1. Introduction

1. Introduction


Professor Langdon
Hammer: Now, this is not only a course for
English majors, but for other majors too.
The poets we’ll be
reading–well, they knew about science,
music, politics, economics,
and they presumed to talk about those things,
in their poetry and out of their poetry too.
My lectures are going to
presume no special knowledge on your part.
I see this as a course that’s an introduction to the
literature of a period, to modern poetry.
We’ll be studying several poets
in some detail. The presumption is that they
all reward and demand a certain amount of close reading.
At the same time,
I do mean to give you some sense of the period in which
they’re writing, some sense of modernism as a
field, as one of the richest fields in English language
writing. Finally, though,
this really is a course in poetry, plain and simple.
I mean to introduce you to
particular poems, to give you ways to possess
them, enjoy them, be puzzled or frustrated by
them too; to learn something from them
and to care about them and to carry them with you as you go
forward after this class. So, that’s a sense of what I
want to accomplish in these lectures.
It will mean reading a lot of poems and writing about them
some. The syllabus you’ll see notes
the general topic of each lecture and the reading that I
want you to have done for that day.
There’s a Midterm. That will be a short answer
test that’s intended to give you a chance to show how diligently
you’ve been reading and coming to class.
The Final will include both a short answer component and then
some essay questions. There are two papers,
a shorter and a slightly longer one.
The first paper is going to ask you to write about one short
poem; the second will ask you to
write about two or more poems, or poems perhaps by two
authors, or perhaps a poem and some other kind of text or
image. The teaching fellows in this
course, I’m lucky to work with and you are too.
They are trained and have an interest in modern poetry,
and this is a happy collaboration for me with them.
As I say, we’ll start to get
our discussion sections organized on Monday and they
should be set, I hope, by the Wednesday
lecture next week. I want you to come to lecture
on time. I did today, I started on time.
I don’t always do that but I’d
like to, and I can if you come at 11:30.
Bring your books; I’m going to be talking about
the texts and I hope you’ll have them open.
And of course you will come to your discussion sections in the
same state of joyful preparedness.
As I say, the syllabuses should be accessible on the Classsv2
server; however, I’ve had problems with
that in the past and you should please let me know if it’s not.
There are just two books for
the course; they’re both at Labyrinth.
One is the first volume of
The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry,
Third Edition. It’s edited by Jahan Ramazani,
formerly a Teaching Fellow in this course.
There’s also Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems.
There will be a packet that you
can order from RIS that gathers a few supplementary readings.
There will be the visual images
that I’m going to talk about in lecture, and that I will make
accessible to you on the class’s server.
There are also audio recordings of the poets that we will be
reading that come from Sterling and you can get to on the Center
for Language Study website. All those things we can talk
about more as the semester develops, and I hope you will
talk to me. You can do that on email,
you can do that in my office, which is downstairs on the
first floor of this building, in LC-109.
You can catch me after lecture or before.
We can have lunch–all sorts of opportunities for talking,
and I hope you’ll take advantage of it.
For Monday, we’re going to start talking about Robert
Frost, and I’d like you to pay special attention to his poem
“Mowing,” in the RIS packet,
and to his poem “Birches” in The Norton.
And as you read,
pay special attention to images of tools, work,
play. Read Frost’s short poetic
statement, prose poetic statement in The Norton
called “The Figure a Poem Makes.”
So, The Norton Anthology,
this book, this heavy book, I order it as a way to,
well, reduce your expenses. Here’s just one big book to buy.
It also provides needed
annotation. Modern poetry is in need of
annotation. This new edition of this old
book is an excellent one. You should read Jahan
Ramazani’s introduction, read his prose notes that
preface his various selections. Having said that,
there’s really nothing so dead as The Norton Anthology,
or ponderous, and I do order it with a
little–well, some misgivings for that.
The poems come to you
abstracted from the contexts in which they were originally
produced and read, from their place in a body of
work, in a book, in a magazine,
in a life that produced it. In order to counteract the
packaged and monumental form of The Norton,
I will be using Beinecke’s and Sterling’s resources,
using Power Point digitized files.
