American Poetry From the Beginnings to the Twentieth Century

Professor Russell Reising
Office B-008
Office hours: from March 3, Thursday 14:00-15:00, Friday 12:00-13:00
Phone: 99 7952930 (Not after 10 PM or before 9 AM!)
All poems indicated are easily available online. Use links I have provided when possible.

March 3-4
Introduction and business

I approach my literature course with two primary goals: to teach certain works of literature (subject matter) and to help students improve their reading, writing, and analytical skills. In my opinion, the second of these goals is the real function of my presentations and our class discussions. Students who are not dedicated to improving these skills rarely do well in my classes. Students who are passionate about their studies will find that I am willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help, focus, provoke, challenge, and inspire you. Students who do not do the work will find that I have little patience or respect for those who squander their educational opportunities. Even if the particular subject matter we are studying does not greatly interest you, use the course to improve your communication and analytical skills.
I expect students to have finished all readings by the first class for which they are assigned, and I expect students to have given some thought to these works’ primary themes, mysteries, styles, etc. before coming to class. Students who have done these two things do much better in my classes than do students who don’t. I do not regard it as my responsibility to explain our works to students who haven’t done the reading. I do not accept late papers!
I assume you all know the plot, and, unless you tell me otherwise, I will assume you have a comfortable understanding of the work on the literal level. It is completely up to students to ask questions about works and/or issues that trouble or elude them. I would love it if each class could be spent with me responding to students’ questions, problems, provocations, etc. I believe that students who struggle with the meanings of works of literature and try out their own interpretive ideas learn much more than do students who sit back and simply expect to have the materials explained. That might do in some courses or in some disciplines; I can’t imagine it being responsible pedagogy or student behavior in upper-division literature courses.
I will very rarely spend time discussing the biographical and/or historical contexts of the works we study unless they bear directly on the discussions we are having or on the analytical points I want to make. Nor should students spend time in their formal essays simply rehearsing the biography of the author or some irrelevant historical data. My courses stress issues much more than they do historical or biographical factoids. Given the richness of many internet sources for such information, I regard it as irresponsible to waste your time with insignificant details that anyone can easily find with a well-focused google search! This is not to say that students aren’t encouraged to probe the biographical or historical contexts of our materials, only that I won’t dwell inordinately on them unless they are truly germane to our approach.
I tend not to use highly organized class notes for our discussions, as I try to make each class responsive to students’ needs. This results in class discussions that some students find less organized than those they are used to or prefer. All students, therefore, are strongly encouraged to ask questions as they arise and also to take good notes.
I do not assign topics for your formal essays, but I will help you in any way necessary as you formulate and refine your topics and approaches. I believe that struggling with the material, coming up with a topic, refining that topic, and then writing and revising a paper are all crucial elements in how/what students learn when they approach a writing assignment. Professors who assign specific topics are simply giving so many take home essay exam assignments. I believe that people all learn in many different ways, reading the assigned works of literature, consulting secondary sources, participating in class discussions, and in all facets of composing a formal essay. Some students like to join in class discussions and/or ask questions; others prefer quietly processing what goes on in class. I try to make room for all learning styles, but I do, as I say above, expect students to work hard and to complete all the assignments on time.

