Online course: Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (“ModPo”)

Dates: any time

Duration: 80 hours

Rating: 4.9 / 5.0 out of 341 ratings (see top rating courses here)

Participating countries: any country

Apply here: Application form

Organizer: University of Pennsylvania at Coursera


  • FREE
  • $49 with sharable certificate

Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (“ModPo”)

ModPo is a fast-paced introduction to modern and contemporary U.S. poetry, with an emphasis on experimental verse, from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to the present. Participants (who need no prior experience with poetry) will learn how to read poems that are supposedly “difficult.” We encounter and discuss the poems one at a time. It’s much easier than it seems! Join us and try it!

ModPo is open all year, so you can enroll now, or any time, and join us. Each year we host a lively, interactive 10-week session, in which we move together through the ten-week syllabus. The next live 10-week session of ModPo will begin on September 4, 2021, and will conclude on November 15, 2021. Al Filreis will be in touch with you by email before the September 4 start of the course with all the information you’ll need to participate. If you have questions, you can email the ModPo team any time at Much more information about ModPo can be found at During the 10 weeks of the course, you will be guided through poems, video discussions of each poem, and community discussions of each poem. And (unique among open online courses) we offer weekly, interactive live webcasts. Our famed TAs also offer office hours throughout the week. We help arrange meet-ups and in-site study groups. If you are curious about the ModPo team, type “ModPo YouTube introduction” into Google or your favorite search engine, and watch the 20-minute introductory video. You will get an overview of the course and will meet the brilliant TAs, who will be encountering the poems with you all the way to the end. If you use Facebook, join the always-thriving ModPo group: from inside Facebook, search for “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry” and then request to be added as a member. If you have any questions about ModPo, you can post a question to the FB group and you’ll receive an almost instant reply. Much more information about ModPo can be found at . We tweet all year long at @ModPoPenn and you can also find ModPo colleagues using the hashtag #ModPoLive. ModPo is hosted by—and is housed at—the Kelly Writers House at 3805 Locust Walk on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia USA. All ModPo’ers are welcome to visit the Writers House when they are in our area. Our discussions are filmed there. Our live webcasts take place in the famed “Arts Cafe” of the House. To find out what’s going on at the Writers House any time, just dial 215-746-POEM.





WEEK 1: 7 hours to complete

chapter 1.1 (week 1)—Whitman & Dickinson, two proto-modernists

In this first week of our course, we’ll encounter two 19th-century American poets whose quite different approaches to verse similarly challenged the official verse culture of the time. As a matter of form (but also of content), Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were radicals. What sort of radicalism is this? In a way, this course is all about exploring expressions of that radicalism from Whitman and Dickinson to the present day. Such challenges to official verse culture (and often U.S. culture at large) present us with a lineage of ideas about art and expression, a tradition that can be outlined, mostly followed, somewhat traced. In this course, we follow, to the best of our ability — and given the limits of time — that tradition and try to make overall sense of it. We will read Divya Victor’s “W Is for Walt Whitman’s Soul” toward the end of week 1 in anticipation of other later responses to Whitman and Dickinson encountered in week 2.

You will find that we do this one poem at a time. Here in week 1, we will explore Dickinson first, Whitman second, and then begin to sketch out the major differences between them, which, some say, amount to two opposite ends of the spectrum of poetic experimentalism and dissent in the nineteenth century. Which is to say: on the spectrum of traditional-to-experimental poetry, these two poets are on the same end (experimental); on the spectrum of experimentalism, their approaches can put them on opposite ends. In short, they offer us alternative poetic radicalisms, and their influences down the line (which we will explore in week 2) are both powerful but are also largely distinct. One question you’ll be prepared to ask by the end of the course: Is the Dickinsonian or the Whitmanian tradition more ascendant and apt in today’s experimental poetry?

watch an introduction to week
watch video on Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility”
watch video on Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”
watch further discussion on “Tell all the truth”
watch video on Emily Dickinson’s “The Brain within its Groove”
watch the CANON CHALLENGE for week
watch video on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
watch video on canto 47 of “Song of Myself”
watch discussion of Divya Victor’s “W is for Walt Whitman’s Soul”
(alt.) watch abridged video on Victor’s “W is for Walt…”
watch Divya Victor discuss “W is for Walt Whitman’s Soul”
watch video discussion of the Whitmanian and Dickinsonian modes
read Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility”
listen to Al Filreis recite “I dwell in Possibility”
read Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”
read Dickinson’s “The Brain within its Groove”
(optional) watch condensed video on Dickinson’s “Brain within its Groove”
read sections 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 14, 47 & 52 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”2
listen to recordings of “Song of Myself”
read Al Filreis on canto 8 of “Song of Myself”
read Divya Victor’s “W is for Walt Whitman’s Soul
watch or listen to Divya Victor read “W is for Walt Whitman’s Soul”
on “Possibility” in Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility”
on the dash in Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility”

WEEK 2: 5 hours to complete

chapter 1.2 (week 2)—Whitmanians & Dickinsonians

During this week, the second half of chapter 1, we will read the work of two poets writing in the Whitmanian mode and three poets writing in the Dickinsonian mode. We will encounter our “Whitmanians,” William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, again later in the course—Williams as a modernist and Ginsberg as a Beat poet. The Whitman/Williams/Ginsberg connection is a strong one; Ginsberg wrote directly in response to both Whitman and Williams and saw the lineage as crucial to the development of his approach. Our “Dickinsonians” are more disparate in their response to Dickinson’s writing. Of the three—Lorine Niedecker, Cid Corman, and Rae Armantrout—only the last could be said to be a direct poetic descendant of Emily Dickinson’s aesthetic.

