Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Topics in American Poetry

ENGL 388.301
instructor(s):
T 1:30-4:30

Through the middle of the 19th century, New England's domination of American letters was as secure as its domination of the watchmaking, textile and shipping industries. Thus, when in 1830 Edgar Allan Poe brought out his first work of verse, he calculated that an effective way to advance his literary reputation might be simply to lie about his native ground: although raised in Virginia and living as a sometime resident of many American cities, Poe called "Tamerlane" the work of a "Bostoner." But by the end of the Civil War, Boston was no longer the unchallenged center of American poetic output or literary publishing. New York claimed this honor, and poets from around the country now equated the process of becoming a poet with becoming a New Yorker. If Poe had established his poetic credentials by claiming Boston as his birthplace, Ohio poet Hart Crane would, following Whitman, suggest that the simple act of commuting between Brooklyn and New York (by ferry in Whitman's case; by subway in Crane's) could provide a means of poetic communion, and not only with the city but with all America itself. Crane's assertion, moreover, of New York moods and New York mores as archetypally American had the effect of redescribing, and thus enriching, both American and poetic norms. A homosexual; a lover of skyscrapers, jazz, modern dance, Charlie Chaplin movies, and a poet deeply invested in the course of American poetry, Crane's career is that of a poet in culture and a poet making culture. From Dickinson to Bishop, from Frost to Stevens to Lowell, the New England poets whom we will study make bread and mend fences, mark maps and and make love, but their more solitary acts of creation often take for granted a larger Divine (or chaotic) Creation emptying all the culture we make, in Elizabeth Bishop's words, into "blue black space." In this seminar we will survey the century of American poetry between 1865-1965, paying particular attention to the divergent and evolving poetics of two regions, New England and New York. Beginning with the paradigmatic work of Whitman (poet of Brooklyn) and Dickinson (poet of Amherst Massachusetts), we will move from week to week between poets of New England and poets of New York, our endeavor to know both individual poets and to begin to define the regional poetics in which they share. Poets to be covered will include New Englanders Emily Dickinson, Edward Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell; New York poets include Walt Whitman, Emma Lazarus, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks and John Ashbery. Students will be required to produce frequent written explications of text, to give one in class report and to present a final seminar paper to the group. The last 2 weeks of the seminar will be devoted to discussion of these student papers.