This will allow me to project images in class and for you to
look at them later at home. There’ll be files for not all
but most of the poets that we discuss, and the aim is to give
you some sense through those images of modern poetry in its
historical, material dimensions,
to represent it as something that was lived,
and in many ways is living now. Now, the poems that you’ll be
reading, we’ll be talking about, did not, of course,
always exist in the form that you find them.
Their first form was very often a manuscript.
If you go to Beinecke, you can find – and we will go
to Beinecke, those of you who want to come with me – and
look at manuscripts that were early versions of texts that you
now find in The Norton and other books.
When poems that had gone through their processes of
revision and so forth and came to publication,
they very often were published first, not in book form
certainly, but rather in Little Magazines that are now more or
less lost to us today but were in fact the essential vehicle
for the creation of modern poetry.
What is a Little Magazine? Well, very often they were big
– big in format and size. They were little because their
circulation was small. These were the
funded-on-a-shoestring magazines that rose up and very frequently
faded away just as quickly in the 1910s and 1920s,
and that were in many cases the first avenue of publication for
Stevens, Eliot, Moore, the poets that you will
be reading in this class. These magazines were acutely
aware of their differences from the popular literary magazines
of the nineteenth century, general interest popular
magazines of the twentieth century, magazines with wide
circulation, polite audiences.
The Little Magazine was written
by, addressed to, new young writers and artists,
and they were determined to make trouble.
Nothing, I think, captures the nerve of these
magazines like the cover of Blast,
which meant “kaboom,” a magazine as a kind of bomb,
or maybe a curse-damn you, blast.
Pound was one of the contributors.
Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night appeared here in this
number of the magazine from July, 1915 in the midst of the
First World War;
Rogue – another,
also from 1915. Notice the price – five cents.
Stevens appeared here,
in this magazine. You could contrast the roguish
and fanciful, clearly done by hand,
title of the magazine, with that machine-type
Blast. Both of these are mischievous,
oppositional magazines but with very different styles and
attitudes.
Here’s another, Broom.
This is a magazine just
slightly later. This is an issue of 1922.
It’s a cover by Ferdinand
Léger; Hart Crane would appear here.
Broom meant to make a
clean sweep of things, a clean sweep of what had come
before. It also clearly meant to have
fun doing it. Oops, I have gone too far.
This is the back of the
magazine. I don’t know how well you can
make it out but there’s a little broom guy there with glasses,
playing air guitar with his broom, and I guess this is meant
to capture the spirit of the contributors.
Contrast that with the magazine that flashed there a moment ago,
The Criterion. This is a long way from
Broom. This is October 1922,
comes out just before Broom is created.
Here you’ve got a magazine that
doesn’t present itself as attacking anything at all,
but rather as what? As setting the standard,
The Criterion. It looks official, doesn’t it?
The editor is T.S. Eliot.
This is the first number of the
magazine. The magazine,
in many ways, announced and facilitated
Eliot’s rise to a kind of cultural authority as a taste
maker, and with it certain ideas of
modernism. This issue here,
October 1922, includes The Waste Land
by T.S. Eliot.
It also includes a little bit further down the page of review
and essay by Valerie Larbeau on a new novel by James Joyce
called Ulysses. That’s some sense of the
spectrum of magazines that are coming out, and all with
different roles to play in this culture and that position their
writers and poets and artists associated with them in
different ways. Book publication can be just as
interesting and it can tell us just as much about modern poetry
as magazines. This is The Wind Among the
Reeds, author William Butler Yeats, the year 1899,
on the verge of the new century.
It’s a beautiful book. It’s a book that wants to be
beautiful, that’s happy to be beautiful.
It’s rich in color and texture. It’s designed, embossed, gilt.
It’s self-consciously Irish,
Celtic. There’s a sense that you’re
supposed to leave the bookstore with a kind of talisman that you
have bought, with a Celtic charm.
Contrast this book, Prufrock and Other
Observations, the subtitle left off here of
the cover of T.S. Eliot’s great book,
published in 1917. This is a different object,
isn’t it? Severe, unsentimental,
dry, so much so as to be maybe even a little bit funny.
And you laughed,
right, and I think you’re supposed to.
It’s not entirely serious, even as it declares its
seriousness. If Yeats’s book was so
explicitly Irish, look at this book.