watch video on William Carlos Williams’s “Smell!”
watch video on William Carlos Williams’s “Danse Russe”
watch video on Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”
watch video on Lorine Niedecker’s “Grandfather Advised Me”
watch video on Lorine Niedecker’s “You are my friend”
watch video on Lorine Niedecker’s “Foreclosure”
watch video on Cid Corman’s “It isnt for want”
watch video on Rae Armantrout’s “The Way”
watch video on distinctions between “Dickinsonian” and “Whitmanian” proto-modernism
read William Carlos Williams’s “Smell!”
listen to Williams perform “Smell!”
read/listen to “Smell!” in text-audio alignment
read Williams’s “Danse Russe”
listen to Williams perform “Danse Russe”
read/listen to “Danse Russe” in text-audio alignment
read Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”
listen to Ginsberg perform “A Supermarket in California”
read/listen to Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” as text-audio alignment
read Lorine Niedecker’s “Grandfather advised me”
read Lorine Niedecker’s “You are my friend”
read Lorine Niedecker’s “Foreclosure”
listen to Lorine Niedecker perform “Foreclosure”
listen to a 30-minute discussion of “Foreclosure” (& another short poem)
read Cid Corman’s “It isnt for want”
listen to Cid Corman perform “It isnt for want”
read Rae Armantrout’s “The Way”
listen to Rae Armantrout perform “The Way”
listen to Rae Armantrout talk briefly about “The Way”
listen to PoemTalk discussion of “The Way”3

WEEK 3: 4 hours to complete

chapter 2.1 (week 3)—the rise of poetic modernism: imagism

Modernism in poetry had many beginnings; imagism marks just one. But in a quick introduction, this brief but influential movement gives us a good place to start. Imagists disliked late Victorian wordiness, flowery figuration, and “beautiful” abstraction. They rejected such qualities through staunch assertions demanding concision, concentration, precise visuality, and a super-focused emotive objectivity. In this first of four sections of ModPo’s chapter 2, we will ask ourselves whether each poem meets the impossible or nearly impossible standards set out by imagist manifestos. If any given poem “fails” to meet such standards, it is by no means a sign of bad poetry. Still, one way to learn about the rise of poetic modernism is to make discernments based on the poets’ own (momentary) programmatic demands. At the end of this glimpse at modern poets’ radical condensations, we look ahead at the use of haiku by a contemporary poet, Tonya Foster.

watch video on H.D.’s “Sea Rose”
watch video on Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”
watch video on Ezra Pound’s “The Encounter”
watch further discussion on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
watch a discussion of Tonya Foster’s haiku (with the poet)
watch a PoemTalk discussion of Tonya Foster’s haiku

read H.D.’s “Sea Rose”
read Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”
read Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” as it appeared in Poetry magazine
read a selection of critical commentary on “In a Station of the Metro”
watch brief further discussion of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”
read Ezra Pound’s “The Encounter”
read Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
listen to a discussion of Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
read haiku from Tonya Foster’s “A Swarm of Bees in High Court”
on “In a Station of the Metro”1m

chapter 2.2 (week 3 cont.)—the rise of poetic modernism: Williams

Now in the second of four parts in our chapter on the rise of modernism—in the second part of week 3—we take a closer look at William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). We met Williams as a “Whitmanian” in chapter 1, the middle figure in a poetic line running from Whitman to Ginsberg. But that focus on him was a little misleading. The Williams of the late 1910s and 1920s was a poet fascinated by currents of formal experimentation—imagism, yes, but also Dadaism, cubism (especially drawing on innovations and painting) and a little later, objectivism. It’s not the purpose of this course that we learn what all these “-isms” mean. Rather, let’s start with a few poems by Williams that befit the imagist moment, and go from there. Quickly we’ll find that Williams (always aesthetically restless) was interested in a writing that might capture the dynamism of its modern subject matter and was (mostly) willing to face problems created by traditional approaches to description and portraiture. When these conventions seemed to him to fail, he was prepared to include such failure in the poem itself—disclosing the troubled process of representation.

watch video on Williams’s “Lines”
watch video on Williams’s “Between Walls”
watch video on Williams’s “This Is Just to Say”
watch video on Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”
watch video discussion on Duchamp’s “Fountain”
watch video on Williams’s “Portrait of a Lady”
watch video on Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”
read William Carlos Williams’s “Lines”
read William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls”
listen to Williams reading “Between Walls”
read/listen with text-audio alignment to Williams’s “Between Walls”
listen to PoemTalk discussion of “Between Walls”
read William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say”
read Flossie Williams’s reply to “This Is Just to Say”
listen to William Carlos Williams’s explanation of “This Is Just to Say”
listen to five recordings of Williams reading “This Is Just to Say”
listen to five recordings of Williams reading “This Is Just to Say” as text-audio alignment
read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”
listen to four recordings of Williams reading “The Red Wheelbarrow”
listen to four recordings of Williams performing “The Red Wheelbarrow” as text-audio alignment
watch further discussion of Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”
look at a photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” at the Philadephia Museum of Art
watch a museum-goer’s video of Duchamp’s “Fountain” on display at SFMoMA
read William Carlos Williams’s, “The rose is obsolete”
listen to a 6-minute close reading of “The rose is obsolete”
read William Carlos Williams’s, “Portrait of a Lady”
listen to 3 recordings of Williams performing “Portrait of a Lady”
look at Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”
on Williams’s “Between Walls”30m

