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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

10. Rhythms
in Poetry

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- HD (Hilda Doolittle)
- T. S. Eliot
- Robert Frost
- Langston Hughes
- Claude McKay
- Ezra Pound
- Carl Sandburg
- Genevieve Taggard
- Jean Toomer
- William Carlos Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Suggested Author Pairings

Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg
Both of these writers were preoccupied with creating a distinctly American voice, and both believed that art and politics were intimately connected. Whereas Hughes wrote about the plight of black Americans, Sandburg portrayed the working class. Unlike the expatriate writers in this unit, Hughes and Sandburg wrote in the American idiom and treasured the history not of the elite, but of the oppressed. Compare the way these two authors treat historical and social events. What values do they perceive as fundamentally American? How do they define American poetry? What are the political goals of these authors?

Jean Toomer and Claude McKay
Though both of these poets are regarded as central to the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer and McKay left Harlem early in the movement. Toomer often used dialect in his work, while McKay's poetry usually favors traditional European American poetic forms and diction. Yet both poets deal with radical subject matter in bold and original ways. The racial identity of both authors also provides rich fodder for discussion. Toomer, light enough to "pass," circulated among both black and white social groups in Harlem and lived his later life as a white man. McKay, born in Jamaica, struggled with forging his identity in America. What do these poets suggest about the varied and complicated notion of American identity? Must American poetry be written by native-born Americans? Must it be written in the United States?

H.D. and William Carlos Williams
Both H.D. and William Carlos Williams wanted to pare down language to its essentials, and both believed that poetry should focus on the concrete rather than the abstract. Associated with imagism, H.D. was drawn to Greek literature and lived in Europe, while Williams grounded his poetry in American culture and history. These poets offer an interesting opportunity to explore not only varieties of imagism, but also what it means to be an American poet. How does the poetry of expatriate writers fit into the American tradition? Are poets like Williams, who write in the American idiom and who remained in the United States, more American than authors like H.D.?

Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot
Frost and Eliot, both giants of modern poetry, enjoyed incredible acclaim and success during their lifetimes. Hailed as the most famous living poet, Frost gave the inaugural address for President John F. Kennedy, and his lectures and readings around the country made him a virtual celebrity. Similarly, Eliot's role as poet, critic, and mentor cast a shadow of influence over the rest of the century. While both authors possess a wise voice, their poetry differs greatly. Associated with New England, Frost is a poet of the land, interested in the relationship between physical labor and reflection. His poetry is often narrative and usually meditative. He did not write in free verse, and his reflections are grounded in the American landscape, with its rugged beauty and pastoral associations. Frost's poetry is often concerned with moral and philosophical dilemmas as well as with ordinary experiences like mending fences and picking apples. Though his work can seem as dark as Eliot's at times, it also seems removed from modern society and historical events. In contrast, Eliot preferred to live and write in England. His expansive verse draws on many cultures, historical periods, religious traditions, and languages. His poetry, particularly The Waste Land, is difficult and allusive. In contrast to Frost's American landscapes, Eliot's poetry depicts society on the brink of radical, and perhaps destructive, change.

Genevieve Taggard and Ezra Pound
Both these poets sympathized with radical political philosophies, Taggard with socialism and Pound with fascism. These connections brought both authors under the scrutiny of the American government. While Taggard's poetry reflects her political ties, Pound's early work was written before his radical political leanings developed. How does Taggard's work reflect her commitment to socialism? How does gender influence her sympathies? How does Pound's poetry regard the common man or womanas a potential reader and as a presence in modern culture? How might his attitude toward lowbrow and middle-class audiences foreshadow a move to the radical right?

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