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!