More Contemporary Connections (Keats and Contemporary Poetry)

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Deidre’s great post on “contemporaneity” sets things up nicely for me to introduce the class I’m teaching this semester, a new grad seminar on “Keats and Contemporary [as in contemporary to us] Poetry.” In my department, we have an excellent creative writing MFA program alongside our MA programs in Literature and in the Teaching of Writing and Literature (we don’t have a doctoral program in literature). I designed this course in part to get a mix of poetry MFA students and MA students into my seminar—I’ll confess that I even focus-grouped the topic with the creative writing faculty to find out what would most attract practicing poets to the course (for what it’s worth, the word was that Keats, Blake and Wordsworth would be the likeliest draws). I’ve loved it in the past when MFA students have shown up in my grad seminars—they’re amazingly perceptive readers and they help shape the conversation in provocative ways—but it's been hard sometimes to get the MA and the MFA students into classes together, as the MFA students tend to fill up their schedules with courses taught by the creative writers. This seminar starts out from the observation that contemporary poets turn with perhaps surprising frequency back to Romantic poets, and perhaps in special ways (not more or less but maybe different) to Keats (territory explored by Jeffrey Robinson in his wonderful book, and a point recently exemplified by Stanley Plumly’s “personal biography” of Keats, among many other instances). We’ve been spending the first half of the semester reading widely in Keats (the poetry and the letters), and we’re gradually moving on to consider modern and contemporary poetry that in some way addresses, reworks, reimagines, recalls or challenges “Keats” (the poet or the poems). So far, the course has been a real joy to teach.

It’s only recently struck me that in a way this seminar could be an answer to a question I was asked in a job interview when I was first on the market some years ago. This was a job (I didn’t get) at a very good and fairly arty liberal arts college, and the interviewer described the undergraduates there as quite interested in contemporary poetry but rather reluctant to try anything older. How, he wanted to know, would I get them into my Romanticism courses? My flustered answer at the time had to do with the on-going relevance of key Romantic concerns (e.g., modern ideas of selfhood, democracy, community, the ecological imagination—I forget which I talked about, but you get the drift) and the modernity of the Romantic movement as a self-consciously experimental avant-garde. After the interview, I began to suspect I had misread the question (are there really undergraduates adventurous enough to take in contemporary poetry but still skittish about Romanticism?); it dawned on me that I had been asked to justify Romanticism not to the undergraduates, but to the interviewer himself (who worked on contemporary literature). In my next interview, I tried a different tactic, and had ready a whole speech about the excitement of the historical moment in itself (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” etc.) that I delivered to nice effect when I got a different version of the “why teach Romanticism at all?” question. But what I realize now is that the interviewer’s question about Romanticism’s contemporary interest is one that contemporary poets, at least, do not in fact need to ask. For the most part, that is, their question is not whether they have a relationship to Romanticism—it goes without saying they do—but rather, just what the relation is.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I teach Keats and contemporary poetry to a group of bright, curious students, some of whom are themselves "contemporary poets" and some of whom have precious little experience with contemporary poetry. Over the semester, I’ll be posting reports on how all this going, including how we adjust to the varying expectations and expertise different groups of students bring to the course. For now, just a few observations on the difference it makes teaching Keats in this context— “Keats for poets” in more than one sense. If in my undergraduate Romanticism courses I do often try to sell Romantic poetry by using both the contemporary relevance and historical difference arguments I mentioned above, here, because these are grad students and because Romanticism and the contemporary is in fact the topic of the seminar, I’ve been holding back on the sales pitch to let the students themselves arrive at a position on Romanticism’s “contemporaneity.” So far, that’s been working well. We’ve had some great comparative discussions of poems, such as James Schuyler’s marvelous “Verge” paired with “To Autumn,” or Rachel Hadas’s “Sappho, Keats” paired with the “Nightingale” ode it riffs on. Both the MFA and MA students have been making telling connections not just between Keats’s poetry and contemporary poetics but also between Keats’s experience as a poet making a career for himself and that of the contemporary poets we’re studying. The poets in the class—who are very alive to matters of form, meter, and style—have also nudged the discussions in the direction of Keats’s technique and his habits of composition in rewarding ways. In this regard, the MFA students can be both much less reverential and, at the same time, much more awed by Keats than my undergraduate English majors: the MFA students have a “how did he do that?” response to Keats’s various fluencies that feels to me a lot like a young basketball player watching film of some NBA legend pulling off spectacular shots or incredible mid-air moves. And when we were talking about Keats and coterie production, both the MFA and the MA students had fun doing some timed sonnets on set subjects, though they reported it a very challenging exercise—and a couple of the sonnets I got from the MFA students were simply jaw-droppingly good: poems I thought I should be teaching rather than grading. If I can get permission I’ll try to post some here.

