like the United States of America. Nor could their contemporaries in New Haven Colony have anticipated any future nation in which the political influence of a wildly heterogeneous evangelical activism would help lead it into the bloodiest civil war of the modern era. What did they anticipate instead? This is the fundamental question we’ll be asking of every phase and form of American poetry, from Puritan fantasias on the Last Judgment to Enlightenment odes to progress; from musings on providential design to sentimental assurances of a personal afterlife; from Gothic and Romantic visions of Indian Removal to elegiac expressions of the infanticidal unconscious; from incitements to bloody rebellion to calls for peaceful resignation; from brashly confident forecasts of canonicity to the more quietly ambivalent poetics of pseudonymity and anonymity. In other words, we’ll be reading forward rather than backward, paying special attention to how all sorts of futures—scenarios of desire, audience, vision, prophecy, exhortation, novelty, anxiety, mortality, transmission, and transcendence—get figured in and for American poetry by a wide range of authors, including Anne Bradstreet, Michael Wigglesworth, Edward Taylor, Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, Philip Freneau, Joel Barlow, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Edgar Allan Poe, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, George Moses Horton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Julia Ward Howe, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson, Emma Lazarus, E. A. Robinson, Stephen Crane, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.


The course will combine an introductory survey of a major literary field with opportunities for original scholarship. Having recently been wrestled out of the clutches of a largely non-reflexive antiquarianism, the field of early American poetry presents exciting new opportunities for dynamic, innovative, idea-driven research and criticism. Advanced students of poetry and/or American literature may want to devise more elaborate research projects. But there will be no expectation of prior experience with early American literature. And we’ll take a no-student-left-behind attitude to the study of prosody and versification, beginning the semester with a brief, intensive (re)introduction to poetic history and form. Versophiles and versophobes alike who want to get a head-start could read Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form in advance of the first class meeting (it will be required reading for the second class meeting).


Undergraduates need to fill out a permit form and receive the approval of the Graduate Chair, their advisor, and the professor for all 500-level courses.


fulfills requirements