Mapping Word and World

In class on Wednesday, we began a project I called “Mapping Word and World at the End of Modernism.”  The easiest answer to what might seem the course’s guiding question–what is modern poetry?–is that it includes the poetry written largely between the two World Wars.  There are potent precursors (Whitman, Dickinson, Poe, Baudelaire, Hopkins, Dunbar), and there are many aftershocks and lingerings (modern poets age well)–but we’re dealing largely with chronology.

But the canon is narrow, and not all can claim literary immortality.  Indeed, many of your earlier posts this semester discussed the lost and forgotten modern poets that you dredged up from experimental little magazines using the Modernist Journals Project.  For a modern poet to end up on the other side of history, there needs to be some distinguishing mark, something of the “modern,” the “just now,” something that essentially binds a poem to its historical and cultural context, something that still speaks powerfully to us today.

But this class has been less about restricting what counts as “modern poetry” than it has been about exploring the simultaneous diversity of the work we’ve read.  Most weeks, we arrive at a set of poems that we must work very hard to hold together in our minds as we asks what the poems share, and what they don’t, and why those similarities and differences matter.

Our 20-odd poems from this week present an interesting challenge.  Most of these poems are written near the end of long poetic careers–this gives many of them a powerfully regretful, often reflective tone. Some seems surprisingly humble.  But even at the end of modernism, the multiple energies that comprise modern poetry cannot be easily contained.  Thus, our map (click on it to enlarge it–it’s really quite legible–thanks, Henry, for taking it):

This map’s two axes represent the two words in the course’s subtitle: the horizontal represents our relation to world and reality; the vertical represent our relation to word and ideality.  The “world” axis moves from retreat (into the past, into the self, into tradition) to engagement (with the world–its people, problems, politics).  The “word” ascends from regret, despair, anger, and sarcasm at the lower limit to faith, hope and optimism (based in philosophical, religious and aesthetic ideals) on the other.  Placing the 20-odd poets we read for today on this map shows, how truly diverse and various modern poetry remains, even as it lasts into the second half of the twentieth century.

I also love that this map got us up and moving and debating during our last class.  I look forward to continuing our discussion in relation to the choices we made on Friday, and I invite you to blog about the poems we read in relation to this map in you posts on the MOD blog for this week.

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2 Responses to Mapping Word and World

  1. whit says:

    On Wednesday, I was, at first, very confused about what exactly we were attempting to do and what it would really accomplish. Poetry is, by its very nature, powered by the emotions and feelings that the words convey. In this regard, I found it the almost mathematical approach to analyzing this week’s reading very odd. But to the exercise’s credit, or possibly the brilliant mind that came up with it, it actually shed some very interesting light on the entire discourse. Me and my partner-in-crime, Tori, were assigned the poems “Carmel Point” by the class favorite, Robinson Jeffers, and “Asphodel that Greeny Flower” by the ever perplexing, William Carlos Williams. When we began deliberating over where we would place “Carmel Point” on the grid, I was initially leaning towards a more negative interpretation of the piece but due to the question we were trying to answer – Is the poem engaging? Retreating? Hopeful or pessimistic? – I came at the poem from a different perspective. In Autumn’s blog post concerning Jeffers’ poem, she praised Jeffers “stoic imagery,” which is a component of Jeffers’ style that I, too, am drawn to. As my reading of “Hurt Hawks” tended toward a negative interpretation, I again approached his work with a similar mentality only to correct myself when coming at it in regards to the graph. While it seems obvious that Jeffers laments a certain loss of natural beauty, which is what I initially clung too in my interpretation, in closing he offers a hopeful consolation; “We must uncenter our minds,” “We must unhumanize our views.” While this repeated “we must” certainly carries implications that the change will be difficult, it is not without hope. Eventually Tori and I came to an agreement that the poem is engaging the issues that arise with urban expansion and it is saddened by the “crops of suburban houses,” but it holds on to a certain amount of hope that humanity can exist with the natural world and all the beauty that comes with it. I think, however, that the graph helped my read all of the poems from in a different light, seemingly simplifying the interpretive process, limiting it to 4 concerns. It can be a beneficial exercise to limit the frame for with you observe a piece.

  2. Anton Vander Zee says:

    Great comment here. Yes, the graph represents an oversimplification, but when you think of each poet’s position on the graph as the result of a discussion, perhaps even a debate, involving these core values and responses and orientations, the exercise seems more useful. If nothing else, the graph forces one to make distinctions. The graph also allows for the careful representation of ambiguity: the closer a poet is to any given line, the the less conclusive their relative retrate or engagement, optimism or despair, seems. So even the four quadrants offer a rather complex set of overlapping and competing tendencies.

    I agree with most of what you say about Jeffers, though I think I attribute a certain “engagement” to him because of the strength of his critique, while I find the poem optimistic not for its community building “we must” but for it’s call for humans to decenter themselves, to realize their place in the natural world is insignificant.

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