WEEK 4: 5 hours to complete

chapter 2.3 (week 4)—the rise of poetic modernism: Stein

Gertrude Stein’s contribution to modernist poetry and poetics cannot be overstated—and so now, in this third section of chapter 2, we turn to her, spending the better part of week 4 of our course on a selection of her supposedly “difficult” writings. The difficulty of deriving any sort of conventional semantic meaning from the short prose-poems that comprise Stein’s Tender Buttons turns out for many readers to be a helpful inducement to look for other kinds of signifying. As we hope you’ll see from the video discussions in this section, such difficulty need not excuse us from close reading. Stein’s poems really can be interpreted. They might reject representation, but by no means do they turn away from reference. The hard work you do in this part of chapter 2 will be amply rewarded when we get to chapter 9. Stein is a particular influence on John Ashbery in chapter 8, but she is a crucial influence on nearly every poet we’ll read in chapter 9. As a matter of fact, here in chapter 2 we have a chance to listen to Jackson Mac Low (a chapter 9 poet) talk about why he finds Stein’s opaque and difficult Tender Buttons so nonetheless meaningful. And we hear Joan Retallack (another chapter 9 poet) paying homage to Stein’s “Composition as Explanation.”

watch video on Stein’s “A Long Dress”
watch further discussion on “A Long Dress”
watch video on Stein’s “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass”
watch video on “Water Raining” and “Malachite”
watch video on Stein’s ideas about narrative, composition, repeating & nouns
watch video on Stein’s “Let Us Describe”
watch video on Stein’s “If I Told Him

read Stein’s “A Long Dress” from Tender Buttons
read Marjorie Perloff’s comment on Stein and in particular on “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass”
read Gertrude Stein, “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass,” from the “Objects” section of Tender Buttons
watch video of Laynie Browne discussing “A Carafe” and the “Objects” section of Tender Buttons
listen to Jackson Mac Low’s 1978 performance of Stein’s “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass”
listen to Jackson Mac Low’s close reading of “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass”
watch video on Stein’s phrase “not unordered in not resembling”
read Stein’s “Water Raining” and “Malachite” from Tender Buttons
watch Bob Perelman on Stein’s use of the continuous present tense
watch Ron Silliman on how each Stein poem creates its own definition of reading
watch discussion of the pleasure to be gotten from Stein’s “linguistic-ness”
read Stein on narrative
read Stein on the noun
read Stein on repetition
read Stein on composition
listen to Joan Retallack reading some propositions from Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”
condensed version of video on Stein’s ideas about narrative, composition & nouns [alternative]
watch further discussion on the noun & loving repeating
read Gertrude Stein’s “Let Us Describe”
read Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso”
listen to Stein perform “If I Told Him”
read/listen with text-audio alignment of Stein’s “If I Told Him”
watch a dance choreographed to Stein’s “If I Told Him”
read Ulla Dydo’s prefatory comment on “If I Told Him”
listen to Marjorie Perloff speaking about Stein’s portraits
on “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass”30m

chapter 2.4 (week 4 cont.)—the rise of poetic modernism: modernist edges

“The Baroness” (Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven) was way out there. But because she so intensely embodied modernist experimentalism, our effort to learn something about her life and writing is an apt way, in part, to end our brief introduction to poetic modernism from roughly 1912 to 1929. The three instances of modernist extremity we will encounter in chapter 2.4 are very different expressions of “High Modernism.” Well, the Baroness was certainly high on highballs when she wrote the poem we’ll read—or rather, her language remarkably simulates a reeling discombobulation, such that its critique of 1920s-style commercialism (not in itself unusual at the time) has a very sharp edge. She was “New York Dada” epitomized, while Tristan Tzara’s ideas about cutting up newspapers to form “personal” poems were, among his many other radical notions, crucial to the Dadaist import. And John Peale Bishop, with whom we will end our two weeks of chapter 2? Well, as you’ll see, Bishop’s is another story altogether; his sonnet sets us up for our approach to doubts about modernist antics as expressed by the poets of chapters 3, 4 and 5.

watch video on Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhove
watch video on Tristan Tzara’s “To Make a Dadaist Poem”
watch video on Bishop’s “A Recollection” and the sonnet in modernism
read Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven’s “A Dozen Cocktails—Please”
explore the archived manuscript of “A Dozen Cocktails—Please”1
read Williams on the Baroness
listen to a brief bio of the Baroness
listen to a passage from Kenneth Rexroth’s account of the Baroness
read Tristan Tzara’s “To Make a Dadaist Poem”
re-read Tzara’s “To Make a Dadaist Poem” in an introduction to “chance operations”
watch a film-illustration of “To Make a Dadaist Poem”
read about the sonnet as a form
read William Carlos Williams on the sonnet
read John Peale Bishop, “A Recollection”
Tzara’s “To Make a Dadaist Poem”30m