It has no observable
nationality at all, does it?
A certain kind of, well, you might say
impersonality. Its rhetoric is so flat and
unemotional, so overtly unrhetorical.
It is, in fact, a very deliberate and
self-conscious repudiation of that late romantic aesthetic
that Yeats’s early book, and even the cover of that
early book, represents. Prufrock isn’t beautiful
and its author is not a bard.
Another book,
another book cover, The Weary Blues, by
Langston Hughes, 1926.
Unlike Prufrock, this one is full of color and
of course it is the work of a poet of color.
The image presents the book not as a work of poetry at all but
rather as a kind of music, as a book of Blues,
and it associates its poet singer with honky-tonk piano
players; not Broom’s bohemian
egghead air guitarist, but another kind of vernacular,
another kind of celebration and another kind of music.
It makes us think about black
artists playing for a living in Prohibition Era back rooms.
Now, poems, like books,
project an image of the poet who produces them.
While the poet is creating her
or his poems, the poet is also creating a
poet, a certain figure of the poet, a public image of the
poet. And this is an evolving
project, a work in progress. That’s part of the work and
part of the subject and part of what I will be talking about
here. Let’s look, for example,
at a series of photos of Ezra Pound.
Together, they tell a kind of encapsulated history of this
central, fascinating, problematic poet’s career.
He begins as an aesthete.
This is 1913,
Pound in London, styling himself,
isn’t he, after those Renaissance artists and poets
whom he would write about, translate in this period.
It could be a miniature worn by
a Provencal damsel, no?
Well, here he is a little later, Pound after the war in
1923, sort of full flower of modernism,
still a young man but he’s got that cane, and he’s in Paris
where he would meet Eliot and work on The Waste Land
with him. Well, fast forward twenty years.
This is Pound,
Pound accused of treason; Pound accused of treason by his
country, accused of treason as he tries to bend the world to
his vision of it, and he escapes trial only by
reason of insanity when he is brought from Italy under charges
of having made broadcasts on fascist radio,
back to the United States, after an ordeal in a cage in
Pisa. And he poses for this photo as
an intake photo as he enters St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the
Insane in Washington. In this final photo from 1971,
back in Italy in Rapallo, well, here’s Pound presenting
us with an image of something that would have seemed
impossible when he began, which is an image of modernism
grown old, old and blasted, in many senses.
Contrast this career, encapsulated in those images,
with this one. Who’s this?
This is the author of Prufrock.
In fact, this is the Harvard student who wrote
Prufrock; Eliot wrote Prufrock
largely when still at Harvard and in the years immediately
following. Sexy? A little, maybe;
those full, slightly parted lips, that windswept hair,
the general J. Crew look.
Notice the handkerchief. Here’s the editor,
great editor of the publisher Faber & Faber,
thirty years later, or more, surrounded by books,
the cultural arbiter of the English speaking world;
T.S. Eliot at sixty. That hair is now slicked down,
there are glasses between him and us.
This is the young man who’s become a monument.
But really, the costume’s the
same one, right? There’s the handkerchief.
Pound’s descent into infamy and
insanity and indignity and Eliot’s rise to the
extraordinary cultural power and prestige that he occupied and
that is represented by this and many other photos,
well, these are key stories in modern poetry and they’re
interestingly interlocking, just as their two lives were.

Another modern poet.
This is an old woman called
Marianne Moore who became a kind of civic icon,
who became a celebrity even, as an eccentric New Yorker who
wore tri-cornered hats and went to baseball games and the zoo,
and here appears in, well, her hair braided and
wrapped around her head; fanciful, virginal,
kindly, safely out of fashion, full of a kind of civic virtue,
the embodiment of a certain kind of popular idea of poetry.
And you can’t read it but
there’s a kind of stamp of approval here from the governor
Nelson Rockefeller. Think of how far away this is
from Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
This is another image of modern
poetry. But Moore’s hair was not always
done up. This is the image of a child,
also named Marianne Moore, with delicious,
prodigious locks. It reveals maybe a little bit
of the power and extravagance and glory that you feel in her
poems but that she preferred always to restrain and bind and
control in extraordinary ways, and not always to hide.
