Monday, January 16, 2006

Poetry: an eccentric list of ten

Classes begin tomorrow. I’m teaching two sections of a first-year (college) core course, an introduction to literature. So, my brain is crowded with the logistics of the syllabus. I decided to focus on close reading rather than comprehensiveness this year. That means only six short stories, only one play, and, most strange, heartbreaking and painful of all, only ten poems. We end with Mrs. Dalloway and a bunch of related secondary readings. I spent a lovely Friday in the main reading room at the New York Public Library going through my anthology (R.S. Gwynn’s Literature: A Pocket Anthology: only thirty dollars and full of good old stuff, not the typical, heavily contemporary short anthology) and picking twenty poems. Pulling it together today, I realized that, as usual, I had about a week less than I thought. That means, only ten poems. What an odd list that makes. Not at all what I would have expected, but I think a fun and formally, thematically diverse selection of tough poems worthy of intense thought. Here they are:
  1. John Donne, “The Canonization,” 1633
  2. Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” 1881
  3. Emily Dickinson, “I felt a funeral in my brain,” 1896
  4. William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” 1807
  5. Gwendolyn Brooks, “the mother,” 1945
  6. Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” 1980
  7. George Herbert, “Easter Wings,” 1633
  8. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” 1819
  9. Elizabeth Bishop, “The Fish,” 1946
  10. Frank O'Hara, “The Day Lady Died,” 1964

It’s weird and heartbreaking to leave off Yeats and Eliot. I feel bad that there is not a sonnet in the bunch but we are doing Othello so don’t despair of Shakespeare’s absence. Strangely, this does not look anything like what my top ten favorite poem list would look like (not that that does—or will—exist). What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I don't have any comments on the specific poems, but I just wanted to say that I worked on the Gwynn Literature series, years ago, when it first came out. Longman hired my company to do the interior design and production of all the books in the series (we were willing to work cheap, which is one reasone the books are so cheap). I'm glad to see the books are still in use (though I think the series has since been revised, so the work is no longer mine).

Anonymous said...

Oops! "reasone"?

Good thing I wasn't the one proofreading the thing!

Unknown said...

That's cool. I think they're probably also cheap *because* they use so much older material. But I really think it's a boon to have the plays move from Sophocles up to the present, to have the poems go all the way back to "The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence," etc. I get most excited when I'm teaching literature that is hard enough that students need a professor's help to get it--and that means lots of earlier stuff (and of course, my beloved high modernism).

Anonymous said...

Can ten poems be "eccentric" if they've already been collected into an anthology? A syllabus should require a little more thought than an afternoon in a reading room the day before class starts. Your students read this blog and have higher expectations of you than you apparently do of us.

Anonymous said...

"I think they're probably also cheap because they use so much older material."


I'm not terribly ashamed to admit that I was a pioneer in making cheap anthologies, starting with my own book 80 Readings, which you can still find on Amazon as cheaply as $0.92!

Another trick we used on that book was finding more contemporary public-domain material, including presidential speeches and Nobel Lectures, as well as near-free material such as student essays.

Anonymous said...


You're right. Only poems that have never been anthologized can be "eccentric" or even vaguely interesting. And professors should spend weeks -- nay months -- selecting poems for analysis that no one has ever heard of, especially in a lit survey class. You see, students forced to meet distribution requirements have exacting tastes in literature. They're jaded -- they don't want to read chestnuts. They've burned out on deconstructionism, post-feminism, and new historicism. Only gay cowboy poetry and nihilist post-post-modern anachronistic pseudorealism will do with this crowd.

Blake said...

Oh, come off it, anonymous. Boo.

Also, interesting trend in Lit anthologies: the academic publisher I work at is starting a program where they will keep a database of poems, plays, and short stories online, and a professor will be able to choose which selections to include in a custom anthology to be printed.

Bud Parr said...

Wow, I think Anon is forgetting the years (and I do mean years and years) of training that went into making that selection so easy to put together.

Sarahlynn said...

That list of poems certainly looks like it comes from the syllabus of an intro/core course. Sure, it would be nice to have some Eliot on there. But I think you made a very good decision when deciding to facilitate better discussions of fewer poems. There's so much to cover in each of those pieces.

Also - very important for a survey/distribution requirement/intro course - these poems are likely to leave lasting impressions, and be referred to again and again. When your students are 30 someone will quote a line from the Wordsworth and they'll remember it. At odd moments, they'll be reminded of "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and they'll be grateful.

Or, at least, I know that I am.

Sarahlynn said...

OK, I'm still thinking about this.

In Masterpieces of Literature Part I, a general distribution requirement and a required course for all English majors, we read Greek and Roman classics, unsurprisingly.

But I'd never encountered that stuff before. I'm sure that the professors get bored teaching the same texts over and over. But for each group of students, the material is new and fresh.

We read The Illiad, we read The Odyssey, and we were supposed to read Ovid's Metamorphosis. I was really excited about that one, but the professor wasn't. He chose, instead, to have us read a modern retelling of the story. Since I'd never read the original, I didn't get it. At all. It would have been a lot of fun to read the modern version *after* I'd learned the classic.

Just like it's OK to play with sentence structure, but only *after* one has demonstrated mastery of the form.

I bought Metamorphosis and read it on my own, but I still wish I'd studied it in school, with a professor to explicate the text and shape the discussion.