What is poetry? A vehicle for personal expression? An art like music or sculpture? A subject one learns in school? The resort of lonely genius?
Contemporary readers would be right to assign to poetry these functions and others, but from the first arrival of English speakers in Massachusetts on through the 1850's, poetry was understood to play a vital role in the civic project of forging communal, and then national, identity. Poetry's utility in personal and domestic contexts was assumed, but its more important functions were public. From the very first book published in North America (the Bay Psalm Book, written for use in church and home worship) through the funeral elegies ensuring transfers of power; from sprightly political ditties of the 1770's that urged patriots to give up tea and silk through the increasingly partisan satires, dramas and, eventually, epics of the war of Independence, Americans first articulated their ideas of what is was to be--and who counted as!-- American: in poetry. The demonization--and romanticization-- of indigenous peoples in popular verse rendered native Americans figuratively extinct, but it was in and through poetry that African Americans and some women were able to achieve not only visibility, but celebrity. Poetry helped Americans embrace the virtues of labor and middle-class life, it turned the scientific pursuits of botany and ornithology into staples of female education, and it supported emerging ideals of literacy as well as robust mass cultural appetites.
This course will allow students to trace the development of America's self-conception thorough the lens of its poetry, gaining a deeper understanding of poetry as an art form, and of its shaping influence across a wide range of cultural domains. Students will develop insight into tropes and debates still very much alive: tensions between coast and heartland, between nation and globe, attitudes to education and elites, to proper use of environmental resources, to childbirth, marriage and death.