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Poets and Audiences: The Evolution of Poetry in America
(Released July 2012)

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  by Beth Dwoskin  

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Poetry's Conundrum

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Thus began the conundrum that has determined the course of poetry to the present time: Is it an oral or a written means of expression, and in which form will it be embraced outside the academic world? Christopher Phillips quotes Jay Fliegelman: “… by the start of the ‘elocutionary revolution’ in education in the mid-eighteenth century, the ‘primary sense’ of the term reading (as in ‘the art of reading’) was ‘reading aloud’ … at least anecdotally, every professor of American poetry directs students to read poems aloud … Yet publications on teaching poetry do not discuss reading aloud, and most literary analysis seems predicated on the act of silent reading, focusing on the viewed page and not the ear.” Phillips also quotes scholar Cynthia L. Selfe, who “ … traces the history of how ‘writing’ and ‘rhetoric’ were separated as teaching and research subjects in the late nineteenth century, as the earlier collegiate emphasis on oratory became associated with bad-faith posturing, and the professionalization of the disciplines increasingly favored print … as its primary vehicle for self-legitimization … Selfe examine[s] the class and racial implications for such a philosophy, as the silence of auralities in the classroom paved the way not only for professionalization but also for the continued dominance of the white males who would populate those professions.” (Philips, 54)

McGuffey Reader
Cover of a 1841 edition of McGuffey's Eclectic First Reader by William Holmes McGuffey. The readers included lessons on elocution, inflection, and articulation.

Throughout history, children have learned about poetry first through nursery rhymes. Rhymes, lullabies, and simple folksongs were home-schooling methods for mothers to teach speech, counting, manners, and letters and numbers. The regular rhythm and predictability of nursery rhymes makes them easy to absorb and remember—perfect vehicles for teaching. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century classroom, poetry was an ideal instrument for the recitation form of pedagogy, in which students had to memorize something and perform it in front of the class, paying attention to posture, diction, emphasis, and eye-contact as well as to the content of the poem. Children were encouraged to read and study the “Schoolroom Poets”, a group whose membership often overlapped the Fireside Poets: narrative poems by Longfellow, classic performance pieces like Poe’s “The Raven”, and humorous, accessible, rhythmic poems like “Little Orphan Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley. Though adults experienced poetry in print, children were still learning it in its native form, as a spoken rhythm. Reading a poem aloud clarifies it for reader and listener alike. The act of recitation forces the reader to understand, almost instinctively, what words to accentuate in order to provide the rhythm and meaning.

The nineteenth century was the age of romanticism, and American writers embraced the romantic tradition in their own way. In the twentieth century, American poets turned to modernism. Again, there were giants and again, they were all white, mostly male, and overwhelmingly Christian in the years leading up to World War II. Poetry flourished in those years, just as it had in the nineteenth century. Poet John Spaulding examined the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and found more than 20 pages per year of indexed poems during the interwar years, to say nothing of poetry reviews. (Spaulding, 148) There were also poetry columns in major and minor newspapers. At the very turn of the century, “The Man with a Hoe”, a moving and powerful poem by Edward Markham that foretold the upheavals that were coming in class-bound societies, became famous through newspaper reprints. It was also common for publishers to anthologize poetry. These anthologies sold to educated people who read poetry in the evenings, sometimes aloud, between their favorite radio programs. The anthology Best Loved Poems of the American People, published in 1936, sold 1.5 million copies. (Gioia, 47)

The modernist poets T.S. Eliot , e.e. cummings, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Hart Crane were inspired to write by the horrors of World War I and the rapidly developing age of technology. But modernists did not write formal, accessible poetry that teachers could use as recitation pieces. The modernists wrote for literate adults, but they could not speak to the children of their age. Not only were their poems oblique in meaning, but they typically lacked regular meter, making their recitation more difficult for the very young. Symbolic and sophisticated poetry is usually taught in the subset of high school and college classes where there are students engaged and talented enough to grapple with it.

Go To 20th Century

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