ENGL408: Modern Poetry and Poetics

Course Syllabus for "ENGL408: Modern Poetry and Poetics"

Please note: this legacy course does not offer a certificate and may contain broken links and outdated information. Although archived, it is open for learning without registration or enrollment. Please consider contributing updates to this course on GitHub (you can also adopt, adapt, and distribute this course under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license). To find fully-supported, current courses, visit our Learn site.

The decades between roughly 1890 and 1960 witnessed unprecedented efforts to create new art, new values, and a new culture in Europe and the United States to distance itself from the more socially acceptable works of late Victorian poets and artists. During this time, Western writers, artists, and intellectuals questioned the accepted aesthetic norms and produced radically experimental works of art and new understandings of what it means to live in modern times. The first half of the 20th century also witnessed the most devastating conflicts in Western history – the two World Wars and the Holocaust – and these events accelerated and profoundly influenced cultural changes. Modernist poetry – one of the most interesting cultural developments – emerged during this time. While it is true that modernist poetic developments sprang up in unlikely and seemingly spontaneous ways, we will attempt to progress through this course in a roughly chronological manner. This is because, in many ways, even modern poetry retains a social form that can reflect the cultural and political situations in which it is written. The course starts with a theoretical consideration of modernity and modernism, as well as a brief introduction to poetics and some references to pre-modern Victorian poetic practices. This course then explores transitional, fin-de-siècle poetic innovations of the French symbolists and World War I poets. The course addresses early modernist movements like Imagism, Vorticism, and Futurism as well as the writings of High Modernism. A unit on African-American modernism, often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, explores another crucial dimension. Finally, you will analyze how World War II and the Holocaust affected poetry. By the end of the course, you will have studied the work of major American and British modernist poets, and you will have critically explored the characteristic techniques, concerns, and tropes of modern poetry.   The Course’s Grand Design Two Bridges to Modernity Think of this course in terms of two bridges. The shorter bridge is the main subject of this course, or modern poetry in a certain time period, being from the relative orderliness of the late 19th century (i.e., Victorian era) to the chaotic end of World War II and the potentialities for world-wide nuclear annihilation during the early 1960’s. The Longer Bridge The longer cultural bridge is the overarching philosophical paradigm shift to modernity, ** marked in literary terms on one end by John Milton’s 1674 Paradise Lost [Note: The best website for all of Milton’s poetry is The John Milton Reading Roomat Dartmouth.] and on the other end by William Carlos Williams’ 1923 “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The really big question in this course is how did Western culture come from Milton’s confident “justifying the ways of God to men” in his epic poem: Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed, In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos: . . . to barely being able to hang on to the existence of reality itself with William Carlos Williams’ poem? so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens “So much depends” on what, Mr. Williams? Milton explained in gargantuan detail what depended on Adam’s tasting of the forbidden fruit, while William Carlos Williams leaves us with a 16 word enigma about a wheelbarrow and chickens. The Shorter Bridge The shorter bridge that this course on the modern represents is the one that connects the Victorian ** period to the start of our contemporary **** artistic endeavors. The one that begins near Tennyson’s “Into the valley of death rode the 6,000” and ends with the advent of the Beat poets with Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” Ginsberg's “Howl” in so many ways registers the culmination of the wars and the beginning of self-absorbed, contemporary poetry, which would be the subject for a subsequent course. The main goal of this course is to show you the functioning of that shorter bridge. Hart Crane visualized it both concretely and metaphorically. For him, it was the “Brooklyn Bridge” itself. For me, it is the term modern. On her death bed, Gertrude Stein’s last words expressed modern art’s **** continuing efforts to express the inexpressible in our center-less universe. “What is the answer?” she asked, and when no answer came she laughed and said: “Then, what is the question?” We will hear a number of 20th century poets try to explore these questions throughout this course.

Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, you should be able to:

  • define the term modernism with regard to Anglo-American poetry, and describe how it is distinct from the descriptor late-Victorian;
  • closely read (i.e., explicate) the poetics of representative examples of modern poetry;
  • discuss the transitional aspects between late-Victorian and modernism;
  • analyze a wide variety of modernist poems by comparing and contrasting them in terms of form, content, and rhetorical purpose;
  • chronologically organize the most important British and American modernist poets into definable categories or movements;
  • distinguish low modernism from the high modernism of Pound and Eliot;
  • identify and analyze political and activist aspects of modernist poetry with specific reference to the Harlem Renaissance; and
  • analyze the socio-political context of the modernist movements in America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century with special emphasis on the relationship between poetry, the two World Wars, and the Holocaust.

Course Requirements

In order to take this course, you must:

√    have access to a computer;

√    have continuous broadband Internet access;

√    have the ability/permission to install plug-ins or software (e.g., Adobe Reader or Flash);

√    have the ability to download and save files and documents to a computer;

√    have the ability to open Microsoft and Adobe PDF files and documents (.doc, .ppt, .xls, .pdf, etc.);

√    have competency in the English language;

√    have read the Saylor Student Handbook; and

√    It is recommended that you have already completed the following courses from the Core Program of the English discipline: ENGL101, ENGL201, ENGL202, ENGL203, ENGL204, and ENGL301.

Course Information

Welcome to ENGL408: Modern Poetry and Poetics! General information about this course and its requirements can be found below.

Primary Resources: This course comprises a range of different free, online materials. However, it makes primary use of the following materials:

Requirements for Completion:In order to complete this course, you will need to work through each unit and all of its assigned materials. You will also need to complete:

  • The Final Exam

Note that you will only receive an official grade on your final exam. However, in order to adequately prepare for this exam, you will need to study all of the resources and analyze the poems in this course.

In order to pass this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the final exam. Your score on the exam will be tabulated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam, you may take it again as many times as you wish.

Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of 144.75 hours to complete. You will have unlimited access to the course and can approach the course in any way that you deem appropriate for your learning style and other time commitments. The course is projected over a traditional 15 week semester, so you may choose to do it in this time frame, or you may take less time or more time. Each unit includes a time advisory that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit. These should help you plan your time. It may be useful to take a look at these advisories, to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself. For example, Unit 1 should take approximately 12.5 hours to complete. Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunits 1.1 through 1.2.2 (a total of 4.25 hours) on Monday night; subunits 1.2.3 through 1.2.5 (a total of 4.5 hours) on Tuesday night; subunit 1.3 (a total of 3.75 hours) on Wednesday night; etc.

Tips/Suggestions: As you study the poems in this course, keep in mind that it may help to read each poem on the page as well as out loud. This course covers a wide variety of literary styles; therefore, it is essential to keep careful notes as you study. Write down the names of any style, movement, poet, literary conventions used by that poet, and interpretations you have about the poem. Review your notes from previous units before starting a new unit so that comparisons between the various styles and movements of modernist poetry will be more apparent. These notes will also be very useful as a review as you study and prepare for your final exam.

Table of Contents: You can find the course's units at the links below.