Course Description

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American Poetry in the Twentieth Century

This course focuses on American poetry in the 20th century. We will study the different ways that American writers have used poetry to express the experience of modern life. Through lectures and class activities, we will learn how to read, analyze, discuss and write about poetry as well as think about the relationship of the poetry to the society and culture of the times. Some lectures and readings will focus on popular American music in the 20th century as well as visual arts such as painting and film.

Class Activities

There will be lectures each week, introducing poets, poems (or songs) and the culture and history of the times.

You will be assigned one poem (or song) to read each week. You will write a short response to the poem in your class notebook and bring the book to help you participate in discussion with your classmates. You will also keep your lecture notes in the class notebook.


The class notebook is worth 50% of your final grade. I will check your notebook regularly.

There will be one or two quizzes and a mid-term test based on poems and lectures (20%).

There will also be a short analytical essay (4-5 pages) on a poem of your choice (30%).

Download the Course Description (PDF 74 KB)


Poems by O’Hara, Ashberry, Rexroth, Creeley, Olson and Levertov

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966)

On March 27, 1926, Frank (Francis Russell) O’Hara was born in Maryland. He grew up in Massachusetts, and later studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944. O’Hara then served in the South Pacific and Japan as a sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

1. Today

Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they’ve always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!                      5
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.

Download the handout of poems: “O’Hara, Ashbery, Rexroth, Creeley, Olson and Levertov: New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain Poets” (PDF 90 KB)

John Ashbery (1927-2017)

John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, on July 28, 1927. He was the author of more than twenty books of poetry, including Breezeway (Ecco, 2015); Quick Question (Ecco, 2012); Planisphere (HarperCollins, 2009); A Worldly Country (Ecco, 2007); Where Shall I Wander (HarperCollins, 2005); Chinese Whispers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000); Girls on the Run: A Poem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999); Wakefulness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998); Can You Hear, Bird (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995); And the Stars Were Shining (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994); Hotel Lautrémont (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); Flow Chart (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991); and April Galleons (Penguin, 1987). Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

2. What Is Poetry

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we                      5
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it
As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:                   10

What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us–what?–some flowers soon?

Download the handout of poems: “O’Hara, Ashbery, Rexroth, Creeley, Olson and Levertov: New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain Poets” (PDF 90 KB)

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982)

On December 22, 1905, Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth was born in South Bend, Indiana. Orphaned at fourteen, Rexroth moved to live with his aunt in Chicago, where he was expelled from high school. He began publishing in magazines at the age of fifteen. As a youth, he supported himself with odd jobs—as a soda jerk, clerk, wrestler, and reporter. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

3. Confusion

I pass your home in a slow vermilion dawn,
The blinds are drawn, and the windows are open.
The soft breeze from the lake
Is like your breath upon my cheek.
All day long I walk in the intermittent rainfall.             5
I pick a vermilion tulip in the deserted park,
Bright raindrops cling to its petals.
At five o’clock it is a lonely color in the city.
I pass your home in a rainy evening,
I can see you faintly, moving between lighted walls.   10
Late at night I sit before a white sheet of paper,
Until a fallen vermilion petal quivers before me.

Download the handout of poems: “O’Hara, Ashbery, Rexroth, Creeley, Olson and Levertov: New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain Poets” (PDF 90 KB)

Robert Creeley (1926-2005)

Robert Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1926. He attended Harvard University from 1943 to 1946, taking time out from 1944 to 1945 to work for the American Field Service in Burma and India. In 1946 he published his first poem, in the Harvard magazine Wake. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

4. The Language

Locate I
love you some-
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite                 5
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so                    10
little. Words
say everything.

love you
again,           15
then what

is emptiness
for. To

fill, fill.
I heard words             20
and words full
of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.

Download the handout of poems: “O’Hara, Ashbery, Rexroth, Creeley, Olson and Levertov: New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain Poets” (PDF 90 KB)

Charles Olson (1910-1970)

On December 27, 1910, Charles Olson, the son of Karl Joseph Olson, a postman, and Mary Hines, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received his BA and MA from Wesleyan University. Olson taught English for two years at Clark University then entered Harvard University in 1936, where he completed coursework for a PhD in American civilization. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

5. These Days

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

Just to make clear             5
where they come from

Download the handout of poems: “O’Hara, Ashbery, Rexroth, Creeley, Olson and Levertov: New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain Poets” (PDF 90 KB)

Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

Denise Levertov was born in Ilford, Essex, England, on October 24, 1923. Her father, raised a Hasidic Jew, had converted to Christianity while attending university in Germany. By the time Levertov was born, he had settled in England and become an Anglican parson. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

6. Celebration

Brilliant, this day – a young virtuoso of a day.
Morning shadow cut by sharpest scissors,
deft hands. And every prodigy of green –
whether it’s ferns or lichens or needles
or impatient points of buds on spindly bushes –      5
greener than ever before. And the way the conifers
hold new cones to the light for the blessing,
a festive right, and sing the oceanic chant the wind
transcribes for them!
A day that shines in the cold                                     10
like a first-prize brass band swinging along
the street
of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds
with the claims of reasonable gloom.