WEEK 5: 1 hour to complete

chapter 3 (week 5)—communist poets of the 1930s

Chapter 3 is a glance at communist poetry of the 1930s. These were years of economic crisis—the Depression. Like most other people, poets felt the urgency induced by privation, lack of opportunity, segregation and desperation. But poets had all along been inclined toward social as well as aesthetic experimentalism, and as they could write effectively, many felt they could be useful in the larger effort to find solutions—some modestly reformist, some more extreme—to the nation’s and the world’s huge problems. When the Depression set in, many poets embraced radical critiques of the economic status quo, and some even joined revolutionary groups such as the Communist Party of the United States. Such ideological journeys were often quite brief, however, and most once-Communist poets regretted joining the Party later, and said so. One of the myths created in the 1950s is that all modernist poets had repudiated modernism’s embrace of opaqueness, indirection and self-referentiality and had decided suddenly to write clearly and “transparently” so that masses of people could understand their language. This is not true—many pre-1930s modernists continued to write in experimental modes and remained committed to cubism, surrealism, Dadaism, etc., as well as joining radical political causes. But for our purposes in this very brief chapter 3, we look at two poets whose poems might be said to contain radical content but to deliver that content in traditional—one might even say conservative—forms. What can we make of this apparent contradiction or irony? What can we learn here about modernism’s relation to political life?

watch video on Ruth Lechlitner’s “Lines for an Abortionist’s Office”
watch video on Genevieve Taggard’s “Interior”
listen to an optional further introduction to week 5 (audio & transcript)
read Ruth Lechlitner’s “Lines for an Abortionist’s Office”
read Genevieve Taggard’s “Interior’
essay #2: write reviews of others’ essays1

5 hours to complete

chapter 4 (week 5 cont.)—the Harlem Renaissance

We continue ModPo week 5 with chapter 4 and Harlem Renaissance poetry. We look at poets whose concept of the relation between traditional stanza form and the content of racist hatred helps us understand the limits of formal experiment. For example, Harlem Renaissance writers such as Jean Toomer (in works like “Cane”) engaged a modernist sense of genre, and Sterling Brown closely studied and admired the modernist “New”-ness of Ezra Pound even though Brown chose to write his own poems in rhymed blues verse and sometimes vernacular “folk” language. Claude McKay’s strategic use of the Shakespearean sonnet is as powerful a skepticism about free verse as can be found anywhere; his sense of the complicated inheritance of English prosody will come back to us at the very end of the course (watch for it in week 10). Countee Cullen uses the ballad form to similar effect, and for similar reasons. These poets, and others such as Langston Hughes, emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, but the influence of what was called “The New Negro” artistic renaissance (after the anthology compiled by Alain Locke) extended well beyond its time and deeply influenced later poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, whose poems “truth” and “Boy Breaking Glass” we will also read and discuss here in chapter 4. Brooks’s idea of the truth is honored but also challenged, in turn, by a poet still later associated with the Black Arts movement: Etheridge Knight. Knight’s response to Brooks (discussed in the PoemTalk episode linked to this week’s syllabus) both reveres Brooks and at the same time urges further progress, just as Brooks’s “truth” had revered and also moved beyond the McKay/Cullen mode. In “Boy Breaking Glass,” Brooks understands a young man’s “cry for art” as requiring a sympathetic modernist fragmentation in her own poem. Poetic influences are cultural ripples, never more so than here—an emanation but also a widening. Langston Hughes’s “Dinner Guest: Me” is partly about how such ripple effect and communality sometimes must be taught. And because it must be taught, we felt it apt to add a special video (prepared for ModPo’s Teacher Resource Center) on how teachers might teach that challenging poem by Hughes.

watch video discussion of Cullen’s “Incident”
watch video on McKay’s “If We Must Die”
watch video on Hughes’s “Dinner Guest: Me”
watch video on teaching Hughes’s “Dinner Guest: Me”
watch video on Brooks’s “Boy Breaking Glass”
read Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel”
read Countee Cullen’s “Incident”
read Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”
listen to McKay perform “If We Must Die”
listen to a PoemTalk episode about “If We Must Die”
read Langston Hughes’s “Dinner Guest: Me”
read Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Boy Breaking Glass”
(alt.) watch shorter version of video on Brooks’s “Boy Breaking Glass”
read Gwendolyn Brooks’s “truth”
listen to an audio discussion of Brooks’s “truth”
listen to a 30-minute PoemTalk discussion of Brooks’s “truth” & Etheridge Knight’s poem-response
(alt.) listen to an abridged (17-min.) version of the PoemTalk discussion of Brooks & Knight
Claude McCay’s “If We Must Die”

2 hours to complete

chapter 5 (week 5 cont.)—Frost
We continue ModPo week 5 with chapter 5. Robert Frost is widely considered a major modern American poet, but in fact his relationship to modernism is mostly antagonistic. In our series of short chapters featuring poets’ doubts about aspects of the modernist revolution, we consider just one poem by Frost—”Mending Wall”—for its frank but also witty way of raising the issue of subject-object relations. The speaker and a second figure find themselves on either side of a wall. Should that wall come down? Does Frost’s answer to that question have anything to do with his famous anti-modernist complaint—that free verse is “like playing tennis without a net”? We also offer a video recording of a ModPo-hosted symposium in which four poets debate Frost’s wall.

watch video on Frost’s “Mending Wall”
read Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”
listen to Frost declaim “Mending Wall”
read/hear Frost’s “Mending Wall” with machine-aided text-audio alignment
optional: watch & listen to four contemporary poets debate “Mending Wall”
watch 6-minute excerpt from the 1-hr. video on “Mending Wall”

