Twentieth Century American Poetry and Sexuality

Twentieth Century American Poetry and Sexuality
This seminar course, though not intended to be controversial, will focus on a topic that
has not, to the best of my knowledge, been addressed in previous graduate seminars
throughout Taiwan: the complex relationships between poetry and sexuality. To unfold
the veil of this tabooed issue, we will address concepts of the constructions of desire and
sexuality, attempts to express or repress and control those desires, gender roles, the
subjective and objectified body, sexual orientation, and the relationships between the
physically sexualized body and metaphysical realities, all within their linguistic,
economic, social, ethnic and political constructions as they are presented in twentieth
century American poetry. We will approach these issues from various disciplines. In his
poem “Birches,” with its subtle sexual imagery, Robert Frost suggests that the life of
poetry and the body are parallel: both are rooted firmly in the earth but attempt to
transcend and climb toward the sky though ultimately return to earth. We will, however,
show that poetry—just as the Frost poem asserts—never leaves the earth and the body far
behind as it attempts to transcend itself. That “physicality” and the sexualized body will
then become the focus as we explore the poems.
In this course we will examine a number of poems that contain issues about the
relationships between poetry and the body, and sexuality in particular. We will look at an
array of twentieth century American poets, including T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William
Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde,
Allen Ginsberg, and others; but we will primarily focus on poems by four poets: Mina
Loy, John Berryman, Frank O’Hara, and Mark Doty. A large number of poems and poets
deal with related topics, so as always, I welcome student input in our choice of poets and
texts. If interested students have suggestions, please let the instructor know.
We will not have a textbook for this course. Instead, I will provide handouts with the
poems we will study. Students will be required to write regular response journals. Also
each student will be responsible for three in-class presentations. In one of the
presentations, you will lead the discussion of a particular aspect of the text(s) being
addressed; in the second, you will briefly summarize and critique a recent critical writing
about the work under discussion; in the third, you will apply a critical methodology of
your choice to some aspect(s) of the work we will discuss that week. You will have the
choice of writing two papers (the first due during midterm week; the second due at the
end of the semester) or one long paper due at the end of the semester. You will also be
expected to fully engage in class discussions. Your final grade for the semester will be
based on the assigned writings, presentations, participation in class discussion, and