by Judy Lightfoot, PhD

(excerpt from an article published in English Journal, January 1992.)

[Please see also Understanding Poetry. For a complete list of academic publications, please see Résumé page.]

For years I felt incompetent at teaching modern poetry. Perhaps it was because I'd concentrated on Shakespeare and on nineteenth-century American and British literature in college long ago, and learned to interpret poems partly by distinguishing literal or concrete experience from abstract meanings inferred from it. But this process does not work well with modern poetry, where experience is less separable from meaning and where narrative or scene does not so much symbolize ideas as to become in itself a metaphorical equivalent of complex internal events......

My reeducation in the moderns was rooted in rhetorical readings of the poetry, and it grew with the help of criticism focusing on cultural backgrounds of the period and the authors. Inspiration and encouragement came partly from the boldness of thought and experimentation among the moderns themselves. Their boldness can awaken in teacher and students an intellectual courage, a disposition to experiment, and a willingness to face with a degree of hopeful effort a world even less hospitable than the one that moderns saw themselves as inhabiting. My students are curious about poets who would devote their lives to liberating language so that the world might be described afresh; they are intrigued by the notion that poetry might be revitalized by words knocked free of barnacled encrustations of convention; they are struck by the moderns' belief that a writer who got clean words to work with could change the world.

Beginning: A Rhetorical Approach to Poetry

My best resource for developing approaches to teaching modern poetry in secondary school was the work of Robert Scholes, whose monograph Elements of Poetry (1969) is a concise -- one wants to say elegant -- introduction to rhetorical approaches for reading poetry of any period. In 85 pages, Scholes "help[s] the student of poetry to acquire tact" in reading poems (9), a tact which "acknowledges the diversity of poetry" and which helps students and teacher enter into a work with attitudes "appropriate to the special nature of the poem under consideration." (7)

With the assistance of Scholes' ideas, I have come to insist that my students practice the discipline of opening every discussion of a poem with these inseparable questions: Who is the speaker of the poem, and what is his or her relation to the situation? This starting point has the advantage of helping students and teacher respond well to one of the great challenges of modern poetry, which poetry of earlier times tends less often to present.

That is, with the exception of some visionary or mystical poetry, the concrete details of poems from earlier times typically elaborate themes which are introduced or clearly implied as a poem unfolds according to a logical, chronological, or otherwise conventional structure. We know fairly precisely where the speaker of "Frost at Midnight," of "Ulysses" or of "Dover Beach" is, whom he is addressing, which of the details refers to sensations and which to imagined events, and how one detail coheres with the next. Thus we can begin to see almost from the start of a second reading some of the larger meanings as well as some more subtle aspects of the poem's artistry. Subsequent readings give us the pleasure of discovering greater and deeper intricacies in a pattern whose outlines are fairly apparent early on.

However, readers of modern poems are faced with unstated, evolving themes and quirky, self-creating structures, and they must puzzle out these matters while immersed in details that cannot be read well until such matters are clear. It is as if even before encountering a certain poem one has been assumed to possess attitudes and an awareness completely in tune with its author's.

Students who were taught (as I was) to begin work on poems with questions about theme, form or other larger aspects, without first having grounded themselves in at least a provisionally clear sense of speaker and situation, will come up with some fantastic interpretations of modern poems indeed. But a student who has read, say, Plath's "The Moon and the Yew Tree" the first time or two while deliberately seeking to ascertain that the speaker is a person standing in a yard between her house and a church at night and reflecting in response to her surroundings will avoid making all kinds of mistakes common in readings of modern poetry, whose subject(s) and theme(s) present themselves erratically, and in some instances merge, divide or change altogether in the process of unfolding.

To summarize, in the characteristic absence from modern poetry of a relatively stable theme or a conventionally employed form, rhetorical approaches can lead secondary students fairly quickly to a center that will guide their specific observations. Of course, students also revise and elaborate the qualities of speaker and situation as they ground their observations about the details of the poem in these central concepts. And since in poems such as "The Waste Land" the speakers and situations themselves change unpredictably, one must sometimes warn students to watch for such changes and to mark the places where the identity or circumstances of the speaker alter or dissolve.