2 hours to complete

chapter 6 (week 5 cont.)—formalism of the 1950s

We conclude ModPo week 5 with chapter 6. There are several ways of looking generally at U.S. poetry in the postwar (post-World War II) period, 1945-60. No single generalization will suffice, but our course implies two main trends. First, there was a retrenchment, a “coming home,” a consolidation—a mainstreaming of modernism and, for some, a new formalist (or “neo-formalist”) reaction against what was deemed to be modernist experimental excess. This consolidation coincided with a general renewed cultural conservatism or quietism, generally understood as caused or aided by several factors: fears of communism, concerns about women who had entered the wartime workplace and were now expected to resume domestic life, the apparent ease of daily life during a time of economic growth, the “massification” of university education, the flight from cities, and the suburbanization of values and lifestyle. For some, this meant assuming modernist gains—free verse, wide choice of subject matter, everyday diction—while suppressing radical experiment. For others, it meant an outright antimodernism, though it was now more conservative than the antimodernism of poets in chapters 3 and 5. The latter impulse expressed itself in a neo-classicist use of satire and irony—a kind of new Augustan poetics. Chapter 6 gives us a very brief look at this postwar neo-formalism. A second, very different, trend was the explosion of a new poetic radicalism fueled by a sometimes ecstatic and often antic negative response to the above-mentioned quietism and poetic conservatism. Drawing on the experimental spirit of modernism and sometimes celebrating the influence of individual modernist poets, this trend generally came to be known as the “New American” poetry. The Beats of chapter 7 and the New York School poets of chapter 8 are instances of this trend. There are other New American approaches and groupings, to be sure, but we will not have time to consider them except in passing references. First, let us quickly end week 5—our rapid tour through the doubters and troublers of chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6—with a glance at two neo-formalists: Richard Wilbur and X. J. Kennedy.

watch video on Wilbur’s “The Death of a Toad”
watch further discussion of Wilbur’s “The Death of a Toad”
watch video on Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”
watch further discussion on Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”
read Richard Wilbur’s “The Death of a Toad”
read X. J. Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”
on Richard Wilbur’s “The Death of a Toad”

WEEK 6: 9 hours to complete

chapter 7 (week 6)—breaking conformity: the beats

The so-called “New American Poetry” that emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s went in many directions; some trends, styles, and approaches overlapped, while some were (or seemed to be) more distinct and separable than others. The “Beat” poets were a fairly distinct community of writers, making it easier than it would be otherwise to study as a coherent movement their ecstatic, antic, apparently anti-poetic break with official verse culture. Our approach, in just one week, looks at two ubiquitously canonical Beats (Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) and then quickly moves off to adjacent figures. Robert Creeley was not a Beat poet, but his most famous poem “I Know a Man” engages poetic, psychological, and social matters with which Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the others were obsessed. Bob Kaufman cherished the designation “beatnik,” and certainly takes up issues of ecstatic living and social alienation in a way aligned with Ginsberg but his “Jail Poems” bespeak his embrace of multiple, simultaneous associations: imagist, itinerant, Black, Jewish, Zen surrealist, incarcerant, “abomunist.” Anne Waldman is an “outrider” poet and is more closely associated with the second generation of “New York School” poets (see chapter 8), but she was a dear friend of Ginsberg and learned much from his political pedagogy. Amiri Baraka, as Leroi Jones, was a Beat poet for a few years and then broke away. The poem by Baraka that we study here gives us a chance to look back on Countee Cullen’s traditionally formal poetic response to racist hatred. The prose-poem/manifesto by Baraka on how poets (should) sound extends a theme already important to this chapter: the primacy of sound (or music) as a form of freedom from linguistic convention. Jayne Cortez gives us a perfect example of this and permits us to suggest connections among the Beat aesthetic, Black Arts, the influences of jazz, and the emergence of “spoken word” performance. Our focus on Kerouac in chapter 7 is a little unusual — he, of course, is known more as a novelist than a poet. But his “babble flow” and riffing in “Old Angel Midnight” have been a significant influence on contemporary poets, more than his narrative fictional stance as psycho-social itinerant. We will have occasion, then, to examine and question Kerouac’s— and Ginsberg’s—claims to be writing naturally spontaneous language. Our chapter 9 poets for the most part doubt such a claim.

watch video on the first section of Ginsberg’s “Howl”
(alt.) watch abridged version of discussion of “Howl”
watch video on Kerouac’s ideas about prose
(alternative) watch short version of video on Kerouac’s ideas about prose
on Kerouac’s “Old Angel Midnight”
(alt.) abridged version of video on Kerouac’s “Old Angel Midnight”
watch ModPo TAs debate spontaneity & first thought/best thought
watch video: can we do a close reading of babble flow?
watch video on Bob Kaufman’s “Jail Poems”
watch Doug Kearney & others on “Jail Poems”

