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)


2. Writing Essays

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Throughout this course, your journal and your class discussions are ways to develop your ability to think, talk, and write about poetry. This practice comes together in the term essay, which requires you to write a short analysis of a poem using your own ideas as well as biographical and contextual research.

Download a model essay: “The Poetry of Everyday Life: “William Carlos Williams’ ‘This Is Just to Say”'(PDF format, 102 KB.

The parts of the essay include:

(1) A title which gives a clear idea of the main point in the essay. It should include keywords such as the poet’s name and the title of the poem. It should also summarize your interpretation of the poem.

(2) An introduction which chooses facts from the poet’s life and times to help introduce the poem and the main idea of your essay (the thesis statement).

(3) A thesis statement placed at the end of the introduction paragraph should focus on the poem. It should make a claim about the meaning of the poem, discussing theme, poetic technique, biography, or context.

(4) Three or more body paragraphs should deal with the poem in detail, beginning with the structure, content, and finally meaning. Each paragraph should begin with a clear topic sentence that indicates addresses as aspect of the poem or the poet’s life in relation to the poem or the context of the poem.

Use references to the text to support your view. Use quotation “marks” and include line number in brackets (l. 2) / (ll. 14-5) when you give support.

(5) The conclusion should begin by restating the thesis and then summarize the main points (the topic sentences in each body paragraph). The conclusion might also widen its focus beyond the poem: to the poet’s career or reputation, to the context in which the poem was written or to the possible universality of the theme addressed in the poem. You can also include your own response to the poem or discuss how the poem could be related to life and culture here in Japan.

(6) A list of Works Cited (including the poem you wrote about) should be attached to the end of the essay. See MLA guidelines and the model essay for details about to prepare this list.

Download a model essay: “The Poetry of Everyday Life: “William Carlos Williams’ ‘This Is Just to Say”'(PDF format, 102 KB.

3. Organizing Your Essay

1. Have a clear thesis statement that announces your opinion about the message of the poem (at the end of the Introduction).

In “Gunner,” the poet Randall Jarrell attempts to convey the experience of the war from the point of view of airman who has been wounded in combat.

2. Begin the Body section by discussing the structure of the poem: lines, stanzas, rhyme pattern, sound effects, form (free verse, sonnet, etc.)

3. Organize your analysis of the poem (a) by character, setting, theme or (b) by stanza.

4. Paragraphs should have clear topic sentences, followed by support:

(a) Quote words and phrases from the poem (l. 5).
(b) Identify figures of speech.
(c) Discuss connotations of words.
(d) Discuss patterns of sound.
(e) Explain how these help develop the message of the poem.

5. Use the present tense to discuss people, setting, images in the poem. Use the past tense for background about the poet or about American culture and society of the time.

6. The “voice” in the poem is usually called the speaker of the poem (Not the poet, not the author). You can refer to the poet when you discuss the meaning of the poem.

In the first stanza, the speaker asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” (l. 1).

In “Gunner,” the poet Randall Jarrell attempts to convey the experience of the war from the point of view of airman has been wounded in combat.

7. The poet is a person. The poem is the work. Poetry is the kind of literary writing (No plural: poetries)

8. Use slashes to show line breaks:

“Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken winged bird / That cannot fly” (ll. 1-4)


4. Revising Your Essay

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Revisions include corrections to grammar and spelling as well as major changes to your essay: re-writing the thesis statement, improving the title, adding more support to your points, and many others.

Read through the essay carefully and look at my comments and suggestions for improvement.

The most important parts to revise are (1) the introduction and (2) the thesis statement and the (3) body paragraphs.

Evaluation Form