One of the enduring works
written in 1922, the amazing year that The
Waste Land and Ulysses appeared and
The Criterion started its publication–one of those
amazing works is Marianne Moore’s poem called
Poetry. You’ve got a sample of it on
your handout. Moore, who revised her poems,
just the same way she ended up binding her hair,
republished this poem eventually in short form,
very short, where three pages were reduced to two sentences.
The first two sentences you
see: I, too,
dislike it: there are things important
beyond all this fiddle. Reading it, however,
with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all,
a place for the genuine. Some of what she cut out of the
poem, cut out of its later version, is a list of what she
had in mind as the genuine, as examples of it,
which is the first quotation there;
again, on your handout: The bat,
holding on upside down [and so on]
A flea, the base- ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid to discriminate against
“business documents and school-books”;
all of these phenomena are important.
The drive to include the world–Moore’s omnivorous poems
claim for poetry all the subjects that she mentions here
and indeed many, many more.
All these are new, modern subjects.
Because they represent dimensions of experience
formerly excluded from the elevated,
idealized discourse that is poetry, dimensions of experience
excluded as prosaic. Moore is quoting here in that
phrase “business documents and school-books,” as she tells us,
from Tolstoy, a prose writer.
But she goes further than Tolstoy in her commitment to the
seemingly non-poetic. She will not only include
Tolstoy’s prose, she will not even discriminate
against business documents and school books.
Moore exemplifies in this way a key aspect of modern poetry–its
radical heterogeneity, its will to mix many kinds of
materials and discourses, to make poetry reach out from
the rarified and limited domain of the poetic to keep including
more and more of the world. The next quotation on your
handout–this is another example of this.
I won’t sing for you or give you my Italian,
but these famous lines, “London Bridge is falling down,
falling down, falling down” and so on,
these come from the conclusion to The Waste Land.
They thrust together different
texts, different languages, writing from different
historical periods, all there, compressed in that
remarkable mad song that concludes the poem.
In the next quotation,
Eliot tells us that a various and complex civilization,
such as ours, produces, he says,
various and complex results, as if inevitably,
lest we think that there’s anything particularly forced or
outlandish or willful about his own remarkable poetry in lines
such as those I just quoted for you.
Eliot was there, in that essay on the
metaphysical poets that I’m quoting from,
defending as necessary what is the primary characteristic,
not only of his own poetry, but really of modern poetry
generally, what is often called its difficulty.
Whatever else it may be, everyone’s always agreed that
modern poetry is difficult. You will probably too.
By “difficult,” it is meant,
I think, well, first of all that it is in some
sense set apart from common speech,
as a specialized and highly self-conscious use of language.
Eliot would go further and say
that there is no common form of modern speech,
and that’s the problem. According to Eliot,
the modern world lacks a center, a kind of set of
collective beliefs and commitments that would enable
communication between us. Modernity for Eliot,
as for Moore, as for Pound,
is marked by a profusion of languages,
both national languages such as French or Russian,
which turn up in The Waste Land;
also, a bewildering array of specialized types of discourse,
technical genres, varieties of speech,
business documents and school books.
There’s an extraordinary sense of verbal chaos,
a kind of word hoard that modern poetry and
modernism–generally, a kind of linguistic
environment of great complexity from which modern poetry and
modernism emerge. This is an image called
“Rotterdam” by the artist Edward Wadsworth.
It’s a woodcut image from Blast.
I like it because it’s a kind of image of the modern city that
makes the modern city look like language,
look like letters, look like a kind of scattered
alphabet, a kind of babble. It’s a kind of picture for me
of the linguistic environment, if you will,
of modern poetry. Behind this environment are the
great social processes of migration and modernization that
produced that new urban form, the metropolis.
All of the poets we read, even that New England hayseed,
Robert Frost, begin their careers in
metropolitan centers, primarily in London and New
York. “All that is solid melts into
air,” Karl Marx said, evoking the accelerating
transformation of modern economic and social life.
The metropolis is the center of
this unsettled world that Marx describes.
Coming to the metropolis a hundred or ninety years ago now
entailed, for the writers that we’ll be reading,
as much as for anyone else, a kind of break with a world
that they had known, a break either with a native
language – this is what the emigrant or the expatriate
experiences – or perhaps with native ways of speaking and
knowing, familiar spheres of reference.