watch video on Creeley’s “I Know a Man”
watch video on Waldman’s “Rogue State”
watch video on Baraka’s “Incident”
watch video on Baraka’s “How You Sound??”
watch video on Jayne Cortez’s “She Got He Got”
listen to an optional further introduction to chapter 7, week 6 (audio & transcript)
read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (part 1)
listen to Ginsberg perform “Howl” in 1956
listen to a brief excerpt from Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl”
read Jack Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”
read Jack Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”
read section 1 of Kerouac’s “Old Angel Midnight”
listen to Kerouac perform the first section of “Old Angel Midnight”
read PoemTalk program notes on “Old Angel Midnight”
listen to PoemTalk episode on “Old Angel Midnight”
listen to Clark Coolidge read section 4 of “Old Angel Midnight”
read section 4 of “Old Angel Midnight”1
read Bob Kaufman’s “Jail Poems” (sections 3, 4, 7, 14, 19, 22, 34 & 35)
(alternative) watch shorter version of video on Kaufman’s “Jail Poems”
read Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man”
listen to 5 recordings of Creeley performing “I Know a Man”
read/listen with text-audio alignment to Creeley’s “I Know a Man”
listen to PoemTalk on Creeley’s “I Know a Man”
listen to Anne Waldman perform “Rogue State”
watch video of Waldman’s performance of “Rogue State”
read Amiri Baraka’s “Incident”
read Amiri Baraka’s “How You Sound??”
watch Doug Kearney on Baraka’s “How You Sound??”
watch & listen as Jayne Cortez performs “She Got He Got”
read a transcript of “She Got He Got” by Jayne Cortez
Ginsberg’s “Howl”30m
Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man”30m

WEEK 7: 8 hours to complete

chapter 8 (week 7)—the New York School

Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch represent the first wave of New York School of poets in this week of our course. We met Anne Waldman already in chapter 7; she is deemed to be a “second generation” New York School poet. Now we add another of that second generation, Bernadette Mayer—and, in Eileen Myles, something of a third (or second-and-a-half) generation. Our super-close readings of Guest’s “20” and Ashbery’s “Some Trees” are intended, in part, to show that the non-narrative or anti-narrative styles of this group—and their propensity for sudden shifts in pronoun use, inconsistent imagery, and inside-the-community name dropping—nonetheless produce writing that can be interpreted line by line. During this week (a bare-minimum introduction to this playful postmodernity), we will get a bit of pastiche from Koch and one instance of O’Hara’s “I-do-this-I-do-that” explorations of lunchtime, as well as examples of Ashbery’s opaque lyricism, Guest’s stunning memory-as-word associationalism, and Mayer’s application of O’Hara’s exuberant attention to daily details to a woman’s life and language. Hanif Abdurraqib and Patrick Rosal both respond directly to O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died.” Abdurraqib adapts O’Hara’s anxious, breathless rush of intense memory to merge American competitiveness and the experience of anti-Blackness. Rosal’s poem begins with an ensemble-voiced, present-tense, frenetic romp through New York City, very much influenced by O’Hara’s mode and sensibility. But then the poem moves elsewhere, enacting diasporic return, and pushes the New York School style beyond its earlier categories by developing its own powerful synthesis of global concerns.

watch discussion of O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”
watch video on Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams”
watch video on Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual”
watch further discussion of Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual”
watch video on Guest’s “20”
watch further discussion of Guest’s “20”
watch video on James Schuyler’s “February”
watch video on Ashbery’s “Some Trees”
watch video on Mayer’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”
watch a discussion of Eileen Myles’ “Mount St. Helens”
watch discussion of Hanif Abdurraqib’s “USAvCUBA”
watch video on Patrick Rosal’s “Uptown Ode That Ends on an Ode to the Machete”
(alt.) watch abridged discussion of Rosal’s poem (20 mins.)

read Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”
listen to O’Hara perform “The Day Lady Died”
watch video of O’Hara reading “The Day Lady Died”
read Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams”
read John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual”
listen to Ashbery perform “The Instruction Manual”
read Barbara Guest’s “20” & listen to a recording
read James Schuyler’s “February”
listen to Schuyler perform “February”
read John Ashbery’s “Some Trees”
listen to Ashbery perform “Some Trees”
read/listen to Ashbery’s “Some Trees” with text-audio alignment
read Bernadette Mayer’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”
listen to Mayer perform “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”
read/listen to Mayer’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with text-audio alignment
read Eileen Myles’ “Mount St. Helens”
listen to Myles read “Mount St. Helens”
watch Eileen Myles talk with Al Filreis about Mount St. Helens
read Hanif Abdurraqib’s “USAvCUBA”
listen to Hanif Abdurraqib perform “USAvCUBA”
read Patrick Rosal’s “Uptown Ode That Ends on an Ode to the Machete”
listen to Patrick Rosal read “Uptown Ode”
on O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”
on Guest’s “20”

WEEK 8: 10 hours to complete

chapter 9.1 (week 8)—some trends in recent poetry: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E

We spend our final three weeks surveying three related groupings of experimental poetry, covering recent decades to the present. In week 8 (chapter 9.1), we look at the so-called “Language Poetry” movement as it emerged in the San Francisco Bay area and New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. In week 9 (chapter 9.2), we turn to chance-generated and aleatory and quasi-nonintentional writing. In week 10 (chapter 9.3), we look at the emergence (or resurgence) of conceptual and unoriginal and recombinatory— supposedly “uncreative”—poetry. Several of the 9.2 poets follow directly from the innovations of the 9.1 Language poets. A few of the 9.3 conceptualists see themselves as breaking away from Language poetry and embrace a “post-avant” status, while others see a continuity from modernism through Language and aleatory writing to conceptualism. The extent to which all these poets—but especially the 9.1 and 9.2 poets—show their indebtedness to modernists such as Duchamp, Stein, Williams, and the proto-modernist Dickinson does suggest that our course is the study of a line or lineage of experimental American poetry continuing out of modernism.

