Any syllabus that surveys American poetry must be skewed. Selections have to be made; time is finite. It may sound ruthless, but John Ashbery might not make the cut.
In the class that I’m grading, English 131, much of the cutting out was temporal. Cramming all American poetry before Whitman into one hurried lecture on the first day, Bob (the professor) chose to expand his focus on the American modernists and snip away earlier and later writers. (To his credit, he didn’t rush Dickinson or Whitman – not at all – but they were, on the other hand, the only two nineteenth century poets the class read.) On the other end, the class never even made it to Bishop and Rexroth, much less Hejinian. These kinds of choices are forced on both the students and on the professor.
But within the constraints, the students do have a certain amount of choice in what they pursue. While there’s nothing official or direct about this, I do think it’s interesting to note what students chose to write on for their final papers. Writing a paper on Marianne Moore isn’t the same as casting a vote for her for “coolest modernist,” but it does mean the student got enough out of reading her work that cranking out twelve double-spaced pages about it seemed like a plausible feat.
I find a certain peace in crunching numbers, and so in lieu of starting the thick stack of grading, I went ahead and sorted them by poet (that’s how I grade), and then tallied how many papers were on which poets. The results looked like a significant revision of the American poetic canon.
In the lead was Emily Dickinson, with 9 out of the 40 papers, or 22.5% of the papers (not counting a special case). I was pleased by this, because I always learn things from papers about Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Even if the paper is dreadful, simply reading the quotations from the poems are illuminating. I rather enjoy grading papers on Dickinson.
Moreover, the triumph of Dickinson seems to be a triumph of all kinds of good things – the reclusive woman over an aggressively political and historically prominent man; the nineteenth century writer over the hip modernists; and the questioning Congregationalist over the atheistic iconoclasts (obviously I don't mean Eliot here). Emily Dickinson transgresses a lot of coolness norms, by present-day standards, and yet the students caught onto her, were fascinated by her. I can only believe this to be evidence that Supreme Awesomeness can’t be kept down.
In second place was William Carlos Williams. Seven students, or 17.5% of my
group, chose to write on him, not including a paper that was written on both Stevens and Williams. So out of the modernists, Williams appealed to the most students. Not the Pound Era or the Age of Stevens,** then, but an era in which Williams is at least as important as any other American modernist. There really was something oddly pleasurable for me in seeing the Holy Modernist Trinity (Pound, Stevens, Eliot) dethroned, even though I like all three. A lot of the students who came to me in office hours wanted to talk about Williams; somehow, he captured their imaginations. I partially attribute this to the interesting and somewhat heated discussion on “The Young Housewife” that took place in class.
In third place was Wallace Stevens, with six papers (15%). I do love Stevens, although I think his poetry is quite resistant to analysis. I’m looking forward to reading these papers. Williams didn’t really edge Stevens out by much, but both soundly whomped Eliot, who had only three papers (7.5%). Tied with Eliot were Marianne Moore and Walt Whitman – rather strange bedfellows! I found it interesting that Dickinson’s sensibility overwhelmingly appealed to these students over Whitman, and that Moore’s usual relative obscurity was joined by Eliot’s.
I was proud to see H.D. represented by two papers, or 5% (how often is she left off syllabi entirely?). Her quantitative companion among my students was, oddly enough, Robert Frost. Refreshingly, once again, a male giant of the modern period was no better represented than a historically overshadowed woman contemporary. I do think there’s hope for feminism. I do.
Now we’re on to the singletons – the poets who only got one paper each (2.5%). Gertrude Stein was one. I suppose I’m a bit sorry, but students really are at sea with her. I think most of the people who were brave enough to try Stein already did it for their second short paper.
Zukofsky and Rexroth, both of whom the class hasn’t, at this point, reached, each got one paper. Weirdly, the Zukofsky paper came from a consistently underachieving student. It has enormous margins and a huge sans serif font. In one way I’m dreading reading it; in another way I’m looking forward to it. Is that perverse?
As mentioned above, there was a Stevens/Williams paper, which makes sense. Stevens and Williams were friendly rivals, after all, and each put out an important book in 1923 (Harmonium and Spring and All, respectively).
One interesting thing to look at is who got zeros – who got left out. For instance, every single writer of color got left out. That, to me, is troubling, although it may be the fault of the syllabus, which more or less lumped the poets of color together in one late week.
The borderline modernists, Jeffers, cummings, and Crane, all were left out. For that matter, Frost, that other borderline modernist, only had two papers written about his work.
But the most striking absence of all is Pound’s – Pound of the much-touted Era. The only paper on Pound was a two-poet paper. And the other poet the paper dealt with was… Emily Dickinson. There’s something really delicious in that.
So the American modernist canon has been shaken up; women have been successfully been canonized, or at least put on equal footing with prominent men; people of color remain squashed and silenced as usual, and nobody cares about the Objectivists. The young people are going to revolutionize the canon one step at a time, and change criticism forever. Right?
Well, it’s an interesting idea, but looking at a histogram of these data (below), another possibility emerges. The selections reflected in these papers may be entirely determined by the notoriously unstable undergraduate attention span.
3 Walt Whitman...................|xxx
9 Emily Dickinson................|xxxxxxxxx
2 Robert Frost...................|xx
1 Gertrude Stein.................|x
0 Ezra Pound.....................|
3 T.S. Eliot.....................|xxx
3 Marianne Moore.................|xxx
6 Wallace Stevens................|xxxxxx
7 William Carlos Williams........|xxxxxxx
0 Robinson Jeffers...............|
0 e.e. cummings..................|
0 Hart Crane.....................|
0 W.E.B. Du Bois.................|
0 W.C. Handy.....................|
0 Fenton Johnson.................|
0 Claude McKay...................|
0 Jean Toomer....................|
0 Charles Reznikov...............|
0 Lorine Niedecker...............|
1 Louis Zukofsky.................|x
1 Kenneth Rexroth................|x
Notice that Emily Dickinson was the second poet seriously studied in the class. Voila, nine papers! The students studied Whitman immediately, while many of them were still juggling schedules, shopping around, and trying to figure out whether I was a hard grader. The period spent on Whitman coincided with the trial period at the beginning of each semester, so they began engaging with the class with Dickinson. Interest seems to drop off rapidly, however, as beginning-of-the-semester idealism begins to wane and it becomes clear to students that Bob’s a total sweetheart. They begin, perhaps, to think this will be an easy class.
It takes a few days of Stein and Pound for students to begin to think, “oh shit! I don’t understand any of this! Hey, is this on the final?” They pick up the pace and build momentum through Eliot, Moore, and Stevens, culminating in a big push at Williams (which still fails to surpass the glorious idealism that sounds in every student’s heart when a new semester begins). Interest drops off again once the Williams peak has been hit, and except for the odd outlier, these students tune out the poetry so they can devote their time to panicking about the upcoming paper.
So perhaps the students aren’t revolutionizing the canon. With an informal tally like this, there’s no way to tell. And as for changing criticism … well, determining that would require me to actually grade the papers.
**The Pound/Stevens infighting and bitching is well discussed in Marjorie Perloff's brilliant and classic article, "Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?." Hugh Kenner's famous book The Pound Era dismisses Stevens as a jingler a la Edward Lear, while Harold Bloom likes to ignore Pound.