When first asked to decide who the speaker of a poem is, beginning students will typically ponder and talk with their partners intently for several minutes before sagely offering the conclusion that (say) Wallace Stevens is the speaker of "Disillusionment at Ten O'Clock." I reply that even if they happen to have gotten the speaker's name right, the name gives no information useful to our understanding of this poem. They must begin to explain what sort of character, personality, and emotional attitudes 'Wallace Stevens' expresses during the moments of speaking the poem in order to begin to understand it. Incidentally, then, the rhetorical approach I am describing frees the teacher from having to enforce an interpretive "rule" which students usually find pointless and which is often simply wrong: that "the poet is never the speaker of a poem." In much Romantic and modern poetry, the poet is indeed the speaker. However (I tell students), even a detailed knowledge of the writer's entire life is insufficient to explain the aesthetic moment of a particular poem; they will need to dig into the evidence the poem itself provides before they can begin answering satisfactorily the questions about speaker and situation that initiate and ground our interpretive task.

Scholes' short book has much to offer: about the function of poetry, about metaphor, and about music, as well as about categories for poems that give students a language for explaining the speaker's relation to a poem's central situation (e.g., drama and narration; description and meditation). His approaches help students learn that speakers of even the most explicitly autobiographical poems are dramatic creations. With sustained practice in rhetorical approaches, older students can move toward structural readings which will help them appreciate the fact that the speaker in modern poems is often not really a single imagined character or personality with a particular history and situation or audience but a voice or (more often) voices from a collective consciousness.

Backgrounds to Modern Poetry:

After Scholes' book I recommend moving to three chapters in C. K. Stead's The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot (1964), to a few pages in Hugh Kenner's The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1985), and to the brief introductory chapter of Helen Vendler's companion to the PBS video series, Voices & Visions: The Poet in America (1987). These provide concise backgrounds for the modernist period and modern poetry by relating them to earlier literary times. They also help explain aspects of modern poetry that make it revolutionary, and an emphasis on the revolutionary quality of modern poetry brings its vitality, uniqueness and importance home to students.

The most useful section of Stead's book comprises chapters 3, 4 and 5, in particular pages 49-118. Here Stead summarizes the situation of English poetry between 1906 and 1916, during which

[t]he popular poets ... were not those who offered the complex qualities usually associated with good poetry, but those whose minds ran at the level of public expectation. Poetry was acceptable when it effectively versified Imperialist sentiments, the public school spirit, or patriotic fervour: otherwise it was unlikely to be widely read. The result was a low-charged literary atmosphere in which second-rate men grotesquely assumed the mannerisms considered appropriate to the position of public bard. And with this 'debasement of the literary coin' went an almost total elimination of active criticism. (1964, 49)
Stead explains how the work of Kipling and some of the Georgians exemplified this flaccid Romanticism, how Pound responded to the times with a harder-edged kind of writing (sometimes also represented in Imagist poetry), and how Eliot's criticism opened the way for a major new poetic movement.

At this point, a delightful discovery for me was a witty, brief illustration of some differences between modernist poetry and some of the work that modernists were reacting against. In Kenner's book on Pound (1985, 66-70), the critic compares Housman's "The Chestnut Casts Its Flambeaux" with a lyric by Pound and then moves to a second comparison with Tennyson. Kenner subtly and beautifully demonstrates the difference between poems that possess "an inherent emotional weight" (68), as Pound's lyric does, and poems that depend on melodramatically awakening nostalgia and other sentiments in readers by evoking their personal memories, as Housman's does. Modernist poetry was greatly influenced by Pound's art as explained by Kenner here. Even students who prefer Housman's or Tennyson's poems can appreciate the self-contained clarity of Pound's work and can bring this appreciation to comparable poetry of other modern writers.

