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Teaching Poetry in China: part 2

November 27, 2011

In my previous post, I considered framing a syllabus for poetry teaching in China by introducing students to (among other things) one or more American songs, specifically using a popular example like the great English hymn “Amazing Grace,” which has such a powerful resonance in American culture.  It seems to me that this would have several advantages for courses in which the objective of explaining English (and American) poetry is knit together with the broader objective of understanding major aspects of American history.   A discussion of basic prosody could thus intersect with a discussion of how the arts sometimes have a tectonic leverage in politics.

I’ve frequently taught surveys of American literature in which we used the standard American studies historical model: beginning with colonial American poets like Ann Bradstreet and Edward Taylor (the two most significant poets in Puritan New England), continuing through eighteenth-century poets like Joel Barlow and the African American writer Phillis Wheatley, and then spending a good deal of time on the more familiar poets of nineteenth-century literary culture: Emerson, Melville, Longfellow, Whittier, but above all Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.  Without question, it would be possible to build a serious graduate-level course around works by only the last two writers, who though not especially well known during their lifetimes have become the towering poets of their age.  And then of course the twentieth century is loaded with important American poets too numerous to mention, even as poetry has become a far less prestigious and far less visible American genre after the nineteenth century.   Unless, that is, we consider the poetry of American popular music since the Civil War.

Why not develop a graduate syllabus for Chinese students that includes not only the worthy chestnuts of canonical and frequently anthologized American writers but also examples from some of those poets whose work has been filtered through American consciousness in the form of popular song?  There are almost too many possibilities once we grant that the poetic sensibility exists (and has always existed) most vigorously outside the academy.  If you don’t think so, just ask Woody Guthrie, Mahalia Jackson, or Bob Dylan.  Or, for that matter, Kanye West, Eminem, Lil Wayne, or Nicki Minaj.  But then you might get some surprising and uncomfortable answers about the fate of poetry and its readers (and listeners) in the good old USA.  Next week in this space, I’ll be posting next semester’s draft syllabus for teaching English/American poetry at Nanjing Normal University.

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