Russ’s World Weary Guidelines for Writers of Academic Papers
(These guidelines constitute the basis of what I expect in your written work!)
1. Unless instructed otherwise, you should assume that your audience knows the work you are writing about at the literal level, but that they can be enlightened about important themes, characters, interconnections, and other significant stylistic elements in the work. As a writer, you reveal something not obvious about the work(s) you write about. Plot summary is almost never good, and almost the only times you should be discussing the plot of the work is to provide evidence for the analytical point you are making.
2. A good, analytical essay will begin with a thesis section in which you articulate what you are writing about and provide some sense of what is significant about the position you will be advancing. A good thesis is argumentative, i.e., it advances a position that is debatable and not merely obvious to any one who has experienced the same work of art. A good thesis teaches your reader what to expect and pay attention to, and it helps guide and discipline your own writing. Think of it as a contract between you and your reader, committing you to perform a specific analytical task.
3. A good conclusion should never merely repeat the “main points” of your paper. Repetition and redundancy rarely characterize a good conclusion. Read almost any substantial article in almost any quality periodical; their conclusions NEVER merely repeat, summarize, or restate their main points. A good conclusion should sound conclusive, not repetitious! Good conclusions can do many things; experiment with different ways of “concluding” your paper on a strong note, not with a throw-away paragraph that merely repeats what you have already done.
4. An analytical essay should represent the highest level of sophistication and specificity you have reached in your consideration of a work. In other words, it should report your conclusions, not your “thinking in progress.” You should never include passages that merely rehearse your encounters with the poem, as in:

“When I first read this poem, I thought it meant X, but, after deeper reading and more careful consideration, I now believe it means Y.”

This might be an accurate history of your experience with the poem/novel/story/ play/film/song/etc., and it might well be an important consideration as you plan your paper, but it has no place in a finished, formal essay. Similarly, almost all references to “I think,” “I feel,” “In my opinion,” etc. should be strictly avoided. They are useless.
5. I will evaluate your formal essays with attention to all possible elements of the written language, from the content to syntactic, grammatical, mechanical, organizational and other rhetorical elements of your work. Please note: error free writing is not necessarily good writing! Good writing will engage the reader with solid content, logical analysis, coherent organization at the paragraph and essay level, and with lively, varied sentences that don’t lull the reader with monotonous, repetitious words, sentence structures, sentence lengths, or ideas.
6. Most importantly, your essay should communicate your ideas about a work. Your thesis (not the “plot” of the work) will be the driving force of your paragraphs and of your entire essay. Most of your paragraphs should begin by indicating how this particular paragraph furthers the analytical thesis you advanced in your thesis/introductory section. Papers and paragraphs that begin with plot summary rarely do more than merely summarize.
7. I will fail any student who plagiarizes any work in this course, and I will pursue their expulsion from the university. If you have any doubt at all about what constitutes academic dishonesty, please contact me before turning in any work.

Russ’s Absolute Guidelines for Reading Poetry

1. For the purpose of this class, I am offering the following definition of poetry: Poetry is a kind of literary language that maximizes the meaning-creating potential of every single element of the text. This includes obvious things like the poem’s title, multiple word definitions, and grammar to line and stanza breaks, poetic techniques, rhymed words, etc. The shorter the poem, the more potentially volatile becomes every element within the poem.
2. “ Sometimes a bird is just bird!” Always begin by understanding the poem in the most literal and linear way possible. Make sure you can find some necessity, invitation, or some other plausible reason for moving from a literal understanding to any figurative or metaphorical interpretation of a poem. For example, if a poem mentions the word “big” and you believe that the god you believe in is “big,” that doesn’t mean that the word “big” can automatically be read as a reference to your god.
3. Always read the poem out loud to yourself and pay attention to how it allows itself to be read. For example, lots of punctuation or some alliterative chains of words require us to slow down, sometimes almost to a halt, while reading the poem. This will strongly alter our experience and interpretation of the poem. Also, try to formulate a good paraphrase of the “narrative” of the poem. Make sure you can follow its logic and story (if there is one).
4. Use your dictionaries, and pay close attention to the meaning(s) of every single word in the poem!!! You really need to understand every word of a poem to understand the poem. In the case of older poems, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is an indispensable tool. Learn how to access and use it in the library or over the internet through the Carlson Library webpage.
5. If you have trouble reading poetry, pretend it isn’t a poem. Read it as though it were prose. Many students are surprised to learn that almost all poems follow the general syntactic rules of the English language. Start with a sentence-beginning capital letter and then find the final punctuation for that sentence. Granted, poems maximize the meaning-creating potential of those rules, but you can get a very clear sense of the poem’s literal/linear level by reading it as though it were prose. Forget about lines; forget about stanzas; forget about poetic techniques: just understand the poem in terms of its sentences. THEN move on to study and appreciate it more fully, i.e., more poetically.
6. Always try to understand the context of the poem. How is the historical context important? What kind of speaker might be uttering this poem, and under what kinds of circumstances? Don’t automatically assume that the “I” of the poem is identical with the poet, and don’t automatically assume that a woman poet writes from a woman’s point of view (ditto for male poets). Very few things restrict our analytical energies with poetry; however, what a poem “can” mean is limited by what words and phrases meant at the time the poem was written. For example, if Shakespeare uses the word “groovy,” he couldn’t possibly mean “cool” or “out of sight,” as he might have meant had he written in the 1960s.

