Lyric Poetry

Lyric Poetry

Three Marxian Poets? Germany And The Americas? Brecht, Vallejo, Zukofsky
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Robert Kaufman
4104 Dwinelle

[Note: This Course is also listed as an Elective for the Program in Critical Theory.]  The German Bertolt Brecht, the Peruvian César Vallejo, and the American Louis Zukofsky exert—within their lifetimes, and in their posthumous reception to this day—special influence on experimental-modernist and marxian (as well as broader Left) traditions of poetry, poetics, and criticism. Like many artists who come of age early in the 20th century, these poets effectively begin their careers with romantic and symbolist poetics all but second nature to them; they proceed to adopt and extend “advanced” formal and thematic experimentation as intended critique, radicalization, and modernization of romanticism and symbolism themselves, and as an intended contribution towards the development of modern poetry’s capacities dynamically to engage, from the Left, a dramatically altered social landscape.


In sustained readings of these writers’ poetry and criticism (and with some attention to their work outside poetry), this seminar will invite response to many aspects of the poetic art under study, while highlighting the consideration of what seems or doesn’t seem particularly marxian—or for that matter, particularly Left—in the poetry. These poets’ formidable imaginative energies and intellectual reach; their terrific feel for how to work with and stretch inherited poetic forms and genres; their singular formal-technical innovations at the level of line, syntax, phrase, syllable, accent, and even phoneme; their virtuosic abilities with traditional and novel orchestrations of lyric musicality; and just their sheer overall poetic talent and ambition will allow us to see, among other things, how their rigorous investigations and enactments, in verse and criticism, of the compound question “what is poetry, what is aesthetic experience, what is modernism, what is marxism, what might—or should, or should not—bring them all together?” will yield intriguing, often unexpected results (and not only in terms of the relationships obtaining in modern poetry among pleasure, estrangement, judgment, form, structure, genre, aesthetic autonomy, sociohistorical content, and ethical-political commitment).

In addition to their own poetry, we will read poems by some of Brecht’s, Vallejo’s, and Zukofsky’s precursors, colleagues, and heirs; and we will spend considerable time evaluating the national—and, perhaps especially, the international or supra-national—claims made by and for the three poets’ work, including claims about the bridges they wished to help construct (not least, among the literary-artistic-political cultures of Germany and the rest of Europe, Latin America, and the United States). We will in addition read—trying to work out our own interpretations while seeking as well to reconstruct the interpretations made (and then presumably put artistically into motion) by Brecht, Vallejo, and Zukofsky themselves—those marxian writings that most influenced the three poets; this will above all mean the canonical writings of Marx and Engels, but also some key works of  other figures whose criticism either influenced the three poets, or importantly influenced readings of them, including Karl Korsch, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Vladimir Mayakovsky, José Carlos Mariátegui, Hannah Arendt, Clement Greenberg, and others. The ways that Brecht’s, Vallejo’s, and Zukofsky’s poems appear finally to grasp or transform these 19th and 20th century marxian texts may prove telling, not only vis-à-vis modern poetry and marxism, but also with regard to this particular poetry’s German-European, Peruvian-Latin American, and American character.

(Note: We will read Brecht’s and Vallejo’s poetry in English translation, though we will frequently refer to the original German or Spanish texts of the facing-page editions that have been ordered; knowledge of German and/or Spanish, while not required, will of course prove very  helpful.)