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Teaching Poetry in China: part I

November 18, 2011

Above: The Olney vicarage, where John Newton writes “Amazing Grace” in 1779.

In recent exchanges with my new colleagues at Nanjing Normal University, I’ve learned that my teaching assignment will be two graduate courses for the Spring 2012 semester, beginning in February.  The twist in this assignment is that I’ve been asked to handle a course that is somewhat unusual for me: a graduate class in “English Poetry” for which I’ve been given a great deal of latitude in presenting to my students.  This assignment, which replaces a planned course in the American novel and accompanies a more familiar (for me) course called “Survey of American Literature,” prompts me to think anew about how poetry fits into the American literary tradition and in relation to the longer tradition in English verse.

While I’ve taught many courses in World Literature in which poetry (typically translated into English) has been a central concern, my own research has not dealt directly with American poetry.  Perhaps as a result, my teaching, especially at the graduate level, has probably not paid enough attention to the ways that poetry has figured in United States literary history.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be working on a new syllabus aimed at introducing Nanjing students to poetry in English, which will likely take me back to the study of prosody and a review of all those wonderful metrical complexities that so many American poets began to leave behind after Walt Whitman’s 1855 revolution in free verse, a revolution from which American poetry has not recovered. A trusted colleague who has taught university English in China for many years advises that one fruitful way to begin with English poetry might be to use children’s poetry and nursery rhymes as a way to start things off.  My own first impulse was to begin with popular songs, or even hymns, which of course were so important to evangelical Christianity in early America and England.  Come to think of it, one could do worse than to introduce my students to English poetry by letting them hear a version of “Amazing Grace” (1779), with its rich relationship to abolitionist politics and the Civil Rights movement in America.

Just watch Mahalia Jackson break it down for us.


Mahalia Jackson, “Amazing Grace”

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