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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
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams

Who's Interviewed:
Lisa Steinman, chair of the English department (Reed College); Pancho Savery, professor of English (Reed College); Jacqueline Dirks, associate professor of history and humanities (Reed College); Rafia Zafar, director of African and Afro-American studies (Washington University); and Alice Walker, author and poet

Points Covered:
• Many American poets between the world wars favored common speech and strove to make their verse accessible to a large public. Others developed a style that could seem obscure.

• The historical, cultural, and economic events that shaped poetry of this period included the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, World War I, and the Great Depression. In addition, rapidly advancing technology made possible department stores, sky-scrapers, and public transportation; America was suddenly more urban than ever.

• When Ezra Pound urged poets to "make it new" in 1912, he helped to launch modern poetry, which left behind traditional forms and style in favor of free verse and vivid language. Pound wanted poets to concentrate on language and rhythm, to bring poetry "closer to the condition of music."

• Modernism was moving in two very different directions. While T. S. Eliot and Pound found inspiration and subjects in arcane traditions of classical and medieval Europe and Asia, William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes looked to their own neighborhoods and personal experiences for inspiration, subjects, and styles. Hughes drew on African American culture, particularly the blues, jazz, and oral story-telling, to create poetry with distinctive rhythms and innovative use of the vernacular, a poetry meant to be heard. His poetry also reflects his social awareness and commitment to activism.

• In the 1920s, Harlem experienced a cultural and artistic flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance. While many African Americans took a great interest in the art and literature of the movement, white audiences were attracted to Harlem as well, to hear the music and experience the excitement of the popular culture.

• Alain Locke popularized the concept of the "New Negro," asserting that African Americans could achieve greater acceptance and social equality through art. He also believed that African Americans could use art to define their identity and create a sense of racial pride and community.

• Williams and Pound were interested in the austere traditional poetry of China and Japan, in which ordinary objects can signify much beyond themselves.

• Preview the video: The video offers historical background for Unit 10, focusing particularly on the effects of the Great Migration, urbanization, the rapid technological change of ordinary life, and racial prejudice. Centering on Hughes, Williams, and Eliot, the film shows how different strands of modernism developed and influenced one another. While Eliot wrote much of his poetry abroad, Williams and Hughes remained on American soil, both imaginatively and in the flesh. Eliot's work reflects an interest in and respect for Western European tradition, and he wrote obscure, incantatory poetry for an elite audience. Williams and Hughes, however, strove to make their poetry accessible to a much broader reading public, and their inspiration came primarily from everyday experience. They used the American idiom, and they challenged conventional concepts of both America and American poetry. In addition, Hughes's poetry is politically charged, and he incorporated elements of African American culture and history in his work. Despite their differences, all three influenced generations of poets to come.

• What to think about while watching: What different kinds of modernism are discussed in the video? How do the featured authors, Williams, Eliot, and Hughes, differ from one another in aesthetic philosophy? How do these differences appear in their poetry? How did black and white modernism influence each other? What qualities are common to all the poetry? What cultural, demographic, and technological forces were changing American life? The end of World War I and the threat of World War II affected all these poets at various times in their careers. The population distribution shifted dramatically in the early part of the century, and technology was also rapidly changing the quality and pace of life. How did these changes influence art at the time?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Although the video focuses primarily on Williams, Eliot, and Hughes, it offers important historical background that brings the rest of the unit into focus. The portrayal of Harlem and the racial climate between the world wars connects the poetry of Cullen, McKay, and Brown, all of whom struggled with the problems of racial identity, equality, poetic tradition, and subject matter. Their political aims are shared in part by poets like Sandburg and Taggard, who are in tune with the struggles of working-class America. These poets all strive to represent lived experience honestly, and most of them rely on vernacular and dialect in their work. The effort to create an American identity was not limited to these poets. Indeed, Williams and Frost also did much to establish an American poetic identity by concentrating on American landscapes, language, and experience. Frost's wry, countrified New England narrative voice was often praised as a fundamental voice of America, and his determination to weave poetry out of everyday experience aligns him to some extent with Williams, who also looked to the ordinary for inspiration. Frost, however, was a lifelong believer in metaphor; Williams saw metaphor as a kind of dishonesty in art and strove for a poetry that could present ordinary experience unadorned and unmediated.

Other authors in the unit, H.D., Pound, and Eliot, represent another strand of modernism that relied much more on the tradition of Western Europe. Their status as expatriates and their interest in classical traditions set them apart from the other authors in Unit 10. As the unit suggests, their work influenced these other writers, convincing them that their American rhythms were all the more important. In addition, Pound's role as mentor and founder of the imagist movement affected many of the writers who chose to stay in the United States. His concept of poetry as something new, as grounded in the particular and ordinary, was central to the work of all these poets.

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