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Poetry and the American Canon

December 31, 2011

Still working on how to frame an appropriate set of course plans for my Nanjing graduate students.   The invitation to teach a course in “English Poetry” at Nanjing Normal University takes me a bit outside of my usual teaching, and in a few different ways.  For one thing, as an American Literature specialist — albeit one whose graduate studies led him into a variety of periods in British poetry because of course requirements— it is unusual for me to teach a course these days in which poetry is the sole object of study.  Not the writing of poetry, per se, but the historical study of poetry as a genre unto itself.

This opportunity is, I believe, a timely one for scholars like myself.  In thinking about the way 19th century American studies has been proceeding the past few decades, it’s pretty obvious to me that poetry gets short shrift among the leading scholars of our day.  This is all the more true if we set aside the towering figures of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, who dominate the American canon of this period far beyond their influence in their own day.  What of poetry by J. R. Lowell, Longfellow, Whittier, Frances E.W. Harper, Lydia Sigourney, and other important poets of the American 19th century?  Or even Melville, who wrote a substantial amount of poetry in reflection on the Civil war and who we now know spent decades of his later career writing serious poetry after his career in fiction failed.  We clearly have a long way to go as scholars and teachers of the period if we are not taking account of the very important and visible role that 19thC American poetry, admittedly much of it conventional to those of us who live and read under the sway of modernist poetics, had during the period of its publication.  Are we driven first and foremost by aesthetic preferences of our own day while slighting the literary culture as it was lived for the subjects of our study?  Perhaps my answer to this question can be easily guessed.

Also on the agenda is a consideration of which poets from the American 20th century ought to be included in such a course.  A trusted colleague advised me with some confidence the other day that the high modernist Wallace Stevens was clearly the most important poet of the 20th century American tradition.  I countered Stevens’s mandarin obscurity by nominating “Robert Frost” as a potential nominee for the 20thC heavyweight champion in poetry.  I did this only to roil the waters of debate, and perhaps to establish my traditionalist credentials, but also to express a conviction that part of the job of teaching American literature in a non-American setting is to demonstrate the relationship of poetry to place (nation, region, locale).  This is why Whitman  is so important in my view and why Longfellow and Whittier are poets deserving of additional attention for the American 19th century. Similarly, English poets like the venerable Wordsworth and, much more recently, the endlessly inventive Paul Muldoon deserve consideration in a poetics course that has ambitions of addressing not just traditions of verse but also the imagined national communities that we inhabit these days.

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