I’m sure this will be greeted with some consternation by some! But, alas, what can I do. Here is a draft of my course description for an undgraduate class called “American Poetry Since 1945.” It’s one of the standard “on the books” classes here at UCLA, and has been taught in the past, in very different ways, by Cal Bedient, Harryette Mullen, Stephen Yenser and Kenneth Lincoln. (And others, I’m sure.)

I’m really glad they’ve let me take a stab at it. Clearly I’m trying to hit as many bases as I can — it’s a bit overstuffed (none of my predecessors assigned two books a week), but even so, misses a lot of points. Hence the final paragraph, which invites the interested student to pursue their own independent course of study within the context of the class.

One or two “contemporary” poets (whose names I’ll omit) I might have listed had I had any idea at all how to teach them. This isn’t to say that I’ve only included very “teachable” poetry, just that I felt compelled to omit one or two who I don’t think I understand enough to feel qualified to impart any knowledge about, or insight into, how to write about them (since, in the end, the students will be writing papers about one or a group of these poets). I also tended toward poets I thought would be appealing to the young.

I thought it was important to include a section of Los Angeles poets, since I don’t think (as I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog) anyone has any idea of the depth (not to mention strangeness) of the work that is being done, and has been done, out here. UCLA (the campus) feels quite far away from what one could call “Los Angeles” proper (you know, the dirty, urban parts), and of course I would want to encourage any of my young students, especially if they are writers, to think of this city as a place where writing can be done.

So, this is a draft. Many of my adjectives are a little funky (where’s Michael Scharf when you need him?), and there might be some switch-outs of names or titles in the next week or so. But I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and so I think it’s quite solid. I wanted to assign Donald Allen’s anthology along with the Norton but that seemed overkill and they duplicate a lot of material. The “Vintage” anthology is the one edited by J. D. McClatchy.

I’ll probably make a better go of this one than I did “American Poetry Before 1900,” which I taught last year, given my long acquaintance with a lot of these poets, not to mention personal interactions and friendships with many of them. I mean, I did pee next to John Greenleaf Whittier once at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project (1845 or so), but it didn’t help me understand his poetry.

American Poetry Since 1945

The Modernist Period in American poetry was marked by an incredible number of advances in poetics: the polyglot, metrically intricate work of Ezra Pound, the “Cubist,” nearly abstract work of Gertrude Stein, the word-centered “variable foot” of William Carlos Williams, the philosophically nuanced, European-inflected work of Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, the typographical experiments of E.E. Cummings, the complex syllabic stanzas of Marianne Moore and the collective efforts of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen (along with prose writers such as Zora Neal Hurston) to create a distinctly African American voice in literature. More formally conservative, but no less vital, poets, such as Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost and the Southern Agrarians (John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate), were equally active during these years.

This course attempts to provide a map to the large number of important, engaging American poets who started their careers in the period following World War II, during which time many of the above writers were still very active and being accepted into the mainstream, and continues to consider several poets who are at present in mid-career.

The course starts with a consideration of the first major generation of poets to follow the Modernists, usually classed under the title of “Confessional” poets due to their tendency to reveal in their writing aspects of their personal lives that would not have been considered suitable material for poetry mere decades earlier: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and John Berryman. Other important poets writing around this time – most notably Elizabeth Bishop – rarely were so candid in their work, but maintained strong ties with this group. A slightly younger group of writers, such as A.R Ammons, James Merrill and James Wright, will also be considered in these sessions.

The course will then move on to various other groupings of poets – such as the “New York School” (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler), Beat Poetry (Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso), Projective Verse (Charles Olson , Robert Creeley) and poets associated with the “San Francisco Renaissance” (Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer) – all of whom first reached a wider audience through publication in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology “The New American Poetry” in 1960. These poets generally challenged not only the ways that poetry could be written, but also the types of content – openly non-conformist, sexually “liberated,” anti-academic, at times vulgar and often very funny – that could be included in poetry, setting the stage for what would become the widespread cultural revolution of the Sixties.

The course then moves on to poets in the spirit (though often actively contradicting the tenets) of the New Americans, such as the Language School – writers who sought to synthesize the most recalcitrant strands of Modernism with a Leftist critique of capitalist culture (Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, etc.) – and poets of color who, inspired both by the Harlem Renaissance and various more revolutionary strands in American culture, sought to create a poetry that disturbed the normality of poetic discourse by including all sorts of elements in the language to signify their (and language’s) “otherness” (Amirki Baraka and other poets of the Black Art Movement, Victor Hernandex Cruz, Jessica Hagedorn, etc.). These poets could, collectively, be called poets of the “Americas,” not acknowledging that there is something called a “standard English” that poetry has to be written in but several different “Americas” existing in (and troubling) the whole.

It is, of course, nearly impossible to give a complete picture of the wilds of American poetry as it is developing today. With this in mind, the last 4 weeks of the course are devoted to 8 younger poets who are in mid-career.

One week will be spent reading two important Canadian poets who have made a huge impact on American poetry in the past decade and a half, the experimental, craftsman-like Christian Bok and the prolific classicist Ann Carson. We will then move to on to look at how lyric poetry is being employed in the philosophically nuanced sonnets of Ben Lerner and the hilarious, subversive serial poetry of CA Conrad. Next, we will look at “conceptual” poetry (poetry of process) as it is practiced, to very different ends, by politically-engaged poet/critic Juliana Spahr and the New York impresario avant-gardist Kenneth Goldsmith. Last , we will read two books by poets from East L.A., the imagistic, often satirical prose poems of Japanese American Sesshu Foster and the visionary surrealist work of the increasingly-esteemed Black poet Will Alexander.

This course is designed so that students – using the two large anthologies that they will be purchasing along with books they can purchase on their own – can trace their own thematic, formal, even geographical lineages, traditions and trajectories through the period covered and to write a final paper on them. Such alternative groupings include feminist poets, gay poets, California poets, visual poets, formal poets, etc. To this end, several “alternative” suggested readings will be provided, though, of course, each student is required to do all of the assigned reading and secondary assignments as well.

00. Introduction: A review of Modernism
01. Vintage Contemporary Poetry – Robert Lowell & “Confessional” Poetry
02. Vintage Contemporary Poetry – Bishop/Ammons/Merrill, etc.
03. Postmodern American Poetry –The Beats & the San Francisco Renaissance
04. Postmodern American Poetry – The New York School & Projective Verse
05. Postmodern American Poetry – Language Poetry
06. Postmodern American Poetry – The “Poetics of the Americas”
07. Two Canadians: Christian Bok & Anne Carson
08. Versions of the Lyric: Ben Lerner & CA Conrad
09. Conceptual Poets: Juliana Spahr & Kenneth Goldsmith
10. Los Angeles Poetry: Sesshu Foster & Will Alexander