This class will cover ten major figures in contemporary American poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton. These poets belong to that generation—or generations—of poets who came after the Modernists and inherited the mantle of William Carlos Williams' dictum 'No ideas but in things.' We will read work by and about them to broaden our awareness of what contemporary American poetry means, tracing both the continuing influence of Modernism and important distinctions from that movement. While all of these figures wrote during roughly the same period and in some cases formed intimate relationships with each other, they span a wide spectrum of poetic voices and concerns. We’ll study John Berryman's fragmented Dream Songs against Gwendolyn Brooks’ formally perfect sonnets; explore James Merrill’s elegant indecision next to Sylvia Plath’s aural brutality; follow Elizabeth Bishop’s shy precision with Adrienne Rich’s political vigilance, and generally familiarize ourselves with the many foundations of contemporary American poetry.
Assignments will include an oral presentation, several brief response papers on particular poems, and a final paper comparing the work of several poets or concentrating on an aspect of a poet’s trajectory.