March 10-11
Reading week

March 17-18
Puritan poetry and poetics
From Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative:

Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready to sometimes wish for it. When I lived in prosperity […] I should be sometimes jealous least I should have my portion in this life, and the Scripture would come to my mind, Heb, 12.6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every Son whom he receiveth. But now I see the Lord had his time to scourge and chasten me. The portion of some is to have their afflictions by drops, now one drop then another; but the dregs of the Cup, the Wine of astonishment: like a sweeping rain that leaveth no food, did the Lord prepare for my portion. Affliction I wanted, and affliction I had, full measure (I thought) pressed down and running over; yet I see, when God calls a Person to any thing, and through never so many difficulties, yet he is fully able to carry them through and make them see, and say they have been gainers thereby. And I hope I can say in some measure, as David did, It is good for me that I have been afflicted. (112)

From Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World:

Hence tis, that the Happiness of NewEngland, has been, but for a Time, as it was foretold, and not for a Long Time, as ha’s been desir’d for us. A Variety of Calamity ha’s long follow’d this Plantation; and we have all the Reason imaginable to ascribe it unto the Rebuke of Heaven upon us for our manifold Apostasies; we make no Right use of our Disasters, if we do not, Remember whence we are fallen, and Repent, and Do the first works. But yet our Afflictions may come under a further Consideration with us: there is a further cause of our Afflictions, whose Due must be Given him.

Poems by Anne Bradstreet:
“To My Dear and Loving Husband”
“The Author to Her Book”
“Upon the Burning our Our House”

Three Elegies:
In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet, Who Deceased August, 1665, Being A Year and a Half Old

Farewell dear babe, my heart’s too much content,
Farewell sweet babe, the pleasure of mine eye,
Farewell fair flower that for a space was lent,
Then ta’en away unto eternity.
Blest babe, why should I once bewail thy fate,
Or sigh thy days so soon were terminate,
Sith thou art settled in an everlasting state.

By nature trees do rot they are grown,
And plums and apples thoroughly ripe do fall,
And corn and grass are in their season mown,
And time brings down what is both strong and tall.
But plants new set to be eradicate,
And buds new blown to have so short a date,
Is by His hand alone that guides nature and fate.

In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet, Who Deceased June 20, 1669, Being Three Years and Seven Months Old

With troubled heart and trembling hand I write,
The heavens have changed to sorrow my delight.
How oft with disapoinment have I met,
When I on fading things my hopes have set.
Experience might ‘fore this have made me wise,
To value things according to their price.
Was ever stable joy yet found below?
Or perfect bliss without mixture of woe?
I knew she was but as a withering flower,
That’s here today, perhaps gone in an hour;
Like as a bubble, or the brittle glass,
Or like a shadow turning as it was.
More fool then I to look on that was lent
As if mine own, when thus impermanent.
Farewell dear child, thou ne’er shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Meantime my throbbing heart’s cheered up with this;
Thou with thy Savior art in endless bliss.