Subsequent readings in Vendler turned my attention from British to American modernism and to further useful comparisons with writings of the preceding century. Vendler begins her introductory chapter to Voices and Visions (1987) by illustrating how Wallace Stevens transformed Keatsian modes into a truly American voice, as in a passage from "Sunday Morning" that recalls "Ode to a Nightingale" (ix) -- an excellent pair of passages for a classroom exercise in comparing poems to determine differences as well as influences. In the rest of the chapter Vendler describes Whitman's and Dickinson's impact on twentieth-century American poets; then she explains how,

[t]urning away from its earlier ideological commitment to celebrating American history and American landscape, [American poetry] began with modernist inwardness ... to take consciousness itself as its chief problem, and, in doing so, to feel itself part of the history of the larger world. American poetry, like America itself, could not, after the First World War, remain isolationist. (1987, xix)
The 21 pages of Vendler's introductory chapter constitute a fine, succinct survey of the distinctive background, concerns and voices of modern American poetry.

Four Modern Poets:

During my year of study I worked the hardest on poets whom I had previously had difficulties teaching or whom I had avoided entirely: Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore.

To better understand Pound, I opened Hugh Kenner's classic The Pound Era (1971), but found it so rich in unfamiliar information that I was unable to take it all in. I put off reading this book until a biography of Pound could give me a chronological sense of his life, times and associates that was clear and strong enough to make Kenner's material stick. Humphrey Carpenter's A Serious Character: A Life of Ezra Pound (1988) gives a wonderfully readable account of one of the most eccentric, brilliant, witty, infuriating characters who ever wrote. Carpenter offers little of value about the poetry, but the poet's life and times are rendered with zest and historical substance. With a narrative grasp of Pound's life and times, I found it easier to assimilate Kenner's more intellectual and literary achievement.

But two long books like these constitute a major undertaking, and teachers with insufficient time for them might instead read three short pieces: Kenner's essay on Pound in Voices and Visions, Lewis Hyde's ingenious reading of Pound's antisemitism in his The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1979), and the section on Pound in Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing (1982), edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell.

By itself, the chapter in Sleeping on the Wing prepares a teacher for class work of two days or more on Pound, thus providing an adequate starting point for one who is short of preparation time. In this anthology, several of Pound's early poems are followed first by a brief, readable essay on his poetic aims and then by an assignment asking students to improve their understanding of Pound's poetry by writing imitations of it. (Repeating this basic pattern of offering a selection of poetry, a short critical essay and an imitation assignment, Koch's and Farrell's anthology provides an illuminating introduction to 23 poets -- all of them twentieth-century writers except for Whitman and Dickinson. The book is based on the idea that students can best understand poetry from the inside out -- i.e., from having tried themselves to write in the same ways a poet has written. Though I would prefer selections different from what the book offers for certain poets, e.g. for Dickinson and Yeats, I value what I have learned from Koch's and Farrell's approach and continue to use their work. Incidentally, anyone trying to teach Eliot would find helpful and illuminating their short critical essay and imitation assignment in response to "Prufrock.")

Most helpful in understanding the poetry of Wallace Stevens was Helen Vendler's Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (1986). Concise, lucid and sympathetic, it explores the shorter poems as a series of experiments on the author's part, an approach that demystifies poems that might otherwise feel dauntingly grand and mysterious or needlessly obscure. Seen in the light Vendler offers, Stevens' work also becomes hospitable to an "inside-out" approach, in which students can experiment with writing imitations of his poems, and Sleeping on the Wing offers a useful essay and imitation assignment for Stevens.

For my teaching of William Carlos Williams, nothing compared with Bram Dijkstra's Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (1969). Dijkstra explores the influence of modernist painting, sculpture and photography on Williams' poetry, offering a unique way of talking not only about this poetry but about the work of other modernists, including prose writers such as James Joyce. Dijkstra's introductory story of Williams' startled and delighted response to New York City's Armory Show in 1913 helps one see why the poet became convinced that poems begin not as ideas but as an almost visual layout of words. In the chapter "The Poem as Canvas" Dijkstra explains Williams' rejection of narrative poetic structures in favor of fragmented spatial ones. For the classroom teacher, comparisons of Williams' work with the modern visual arts can be usefully augmented with PBS's Voices and Visions videotape on Williams (in this series of 13 tapes, the ones most worth viewing are those on Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Plath, Hughes, Crane, Williams, and Moore). Finally, Sleeping on the Wing offers a good short essay and imitation assignment on Williams.

