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ENGL 2240: Pt. 4 Modern Variations

Lecture Notes

In this week's readings, we look at some of the modern variations on some of the classical forms of poetry, some contemporary poems, and the rise of the Black voice in American Poetry.  The majority of these readings are rather short, but well worth reading a second or third time.  We left off with cummings, Concrete poetry, and the "field technique" as well as the concept of "Visual Poetry."  Here we begin with a modern take on poetry, a poem composed NOT by the poet, but "found" in another source, generally prose (i.e., a magazine or newspaper article, a speech; something not related to poetry).  The first selection, "The Unknown," was constructed after an answer Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, gave during news briefing on February 12, 2002, about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.  While the poem might seem like garbled gibberish, there is actually some factuality behind the sords, their order, and their meaning:  Known unknowns refers to risks you are aware of, such as canceled flights, whereas unknown unknowns are risks that come from situations that are so unexpected that they would not be considered. Surely, though, this is not the stuff of "poetry."  As evidence (which is usually along with the poem for verification, source notes purposes), here's the LINK to the video of Rumsfeld's answer (poem).  The next poem, "By 1955," is one of the better examples of "found poetry."  The "poem" was located in an article discussing the irony of famed author and poet Jose Luis Borges being the appointed Director of the National Library of Argentina on the cusp of the "digital age."  Both poems are full of verbal irony.

Rather than fading into obscurity, traditional closed forms--especially the sonnet--remain integral to writers.  However, today's modern poet most often finds all of the requirements of the form a bit too restrictive.  Most still employ the 14-line requirement (in either Shakespearean or Petrarchan style), and some may even include iambic pentameter, or rime scheme.  Rarely do they employ all three.  Rather, they might take "liberties," like a shortened line, a shift from the traditional problem/resolution format, or even ignoring end rime (rime at the end of a poetic line), in favor of addressing more contemporary (or, in Dove's case, classical mythology) issues, or using occasional riming like slant rime (rime which occurs internally between lines) or sight rime (words that look like they should rime--dough/rough--but they don't) or what we call "near rime" (words, like sight rime, but they do sound similar-earth/hearth).  See how many of the traditional characteristics of the sonnet you can locate or recognize in these selections.

The poems in the "Contemporary Works" section are well known to modern poetry lovers.  They represent some of the ways contemporary works either employ classical elements, usually with modern "twists" or "takes," or modern riffs with a nostalgic bent.  In "Ash Ode," Dean Young attempts to expand a singular experience into a meditation on love, loss, life, death, regret--all very common themes of poetry.  "Wild Geese," by Mary Oliver, is one of my personal favorites.  Oliver is known for celebrating Nature, in all of it forms.  A keen observer, her poems seem to be merely simple observations, but yet there's always a deeper "lesson," a moral (like Aesop) to be learned.  "How It Is" explores the relationship between the poet, Maxine Kumin, and her dear friend Anne Sexton, a poet who died by suicide.

Anne was a celebrated poet, who discovered her poetics abilities as a therapeutic response to an "assignment" from her psychiatrist.  She published widely, voluminously, and furiously, and was toasted amongst the luminaries of the poetic (generally male) establishment.  (It didn't hurt that she was also a former model.)  However, she found celebrity draining and exhausting, the constant calls for public readings of her works, workshops, etc., and eventually her mental health spiraled downward, ending in her suicide.  During her celebrity, she became fast friends with Maxine Kumin, another rising female poet.  They often scheduled readings together, traveled together, and bonded as women in a traditional male field.  Anne's death was devastating for Maxine.  She went into seclusion for an extended period, but emerged stronger, more confident, and armed with a great amount of new, unpublished work.  "How It Is" comes from that time period.

In the "Black Voices" section, we take a look at the works of several preeminent African-American voices, among them Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, after whom the town in WV, Dunbar (near Charleston) is named.  Each of these poets represents a different generation of black voices, and if you pay close attention, you'll be able to distinguish between them.  Nearly all of them are 20th century poets, although Phillis Wheatley (Peters) was the first published African-American woman in 1773, when her book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral found a publisher in England.  Born in West Africa, she was kidnapped and subsequently sold into enslavement at the age of seven or eight and transported to North America, where she was bought by the Wheatley family of Boston. After she learned to read and write, they encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.  On a 1773 trip to London with her enslaver's son, seeking publication of her work, Wheatley met prominent people who became patrons. The publication brought her fame both in England and the American colonies. Figures such as George Washington praised her work.  A few years later, African-American poet Jupiter Hammon praised her work in a poem of his own.  Wheatley was emancipated by her enslavers shortly after the publication of her book.[5] They soon died, and she married John Peters, a poor grocer. They lost three children, who died young. Wheatley-Peters died in poverty and obscurity at the age of 31.  All of the other African-American poets owe her a debt of gratitude.