Life in the modern metropolis
was de-familiarizing. It de-naturalized language.
Where there are many languages
in use, language comes to seem arbitrary rather than natural,
as the product of convention; not as something you’re simply
born into but something that you learn, something that is made
and that can be remade. This is a presumption of all
the poets we’ll be reading. Modern American writers and
artists immigrated famously to London, to Paris.
Another key event in the making
of modernism is the great migration of African-Americans
from the rural south to the urban north.
Langston Hughes’s poetry comes out of this experience in a
community of black intellectuals and artists it created
specifically in Harlem. And you’ll see on your handout
two quotations from poems by Hughes, the first,
“125^(th) Street,” giving us well, here, images of black life
in the rural south transposed to Harlem.
There’s in those images, I think, a kind of utopian
promise that the familiar, ordinary pleasures of rural
life can be recaptured in a new society of plenty.
But there’s also something
hallucinatory and troubling about those images and vaguely
disturbing that’s brought out, I think, in the related,
famous poem, “Harlem,” on the next side of
the page where if we’ve had faces as food in the first text,
something possibly reassuring, those faces begin to look like
dangerous objectifications in the second one where that raisin
in the sun threatens to explode. Metropolis is,
in modern poetry, set against a backdrop of war
and violence and conflict, and modern poetry,
as it absorbs the world of the metropolis, absorbs that
violence and energy as well. The metropolis,
well, it’s a place of ambivalence, a place of promise
and of threat, of exultation and also of
dread. This ambivalence that I’m
describing is at the center of modern literature generally.
And the metropolis is crowded
with language, crowded with faces,
but there’s also a pervasive sense of absence and of
loneliness and of loss captured also again paradigmatically in
The Waste Land, and I’ve included there more
lines from that poem. “The nymphs are departed,”
Eliot says. Eliot’s speaking of a spiritual
and imaginative state. Modern poetry arises,
in Eliot’s case, with the death of God,
with the loss of a theological justification for life,
with a sense of disenchantment, a sense of depletion,
depletion of meaning and value. The metropolis which uproots
people, takes them away, takes them out of traditional
cultures, also uproots traditional religious belief and
practices. Eliot’s poetry,
the poetry he created out of this experience,
is a poetry of spiritual agony. Modernity is,
in his work, a condition of social and
psychological fragmentation which is both a private,
personal dilemma and a public one, as he understands it.
Compare to Eliot’s city,
Eliot’s sense of the city, this one.
This is a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, City of
Ambition. This is the modern city,
not as a scene of fragmentation or despair, but rather a place
of ascent and aspiration. It’s also a scene of crossings,
bridging past and future. This is a photo by another
American photographer, Walker Evans,
a photo of Brooklyn Bridge. You recognize it.
And here is another,
another image by Evans of the bridge.
This one comes from a page of Hart Crane’s epic poem
The Bridge, and a book that you can go find
at the Beinecke, a remarkable edition of Crane’s
poem where Evans’s photos, grand photos,
appear as almost miniature images surrounded by white
space, as you get some sense in this image.
In Crane, in his great poem The Bridge- and here’s
another photo by Evans, this time of Crane on the
rooftop of the apartment building in Brooklyn,
110 Columbia Heights where he lived and where he began the
poem, with the bridge in the
background. In Crane, the emphasis is not
on what is lost in modernity but what is found or what might be.
Here’s another quotation from
your handout, number 7:
New thresholds, new anatomies,
wine talons Build freedom up about me and
distill This competence to travel in a
tier Sparkling alone within
another’s will. Modern poetry is difficult and
these are difficult lines. “New thresholds,
new anatomies”, well, that’s not such a hard
concept; that’s an image of what the
modern promises for Crane, and indeed those Gothic arches
of the bridge seem to emblematize for him.
Yet, Crane’s poetry in those
lines I just read really are difficult, just as Eliot and
Pound are difficult, but not because as in those
poets Crane presents us with obscure references or languages
unknown to us, or learned allusion.
Instead, what’s difficult in
Crane is a kind of compression in his writing.