Marianne Moore is one of the poets I found hardest to understand. The Voices and Visions videotape is of considerable assistance, as is John M. Slatin's chapter on Moore in Vendler's book of the same name. Slatin explains that Moore approached the burning modernist question about how poetry should be written by making the question itself a central theme of her work, and he gives a teacher useful language for the subjects and spirit of the poems. And with Moore, as with Pound, Stevens and Williams, it is inspiring and educational for students to try writing an imitation or two. Since Moore's work does not appear in the Koch-Farrell anthology, I will here digress to explain an assignment I made up on my own.

Several weeks before beginning study of Moore, I ask students to write down the name of a subject they are interested in (flowers, the Civil War, buildings, the Pacific coast, a certain mountain, Alaska) and to begin gathering diverse short quotations, clippings, sketches or cartoons, and a list of objects they come across that remind them of or inform them about this subject. Quotations might come up in the work of other poets we're reading, in the morning newspaper, in history class, or in the conversation of friends. Clippings can come from magazine advertisements or (again) the morning paper, and may be passages of text or pictures. Objects to list might be items seen in a store or on a billboard, mentioned in a song, remembered from the past, or preserved in a photograph. I inquire regularly into how students' collections of random materials are coming, and ask them to aim for a manila envelope full of 50 items. I ask them to add slips of paper on which they have written a half-dozen statements of their own about their subject: what they think and feel about it.

Just before we start work on Moore, students choose the 30 items that interest them most and bring to class their envelopes of clippings, sketches, pictures, and, in vivid ink written on separate slips of paper, the personal statements they drafted and the quotations and phrases they collected from other sources. In class, each student makes a large collage of his or her envelope of selected materials. That night, they take their collages home and, based on use of as many as possible of the diverse materials displayed in their particular collages, they draft an experimental 25-line free-verse meditation (Scholes, 1969, makes this term useful) on their chosen subject. After sharing some of the collages and verse drafts in class next day, we begin reading Moore -- with students more vitally aware of her artistry than they would be after just talking about her work.

Concluding the Study:

Lynn Keller's Re-Making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition rounds out a teacher's study of modern poetry with an elegant introductory essay which (in only 14 pages) gives a summarizing characterization of modern poetry and its influence on contemporary poets. In the process, Keller offers a cogent language for talking about the moderns and for comparing and contrasting their achievements with contemporary achievements and aims. The body of Keller's book is also valuable: she pairs four modern poets with later counterparts (Stevens with Ashbery, Moore with Bishop, Williams with Creeley, and Auden with Merrill) in order to explore continuities and discontinuities between the two traditions and between some of their major representatives. But the short opening chapter is rich and rewarding enough in itself to make the book worth seeking out, and the remainder can wait until there is more time to take it in.

With the kind of confidence that can derive from mastering some rhetorical approaches to poetry, with some new background knowledge of the modern period, and with the inspiration of the courageous modern poets themselves, I can now turn to a modern poem I've never seen before and know that exploring it with my students will take us somewhere worthwhile.


Carpenter, Humphrey. 1988. A Serious Character: A Life of Ezra Pound. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Dijkstra, Bram.1969. Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.

Hyde, Lewis.1979.The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage.

Keller, Lynn.1987. Re-Making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kenner, Hugh. 1985. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

__________. 1971. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Koch, Kenneth, and Kate Farrell. eds. 1982. Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing. New York: Vintage.

Scholes, Robert. 1971. Elements of Poetry . New York: Oxford University Press.

Stead, C. K. 1964. The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Vendler, Helen. 1987.Voices & Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House.

____________. 1986. Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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