Modern Lyric Poetry’s Democratic Challenge
This course will consider how modern lyric poetry in the United States is significantly shaped and re-shaped by the work of poets, critics, and philosophers of art and society who ask whether “lyric” poetry, in its very form, can help make special contributions towards the goal of creating a more ethnically and racially robust democracy. Especially for the poets, but also for the critics and philosophers whom we'll read, that vision of American democracy requires (among other things) emphatic recognition of and decisive attention to the diversity and equality of American cultures. We'll thus encounter the work of modern American poets and critics from groups historically underrepresented or excluded from the official and/or dominant institutions of literary art, as they explore a number of key issues.
The poets, critics, and philosophers the course will put most emphasis on will be African American; of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; Asian American; and Chicanx/Latinx. Many of these poets and critics challenge the canons of received traditions of lyric poetry, seeing that canon as having necessarily operated in racially and ethnically restrictive ways. We'll also read poets and critics of color who, while likewise vigorously critiquing racial and ethnic exclusions within the received history of the lyric canon, contend that those exclusions actually contravene rather than follow what they see as lyric's own core impulse and dynamic. For these latter poets, critics, and philosophers of color, that formal core in lyric poetry involves a process offering unique ways of helping to generate aesthetic experiences of a radical diversity and openness that's crucial to sociopolitical efforts aimed at democratizing our society racially and ethnically.
"Lyric" has frequently been defined as a poetic form, genre, or modality in which an individual speaker's voice moves towards a "musicality” whose sensuousness allows for the stretching, in language, of established concepts and meanings. This stretching can in turn spark critical engagement with and reflection on an existential or historical situation, question, or problem that the poem has taken as its "given." Thus the genre's famous "musicality" (starting with its ancient literal connections to a musical instrument, the lyre) is often said to be lyric's way of making feeling and experience aesthetically inseparable from the intellectual, philosophical, and critical or political responses to the given realities that lyric form encounters. Partly through this felt musicality, the poem's apparently "individual" voice is presumed, within much classic lyric theory, to spark a sensing of a much broader, collectively shared—potentially, even a universal—aesthetic experience that can in turn activate a "sensing" of our capacity for critique and change.
Throughout the course, we’ll read poets and critics writing on the relations between lyric poetry and various kinds of music; a final section of our course will reflect on why the blues and jazz in particular have been—and continue, in new ways, to be—key points of reference for modern American lyric poetry, especially though not exclusively for Black poets; and we'll consider how modern American lyric poetry in its turn starts to become crucial to some modern blues and much jazz. We’ll think too about the different kinds of music that may play similar roles in the poetry of indigenous peoples, as well as for Asian American and Chicanx/Latinx poets—and we’ll also trace some of the ways that blues and jazz themselves enter into these related poetic histories.
Informed by these inquiries and backgrounds, most of our reading will involve poetry and criticism from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; but we'll also look back to some foundational moments in eighteenth and nineteenth-century writing. Along the way, we'll reflect on classic and more modern, revisionary arguments about why art broadly, literature perhaps especially, and lyric poetry above all may have special aesthetic contributions to offer to the formal and substantive expansion—as well as the strengthening—of democracy and, in particular, democracy in light of the United States’ history of ethnic and race relations.
Among the poets, critics, and philosophers who'll be included in the expansive version of our syllabus will be Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, José Martí, Langston Hughes, Federico García Lorca, W.E. B. Du Bois, William Carlos Williams, C.L.R. James, Robert Hayden, Lorraine Hansberry, Frank O'Hara, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Emmy Pérez, John Yau, Frank Lima, Bob Kaufman, Audre Lorde, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Alfred Arteaga, Rita Dove, Arthur Sze, Roberto Tejada, Myung Mi Kim, N. Scott Momaday, Claudia Rankine, Mg Roberts, Nick Carbó, Barbara Jane Reyes, Eileen Tabios, Nathaniel Mackey, José García Villa, Erica Hunt, Li-Young Lee, David Marriott, Evie Shockley, Juan Felipe Herrera, Anna Deeny Morales, Ed Roberson, Janice Gould, Kenneth Taylor, Fumi Okiji, Maya Kronfeld, and Cecil Taylor.