I'm wondering about the experiences of others who have taught courses stressing connections (and disjunctions) between Romanticism and contemporary writing—the ideas Roger, Crystal, and Deidre have already tossed out are intriguing. What’s worked and what hasn’t worked? If anyone’s taught a “Keats & Contemporary Poetry” course in particular, I’d love to compare notes!

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Eric, I just want to take


I just want to take your course! It looks fascinating. I haven't yet read Robinson's book, but I'm putting it on my list as we speak. And I completely agree with what you said here: "For the most part, that is, their question is not whether they have a relationship to Romanticism—it goes without saying they do—but rather, just what the relation is." I've often had this thought, but never expressed it so well.

I think the collaborative aspect of your course sounds really interesting as well. At Georgia Tech, we have the opportunity to teach sections that are limited to a specific major. So, my partner is actually teaching a course in the Victorian Home and having architecture majors take the course. Similarly, I know one of my colleagues taught Ulysses and opened it only to engineering majors. I think such opportunities are wonderful for challenging preconceived notions of what literature should mean. For example, my partner isn't an architect, she's more interested in domesticity and Victorian economics. But I feel that the structure of her course could alter how she thinks about the material.

I wonder if anyone else has had much experience experimenting with different student populations in their courses. If so, how did these populations impact the content or the teaching of your course?

Eric, I find the connections

Eric, I find the connections between contemporary poetry that you discuss in this post really exciting. I was similarly intrigued by Deidre's discussion of using 20th- and 21st-century poetry as a way to connect the Romantics with our own time. I am curious whether anyone uses contemporary prose in a similar way, either in connection with Romantic poetry or prose? For example, would one think of using Adam Foulds's recent _The Quickening Maze_ to teach Clare? Or maybe use current sports reporting on ultimate fighting (or any sport, really) to demonstrate the legacy of Hazlitt's "The Fight"?

Roger and Lindsey, thanks for

Roger and Lindsey, thanks for your encouraging comments! Roger, it'll be interesting to hear more about how the course your partner is teaching shifts her view on the material. And Lindsey, I've been itching to read Adam Foulds's novel! How did you like it? The sports reporting idea is brilliant. I think using contemporary prose such as _The Quickening Maze_ could be terrific, not only as a way to engage students in the material but also as a way to bring center-stage the problem of historical imagination (and related questions of interpretation and of the narrative shaping of past lives or of a "period"). Too, this could be keyed in the classroom to the study of Romantic works of historical fiction or Romantic constructions of the past in productive ways. In Romanticism courses where it made sense and we had the time—for example, in a course on the Shelley-Byron circle—I've sometimes used recent biographies both to help students imagine the writers we're studying as enmeshed in a particular cultural/historical moment and to encourage students to think about the textualization of the writer's "inner life" and "outer world" (usually, rather than assign a particular biography, I give students a list to choose from and then have them do reports for the class treating the biography as a work of representation--so we can compare the strategies and investments of the various biographies). Contemporary fiction representing the Romantic era in some way could also be great as a means to explore constructions of the period more generally (on the Victoria list, there's always a lot of discussion of neo-Victorianism etc. along these lines). _Frankenstein_ spin-offs are a natural here...and, to switch to film, _Bright Star_!--again, taught as interested constructions of _a_ version of the past, as well as interesting manifestations of the "legacy" of Romantic writing.

Eric, I love your


I love your biography assignment, mostly because I never know how to incorporate biography or even history (beyond lecture or short essays or passages from anthologies) in my period courses. I'd love to teach a course that is about Romantic Historicism...starting with, as you say, the reconstructions of the past by Romantic figures and perhaps reflecting upon the historicity of Romantic history itself. What historical conditions, for example, make the types of historical writing that Romantics engage in possible during the period? But I may be straying into Chandler's territory here!

Roger, You've probably


You've probably already had a look at these, but if not, you'll find lots to interest you along these lines on the RC Pedagogies syllabi page (check out especially those categorized under "Romanticism and Historical Context"). I agree it's a challenge integrating biography and history into the run-of-the-mill survey course: a good topic for a future blog post!

@Roger Whitson Roger --

@Roger Whitson
Roger -- try having students do literary historical research. Confine them to certain sources so they don't feel lost. Then have them enter their data into a timeline. I've done this to great success each time, but most successfully here:

I totally revised the Romantics course into a course on radial and ergodic reading. In other words, students read into certain ur-texts with the peripheral texts. In my case, we read Frankenstein all semester with only a few chapters per week. Of course, by the time we get to that 1831 edition of this novel, Mary has tinkered with all of the Romantic-era themes. So, we were able to visit almost every theme, except working class and drama. But, those are ever a problem in a survey course.