By starting with Lyn Hejinian’s “My Life,” we focus on ways in which—and reasons why—Language poets refused conventional sequential, cause-and-effect presentations of the writing self. They imply that the self is languaged — formed by and in language—and that the self as written is multiple across time (moments and eras) and thus from paratactic sentence to paratactic sentence. While this radical revision of the concept of the lyric self (and of the super-popular genre of memoir) emphasizes one aspect of the Language Poetry movement at the expense of several other important ideas and practices, it is, we feel, an excellent way to introduce the group. Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings,” aside from its contribution to this introduction, also picks up a theme of our course: the experimental writer attempts to encounter death (loss, grief, absence) by somehow making the form of the writing befit that discontinuity and disruption. We began this theme in chapter 2 with Stein’s “Let Us Describe” and continued it in chapter 8 with O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and we will proceed with Jackson Mac Low’s “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore” in chapter 9.2. The Language poets’ interest in rewriting and reinterpreting the rise of modernism leads us to Susan Howe’s “My Emily Dickinson,” a helpful return to ModPo’s first week. Chapter 9.1 continues with two poems from Harryette Mullen’s book of intense alphabetical and lexicographical self-consciousness,

Sleeping with the Dictionary

Mullen’s talent is diverse, and her work could have appeared in weeks 8 or 9 or 10, but it’s here because we hope some readers will sense an interesting relationship between

Sleeping with the Dictionary

and Hejinian’s

My Life.

Tyrone Williams’s sense of the torqued languaged self directs that consciousness toward histories of Blackness in the U.S. The work of John Keene, who wrote a prose poem memoir influenced by Hejinian’s “My Life,” is represented here with an experimental parallel-column text, “Persons and Places,” exploring the ongoing historical near misses caused by racist and homophobic assumptions.

optional 24-min. supplemental intro to Language poetry
watch video on Hejinian’s My Life
(alt.) watch abridged version of discussion of Hejinian’s “My Life”
watch video on Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings”
watch video on Bernstein’s “In a Restless World Like This Is”
watch video on Howe’s “My Emily Dickinson”
watch brief video introducing Mullen’s “Sleeping with the Dictionary”
watch video on Mullen’s “Sleeping with the Dictionary”
watch discussion of John Keene’s “Persons and Places” on location
read 4 sections of Lyn Hejinian’s “My Life”
listen to Lyn Hejinian read 4 sections of “My Life”
read Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings”
read Perelman’s note on “Chronic Meanings”
listen to Perelman talk briefly about “Chronic Meanings”
listen to Perelman perform “Chronic Meanings”
read/listen to Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings” as text-audio alignment
watch video of Bob Perelman & others discussing “Chronic Meanings”1
read Charles Bernstein’s “In a Restless World Like This Is”
listen to Bernstein perform “In a Restless World Like This Is”
read/listen to Bernstein’s “In a Restless World Like This Is” as text-audio alignment
listen to PoemTalk about Bernstein’s “In a Restless World Like This Is”
(alt.) listen to an abridged version of the discussion of “In a Restless World…”
watch Bob Perelman & others discussing Bernstein’s “Restless World”
read Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun”
read passages from Susan Howe’s “My Emily Dickinson”
listen to an excerpt of Charles Bernstein’s conversation with Susan Howe about Emily Dickinson
listen to Rae Armantrout read and comment on “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun”
listen to PoemTalk on Susan Howe’s “My Emily Dickinson
(alt.) listen to an abridged version of the PoemTalk discussion of “My Emily Dickinson”
(alt.) watch abridged video on Howe’s “My Emily Dickinson”
read two poems from Harryette Mullen’s book “Sleeping with the Dictionary”
listen to Harryette Mullen read & explain “Sleeping with the Dictionary””
(alt.) watch abridged video on “Sleeping with the Dictionary”
read “Cant” & “Written by H’Self” by Tyrone Williams
listen to Tyrone Williams read “Cant” & “Written by H’Self”
listen to a PoemTalk discussion of Tyrone Williams’s “Cant” & “Written by H’Self”
(alt.) listen to an abridged (21-min.) version of the PoemTalk discussion of Tyrone Williams
read John Keene’s “Persons and Places”
Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings”
Henijian’s “My Life”

WEEK 9: 7 hours to complete

chapter 9.2 (week 9)—some trends in recent poetry: chance

When Jackson Mac Low put a body of language (for instance a poem by Gertrude Stein) through a rigorous procedure, he would say that he created (or “wrote”—in the sense of computer programming) the procedure and that the procedure then created the poem. One of his goals was to experiment with the elimination or evacuation or at least the suppression of poetic ego. In this sense his work stands alongside that of Hejinian, Bernstein, and Howe, who (by other means) sought to question the stable lyric subject that had been for so long been associated with the writing of poetry, and with imagination generally. On this point the chapter 9 poets are unified in breaking from modernism’s implicit and often explicit claim of creative, a-world-in-a-poem-making genius. But otherwise the aesthetic connection between, for instance, Mac Low and Stein is strongly positive. (Please note: during our filmed discussion on Mac Low’s “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore,” Al Filreis gets a little carried away when reading a list of words made from Moore’s name; neither the word “spicer” nor the phrase “this weekend” can be derived from those letters!)