Download the handout of poems: “O’Hara, Ashbery, Rexroth, Creeley, Olson and Levertov: New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain Poets” (PDF 90 KB)

Beat Poetry and Counterculture Music

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

On June 3, 1926, Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey. The son of Louis and Naomi Ginsberg, two Jewish members of the New York literary counterculture of the 1920s, Ginsberg was raised among several progressive political perspectives. Read more about Allen Ginsberg at the Academy of American Poets HP …

1. From Howl (1955) “Moloch”

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their
   skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and
   unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the
   stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping
   in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the
   loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch
   the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of
   sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment!
Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose
   blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are
   ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal
   dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch
   whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like
   endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and
   croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and
   antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose
   soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty
   is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud
   of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream
  Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch!
  Lacklove and manless in Moloch!
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a
consciousness without a body! Moloch who
frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch
whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light
streaming out of the sky!
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs!
   skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic
   industries! spectral nations! invincible mad houses
   granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!
   Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to
   Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone
   down the American river!
Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole
   boatload of sensitive bullshit!
Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone
   down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten
   years' animal screams and suicides! Minds! New
   loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!
Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild
   eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They
   jumped off the roof to solitude! waving! carrying
   flowers! Down to the river! into the street!

Watch a clip from the movie Howl (dir. Rob Epsetin & Jeffery Friedman, 2010).
James Franco as Allen Ginsberg reads from the poem Howl, Part II “Moloch”)

Download the handout “Beat Poetry and Counterculture Songs” (PDF, 139 KB)

Gregory Corso (1930-2001)

2. Humanity

What simple profundities
What profound simplicities
To sit down among the trees
and breathe with them
in murmur brool and breeze —     5

And how can I trust them
who pollute the sky
with heavens
the below with hells

Well, humankind,                          10
I’m part of you
and so my son

but neither of us
will believe
your big sad lie                               15

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1922, Jack Kerouac, baptised Jean Louis Kirouac, was the youngest of three children of French-Canadian immigrants from Quebec, Canada. He was raised speaking the French-Canadian working class dialect Joual until he learned English at age five. Read more about Jack Kerouac at the Academy of American Poets HP

3. Tenorman

Sweet sad young tenor
Horn slumped around neck
Bearded full of junk
Slouches waiting
For Apocalypse,
Listens to the new                  5
Negro raw trumpet kid
Tell him the wooden news;
And the beat of the bass
The bass—drives in
Drummer drops a bomb         10
Piano tinkle tackles
Sweet tenor lifting
All American sorrows
Raises mouthpiece to mouth
And blows to finger                  15
The iron sounds

Download the handout “Beat Poetry and Counterculture Songs” (PDF, 139 KB)

Bob Dylan (1941 – )

4. Only a Pawn in their Game (1964)

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game


A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game


The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
’Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game


From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ’neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.


Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game

Sound file with lyrics:

Joni Mitchell (1943 – )

5. Woodstock (1970)

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden

Video of live performance:

Download the handout “Beat Poetry and Counterculture Songs” (PDF, 139 KB)

Postwar and Confessional Poetry

Download Postwar and Confessional Poetry (PDF 74 KB)

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was less than a year old, her father died, and shortly thereafter, her mother was committed to a mental asylum. Bishop was first sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and later lived with paternal relatives in Worcester and South Boston. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

1. Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.                   5
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy    10
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch             15
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide    20
the only note of color–
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside        25
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch  30
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,     35
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:

to high-strung automobiles.      40
Somebody loves us all.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977)

On March 1, 1917, Robert Lowell was born into one of Boston’s oldest and most prominent families. He attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

2. The Old Flame

My old flame, my wife!
Remember our lists of birds?
One morning last summer, I drove
by our house in Maine. It was still
on top of its hill –                               5

Now a red ear of Indian maize
was splashed on the door.
Old Glory with thirteen stripes
hung on a pole. The clapboard
was old-red schoolhouse red.         10

Inside, a new landlord,
a new wife, a new broom!
Atlantic seaboard antique shop
pewter and plunder
shone in each room.                       15

A new frontier!
No running next door
now to phone the sheriff
for his taxi to Bath
and the State Liquor Store!            20

No one saw your ghostly
imaginary lover
stare through the window
and tighten
the scarf at his throat.                    25

Health to the new people,
health to their flag, to their old
restored house on the hill!
Everything had been swept bare,
furnished, garnished and aired.      30

Everything’s changed for the best –
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books!                       35

Poor ghost, old love, speak
with your old voice
of flaming insight
that kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart,                     40

we heard the plow
groaning up hill –
a red light, then a blue,
as it tossed off the snow
to the side of the road.                   45

3. Epilogue

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme–
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:    5
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,                          10
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened? 15
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,            20
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

Anne Gray Harvey was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1928. She attended Garland Junior College for one year and married Alfred Muller Sexton II at age nineteen. She enrolled in a modeling course at the Hart Agency and lived in San Francisco and Baltimore. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

4. Young

A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,      5
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling over me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,         10
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves     15
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions          20
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother, Aurelia Schober, was a master’s student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, Otto Plath, who was her professor. They were married in January of 1932. Read more from the Academy of American Poets HP

5. The Applicant

First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,     5

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.                                 10
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?                                15
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.                20
How about this suit –

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof. 25
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?          30
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,                       35
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.                 40
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

6. Cinderella

The prince leans to the girl in scarlet heels,
Her green eyes slant, hair flaring in a fan
Of silver as the rondo slows; now reels
Begin on tilted violins to span
The whole revolving tall glass palace hall          5
Where guests slide gliding into light like wine;
Rose candles flicker on the lilac wall
Reflecting in a million flagons’ shine,
And gilded couples all in whirling trance
Follow holiday revel begun long since,            10
Until near twelve the strange girl all at once
Guilt-stricken halts, pales, clings to the prince
As amid the hectic music and cocktail talk
She hears the caustic ticking of the clock.