Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Those of you who have read this blog know that I complain a lot about the unwillingness of American poets and academics to engage with foreign poetry. Well, I'm at it again, giving Josh Corey a hard time over his class in Modern Poetry. Here's a thing I wrote just now:

Why would it be more about broadening students horizons than giving them tools for their own writing? And are those two really separate? If so how?

I think a huge part of the reason for the provincialism of American poetry/the academy is this fear of not "mastering" the material - it seems a lot of profs are scared of teaching a work in translation because they won't have that ultimate "mastery" of the "original."

The international view would bring students a more complex idea of both poetry *and language*, as well as a more correct (hard to think of American modernists without their European influences).

Further, I think losing that illusion of mastery is very good pedagogically speaking.


Blogger Matt Walker said...

My one little bit of advice to people teaching foreign poetry is not to use The Poetry of Our World: An International Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jeffery Paine, which will probably succeed in turning students off of world poetry for good. It seems to take the most boring examples of poetry from every continent, including North America.

8:02 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I've used the various Poems For The Millennium volumes in my courses for many years, although recently I've been using another anthology for reasons not worth going into here. But it gives a pretty good, if hardly perfect, overview of poetry as a world-scale activity.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Max said...


I agree with you in principle, but one can shatter the notion of "mastery" even with English-language poetry. The problem I have is how you always seem to put foreign poetry and translations in this place where they become about nothing more than servicing English speakers in the breaking down of their lingual inhibitions and whatnot. Isn't that kind of a demeaning position for translations to be in?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're going to include material in a course, you should at the very least be comfortable with including it. And this doesn't necessarily mean that you have a "mastery" over the material, but that you can at least justify it as something more than an attempt to destroy or disable the concept of "mastery."

10:16 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


That is a good point. Certainly, it should not merely be used as a means to shatter anything.

But it's wrong to argue that I only see translation in this way.

Clearly I believe it's important to be engaged with other literatures and languages; I whine about this all the time on this blog. You if anyone should know that.

Perhaps most the most important part about including foreign poetry in a class on modernism is that you're absolutely mis-portraying the American Modernism if you don't include the international ties of those poets Josh is teaching. In fact, the very experience of foreign languages is central to Modernism.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

I don't believe that all you ever do is position translations in such a way, but it seems to happen quite a bit. Obviously, I don't think you consciously do this, or consciously believe that this is the role of translation vis a vis American conceptions of poetry and language. I was just trying to point out a problem with that line of thought.

In any case, I don't get the feeling that Corey's reading list is necessarily a slap in the face to foreign poetry and translations. He's obviously dealing with his own problems re: his comfort level teaching this course for the first time, and I think that's just as important a concern as the overall pedagogical aim of the class. I think one can address the issues you bring up ("mastery" over the text, challenging ideas of language, etc) with English-language poetry just as well as with foreign language poetry. And I'm not sure his inhibitions come from a perceived lack of "mastery" over translated texts. Being prepared to teach something, or comfortable teaching it doesn't imply (perceived) "mastery" all the time. I think much of the time it just comes down to professional familiarity, i.e. already having imagined several ways to approach a text vs. having to build an entire course from the ground up. To assume that this means the teacher has a perceived "mastery" of the texts is ungenerous and severe, to say the least.

12:11 PM  

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