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Teaching Poetry in China: part 3

February 1, 2012

Finding the right balance for teaching English poetry in China has been tricky, as I’ve tried to develop a syllabus that expresses something of the long tradition and also some flavor of what poetry means these days.  In a previous post, I wondered seriously about including some discussion and/or reading of contemporary non-academic poets along the lines of Woody Guthrie or Nicki Minaj.  And I plan to do exactly that, along the way, as I get to know my graduate students at Nanjing Normal University, beginning in later February.  At the same time, my traditionalism pulls me into an embrace with some more familiar names from the Anglo-American tradition in poetry.

Here’s the line-up I’ve got in mind for the 19 week semester:

Shakespeare (mainly sonnets, 2 or 3 weeks), because one almost has to agree with Harold Bloom that Shakespeare had a lot to do with inventing humanism as we know it; Renaissance poetry from John Donne and John Milton; early American from the New England poet Ann Bradstreet, as a way to discuss both her heritage of Renaissance verse and her relationship to Puritan tradition in the colonies; lyric poems from Robert Burns and neoclassical examples from either Samuel Johnson (“The Vanity of Human Wishes”) or Alexander Pope (“The Rape of the Lock”); a few John Keats odes, probably “To Autumn” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; Americana from Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe (“The Raven”) and especially Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself”), which will take at least a few weeks; modernism in various forms, including African American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sterling A. Brown, and Langston Hughes, as well as Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, and Robert Frost; and then wrapping things up with some work by my contemporary favorites, Paul Muldoon and Jorie Graham.  All selections will be from the Norton Anthology of English Poetry, 4th Shorter Edition, a textbook that will be available to my Nanjing students.   Don’t see all or any of your favorites on my list?  Believe me, it was not easy or satisfying to create a reading list from which so many important poets had to be excluded, but this will have to do for Spring 2012.

We’ll also work on writing technique, both in prose and poetry.  Students will have opportunities to create poetry in English and develop ways of writing analytical papers that address issues of both form and cultural background.  I anticipate that in general we’ll read less rather than more.  It’s likely that my preference, familiar to many of us raised on 20th century modernism, for challenging works (Donne can be rewarding but interpretively and linguistically difficult, as can Milton and Jorie Graham!) will be hard work for some of my students.  The mid-20th-century New Criticism, with its strong proclivity to work in formalist terms, while avoiding cultural and biographical issues, might actually be of great use to me this semester, even though my own research tends to push away from formalism in favor of cultural studies.  Their work was above all about just getting to a clear and nuanced understanding of difficult poetry.  The job at hand for me will have much to do with exactly the problem that New Criticism confronted, but with an ESL twist: the method and mechanics of helping Chinese students come to grips with vital works of English poetry.  A task difficult enough for any native speaker, but orders of magnitude tougher for those working in a second language.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Argiro permalink
    February 2, 2012 7:23 am

    Jim, in my experience here in Taiwan, you really do need to supply a good deal of cultural context and historical background for literary works, since Asian students tend not to have very much concrete Western history or social knowledge with which to ground the cultural significance of any particular Western work. New Critical methods can certainly open up issues regarding the relationships between structure and theme, and language and voice, but given that so much poetry is aimed at the social sphere(I teach mainly US and Continental European works)I think that it may be really difficult for them to move very far into interpretation without some historical, biographical and even, dare we say, political interface being provided for the works. Let me know how you find things in this regard. Best, Tom

  2. Mark Twombly permalink
    February 27, 2012 2:51 am

    Very much enjoying my armchair exposure to China, and the thoughts of an American professor about to emabark on an exciting, strange, and, I’m sure, life-changing experience. I expect that with China’s much longer history and tradition of poetry, your students will quickly find some common ground and insight in the American poets–and rappers–you bring to them.
    Looking forward to future dispatches.

    • Jim Ryan permalink*
      February 27, 2012 8:09 am

      Hi Mark —
      Great to hear from you. We’ll see how it goes with the poetry. It’s going to take a few more classes before I can figure out where they are in terms of language skill. So far, spoken language is sort of rough, but I think they read English at a fairly sophisticated level (these are Masters level grad students). The students are already chuckling about the fact of my Alabama residency. Apparently, Southern reputations are well known here!

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