On My Dear Grandchild Simon Bradstreet, Who Died on 16 November, 1669, Being But a Month, and One Day Old

No sooner came, but gone, and fall’n asleep.
Acquaintance short, yet parting caused us weep;
Three flowers, two scarcely blown, the last i’ th’ bud,
Cropped by th’ Almighty’s hand; yet is He good.
With dreadful awe before Him let’s be mute,
Such was His will, but why, let’s not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let’s say He’s merciful as well as just.
He will return and make up all our losses,
And smile again after our bitter crosses.
Go pretty babe, go rest with sisters twain;
Among the blest in endless joys remain.

March 24-25
Puritan poetry and poetics, cont.d
Edward Taylor Poems:
“Upon a Wasp Chilled With Cold”
“Upon a Spider Catching a Fly”
“The Ebb and the Flow”
“Upon Wedlock and the Death of Children”

March 31/ April 1
Poems By Phillis Wheatley
This download has all her poems and a nice memoir about her. The poems we will focus on include:
“On Being Brought from Africa to America”
“On Imagination”
“An Hymn to the Morning”
“An Hymn to the Evening”
“On Recollection”
“On Virtue”

April 7-8
Wheatley, cont’d
Philip Freneau, “To An Author”
To an Author
by Philip Freneau
Your leaves bound up compact and fair,
In neat array at length prepare,
To pass their hour on learning’s stage,
To meet the surly critic’s rage;
The statesman’s slight, the smatterer’s sneer–
Were these, indeed, your only fear,
You might be tranquil and resigned:
What most should touch your fluttering mind;
Is that, few critics will be found
To sift your works, and deal the wound.

Thus, when one fleeting year is past
On some bye-shelf your book is cast–
Another comes, with something new,
And drives you fairly out of view:
With some to praise, but more to blame,
The mind returns to–whence it came;
And some alive, who scarce could read
Will publish satires on the dead.

Thrice happy Dryden, who could meet
Some rival bard in every street!
When all were bent on writing well
It was some credit to excel:–

Thrice happy Dryden, who could find
A Milbourne for his sport designed–
And Pope, who saw the harmless rage
Of Dennis bursting o’er his page
Might justly spurn the critic’s aim,
Who only helped to swell his fame.

On these bleak climes by Fortune thrown,
Where rigid Reason reigns alone,
Where lovely Fancy has no sway,
Nor magic forms about us play–
Nor nature takes her summer hue
Tell me, what has the muse to do?–

An age employed in edging steel
Can no poetic raptures feel;
No solitude’s attracting power,
No leisure of the noon day hour,
No shaded stream, no quiet grove
Can this fantastic century move;

The muse of love in no request–
Go–try your fortune with the rest,
One of the nine you should engage,
To meet the follies of the age:–

On one, we fear, your choice must fall–
The least engaging of them all–
Her visage stern–an angry style–
A clouded brow–malicious smile–
A mind on murdered victims placed–
She, only she, can please the taste!
“The Wild Honey-suckle”
“The Indian Burying Ground”

April 14-15

William Cullen Bryant
“A Forest Hymn”
“Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood”
“To a Waterfowl”

April 21-22
Essay: “The Poet”
“Each and All”
“The Snow-Storm”
“Concord Hymn”
“When I First Heard the Learned Astronomer”

April 28-29
Emily Dickinson
“’Faith’ is a fine invention”
“These are the days when birds come back”
“I know that He exists”
“This World is not Conclusion”
“I heard a fly buzz when I died”
“Those dying then”
“The bible is an antique volume”
“If you were coming in the fall”

May 5-6
Dickinson, cont’d

May 12-13
Dickinson, cont’d

May 19-20
Holiday, no classes

May 26-27
Stephen Crane
Frances Harper
Edgar Lee Masters

June 2-3
Robert Frost
“Desert Places”
“Mending Wall”
“Two Look at Tao”
“After Apple-Picking”

June 9-10
Frost, cont’d