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 20thcentury 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 DesignTwo Bridges to ModernityThink 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 19thcentury (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 BridgeThe longer cultural bridge is the overarching philosophical paradigm shift to modernity,marked in literary terms on one end by John Milton’s 1674Paradise Lost[Note: The best website for all of Milton’s poetry isThe 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 FruitOf that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tasteBroughtDeath into the World, and all our woe,With loss of Eden, tillone greater ManRestore us, and regain the blissful Seat,SingHeav’nly Muse, that on the secret topOfOreb, or of Sinai, didst inspireThat Shepherd, who first taught thechosen Seed,In the Beginninghow the Heav’ns and EarthRoseout of Chaos: . . .to barely being able to hang on to the existence of reality itself with William Carlos Williams’ poem?so much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens“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 BridgeThe shorter bridge that this course on themodernrepresents is the one that connects the Victorianperiod to the start of ourcontemporaryartistic 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 ofself-absorbed, contemporarypoetry, 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 termmodern.On her death bed, Gertrude Stein’s last words expressed modern art’scontinuing 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 20thcentury poets try to explore these questions throughout this course.
Days of the Week:
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday
- Level of Difficulty: All Levels
- Size: One-on-One
- Cost: Free
- Institution: Saylor
- Topics: General Art, General History