watch video on Cage’s “Writing through Howl”
watch video on Cage’s adagia
watch video on Mac Low’s “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore”
watch video on Mac Low’s approach to Stein
watch video on Osman’s “Dropping Leaflets”
watch video on Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments
watch video on Retallack’s “Not a Cage”
watch further discussion of Retallack’s “Not a Cage”

read a description of mesostics
read a brief excerpt from John Cage’s “Writing through Howl
read three pages on “Writing through Howl” by Marjorie Perloff
try your hand at making your own mesostic
read a selection of John Cage’s adagia
listen to Cage speak about why he seeks to “mak[e] English less understandable”
listen to an excerpt from Jackson Mac Low’s “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore”
read Daniel Kane’s comment on Mac Low with reference to Peter Innisfree Moore
view Mac Low’s chart for performers of “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore
read an article about Peter Innisfree Moore
read Mac Low’s elaborate performance instructions for “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore”
watch discussion of chance poetry & mourning
listen to Mac Low’s 1978 reading of Stein’s “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass”
listen to Mac Low’s commentary on Tender Buttons
read a brief introduction to Mac Low’s Stein poems
read Mac Low’s poem #100 in his Stein series, “A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair”
listen to Mac Low perform “A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair”
read Jena Osman’s “Dropping Leaflets”
listen to Osman perform “Dropping Leaflets”
listen to PoemTalk on Osman’s “Dropping Leaflets”
(alt.) listen to an abridged (17-min.) version of PoemTalk on “Dropping Leaflets”
read a selection of Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments
read Joan Retallack’s “Not a Cage”
listen to Retallack read “Not a Cage”
read/listen to Retallack’s “Not a Cage” as text-audio alignment
listen to PoemTalk on Retallack’s “Not a Cage”
(alt.) listen to an abridged (18-min.) version of the PoemTalk discussion of Retallack’s “Not a Cage”
John Cage
Joan Retallack’s “Not a Cage”

WEEK 10: 9 hours to complete

chapter 9.3 (week 10)—some trends in recent poetry: conceptualism & unoriginality

We will then have a final day (November 15-16) to wrap up and say our final words. For those doing ModPo on their own or in small groups, the week 10 materials are open and available all year.</p><p>Not every artist we meet here claims to be part of a trend or movement now widely known as conceptualist poetics or uncreative writing. Some have at times embraced one or both of those terms: Christian Bok, Caroline Bergvall, Tracie Morris. Others, such as Rosmarie Waldrop, have been involved in appropriative and unoriginal practices for decades. Erica Baum is a photographer of found language who seems to thrive in the atmosphere created by the explicit conceptualists. Michael Magee is an original Flarfist, which some see as divergent from conceptualism but here at least seems certainly a cousin. Others we encounter in our final week (Jordan Abel and Tracie Morris) are using unoriginality and linguistic borrowing and “writing through” for their own reasons and are creating distinct effects. But every artist in chapter 9.3 displays an intense virtuosity that defies what most people at first expect from writings made out of such an adamant rejection of creativity. Bök’s “Eunoia” is virtuosic. So is Nasser Hussain’s “SKY WRI TEI NGS,” which confines itself to words formed by three-letter airport codes. We hope that despite the strangeness of it all you will find pleasure in watching them undertake their hyper-concentrated, seemingly impossible projects. What can look easy in such experimentalism is often demanding in the extreme. It’s hard to imagine better examples of this than “Africa(n)” or “Eunoia” or “SKY WRI TEI NGS.”

watch video on Bök’s “Eunoia”
watch video on Baum’s “Card Catalogue” and “Dog Ear”
watch video on Caroline Bergvall’s “VIA”
watch video on Magee’s “Pledge” & “My Angie Dickinson”
watch video on Waldrop’s “Shorter American Memory”
watch discussion of Nasser Hussain’s SKY WRI TEI NGS
(alt.) watch abridgement of Nasser Hussain discussion
watch discussion of Jordan Abel’s “The Place of Scraps”
(alt.) watch abridged version of Jordan Abel discussion
watch video on Tracie Morris’s “Africa(n)” & final words
read Christian Bök, “Chapter E” of “Eunoia”
listen to Christian Bök perform “Chapter E” of “Eunoia”
read & look at Erica Baum’s “Card Catalogue”
read & look at Erica Baum’s “Dog Ear”
listen to Caroline Bergvall perform “VIA”
read Caroline Bergvall’s “VIA”
read Bergvall’s preface to “VIA”
read Brian Reed’s essay on Bergvall’s “VIA”
listen to a PoemTalk discussion of Bergvall’s “VIA”
read an excerpt from Michael Magee’s “Pledge
read Magee’s comments on ModPo’ers’ responses to “Pledge”
read Ron Silliman on Michael Magee’s “My Angie Dickinson”
read a selection of poems from Magee’s “My Angie Dickinson”
read Magee’s description of the methodology of “My Angie Dickinson”
read Magee’s definition of “flarf” poetry for Charles Bernstein
read Rosmarie Waldrop’s “Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence”
listen to Waldrop perform “Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence”
listen to an episode of PoemTalk on Waldrop’s “Shorter American Memory”
read Nasser Hussain’s “SKY WRI TEI NGS”
read Jordan Abel’s “The Place of Scraps”
listen to Tracie Morris introduce & perform “Africa(n)”
watch a video of Tracie Morris performing “Africa(n)”
listen to a musical arrangement of “Africa(n)” with Val Jeanty
Morris’s “Africa(n)”