They show us a poet taking language apart and putting it
back together in new ways, new configurations,
new anatomies. Crane is full of mixed
metaphors; you’re not supposed to mix your
metaphors and he does, all the time.
“Wine talons,” there’s one. “Wine talons,” what are they?
Well, think about it.
Perhaps you too have felt wine
talons grip you unexpectedly sometime and carry you aloft.
The metaphor suggests ecstasy,
the exaltation of modern life, that aspiration imaged in
Stieglitz too. It suggests that ecstasy is
like wine, and wine is like an eagle clasping you;
it’s prey in its claws. And keep in mind when Crane
wrote those lines too, it was illegal to buy and sell
wine in this country. modernity, in Crane’s strange,
gorgeous poetry, is all about getting high,
about elevation, exultation.
Crane was an alcoholic. And if you study this photo,
you can see the qualities of a man struggling with alcoholism.
This friendly and even
dignified face has prematurely white hair.
His cheeks are veined. Being drunk became for Crane a
kind of grim literalization of the freedom that came with being
modern; and that vision of freedom is
something that his poetry preserves for us and carries
forward for us and continues to give us as a gift.
Contrast his images of joyous
or demonic assent with the images of catastrophe,
of descent, of collapse in Eliot, “London Bridge is falling
down.” The decay of Christian belief
and practice is not a loss but rather an opportunity for
poetry, in Crane. He says in The Bridge,
he asks the bridge to lend a myth to God, and he suggests
that this is something that every age must do because our
names for God are always metaphors,
poems, something imagined, acts of speech.
Crane shares these general ideas with Wallace Stevens.
This is Wallace Stevens,
Wallace Stevens who said, “Poetry is a means of
redemption”, and meant it. Stevens began life as a
choirboy and as a Christian, but his work is all about
replacing Christian theology with poetry.
For Stevens, when modernity takes away God
what it does is unveil the poet’s Godlike powers,
a power to create the world through imagination,
imagination which created God in the first place.
In Stevens, modernity shows us
that the truth of religion was always a fiction,
a fundamentally poetic construction.
Stevens’s world is secular and non-transcendental,
and he is fully at home in it, so much so that he lives the
life of a bourgeois businessman, as an executive of the Hartford
Accident and Indemnity Company, a great Connecticut burger and
poet. Stevens celebrates the
bourgeois world over and over again in a poetry that is about
and itself enacts our perpetual recreation of reality through
the mind and its special medium – language.
Stevens understands tragedy, but he is a comic poet,
a humanist who is concerned to preserve and exalt the human.
The relativity of truth,
the profusion of languages, these things that afflict Eliot
are a source of faith for Stevens.
Modern poetry seeks absolutes, what Moore calls the genuine,
what Crane calls the myth of America, the voice of the
thunder in Eliot; Stevens’s supreme fiction;
Pound’s Cantos, a poem that would,
as he intended, include history.
Modern poetry is, in all these ways,
Promethean, astounding, arrogant, enormous,
imprudent, visionary. But it also contains other
positions, alternatives that open those over-sized cultural
ambitions to critique, to imaginative alternatives of
many kinds. And these are suggested,
I’ll suggest briefly, by the last two poets we’ll
read – W.H. Auden, to begin with here,
pictured as an Oxford undergraduate,
ever cheeky, who has written on the side of
his photo, “The cerebral life would pay,” dry,
cool, pragmatic; and Elizabeth Bishop,
young in this glamorous George Platt Lynes photo.
While modern poetry in many of
its forms strives to master reality, Auden reminds us,
there on your handout, cautiously, that poetry makes
nothing happen. While Stevens represents the
poet as a kind of God, Bishop sees the poet rather as
a sandpiper, that little bird skittering
along the shore, not in control of the world but
subject to it, subject to its continual
fluctuation and awesome powers. Bishop’s sandpiper poet,
there in your handout, is obsessed with the mere
details of experience, those sand grains,
quartz grains. Her aim is to get along in a
world that is dominated by shifting forces that can be
registered and reacted to by poetry, but not explained.
This is, I think,
really also a version of poetic activity that has some sources
in and has a lot in common with Robert Frost’s,
as we will see on Monday. Thank you.

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