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Poetry in English since 1945

Aims and Objectives:
The module provides a critical overview of some of the main currents and writers of poetry in English worldwide since the end of the Second World War. It covers a broad range of formal and linguistic approaches, a variety of poetics, and very different understandings of the relation of poetry in the period to belief, to society, to cultural dynamics, to the sense of self, and to thought. Evolving beyond the heyday of Modernism, poetry has used language from the plain to the intellectually dense, from high to demotic or dialect; it has found subject matter in religion and myth, in history and in the contemporary scene, in the nature of self and affect, in the natural and the man-made worlds, and in the paradoxes of the act of writing itself. Poetry has honoured its age-old debts to society but at the same time has insisted more radically than ever before on its autonomy. The module emphasizes that important poetry in English now originates from many places in the English-speaking world, not only in the traditional centres of the UK and the US.
Learning Outcomes:
Familiarity with a substantial range of late twentieth century world poetry in English. Understanding of the nature of poetics in different English-speaking cultures worldwide, of the implications of contemporary debates on language and cognition for the writing of poetry, and of the evolution of the sense of self as a social, psychological, philosophical and political individual in poetry.
The construction of a cogent argument from examination of primary and secondary texts; a critical understanding of the global character of contemporary poetics in the English language; evaluation of the relative merits of regionalism and internationalism in literature.
Teaching Methods:
Texts studied will include work by John Ashbery, James K. Baxter, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Curnow, Robert Gray, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, Derek Mahon, Les Murray, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Charles Simic, Derek Walcott and Judith Wright.
Structure of the module:
Close analysis of a range of texts; critical evaluation of primary, secondary literature and of other student papers.
An understanding of poetry as an ideological as well as aesthetic performance; historical and critical exegesis.

An assessed essay of 4,000 words and a 1500 word interpretation of a poem. The interpretation should be of a poem included in the module materials (in the set text anthology or in the supplementary handouts) and should discuss the formal aspects of the poem, its content, and any contextual issues (e.g. aesthetic, socio-political, biographical) that are important for a fuller understanding. The chosen poem should not be by a writer examined in the student’s essay. The interpretation will be submitted to the same deadline as the essay: deadlines are given in the Undergraduate Handbook.

Some essay questions
These can be treated as suggestions on which you can improve, and you are strongly encouraged to formulate your own titles. Except where otherwise indicated, the titles below can be referred to any poet studied in the course. Poets not discussed in class may also be included in essay work but should not form the sole content.

  • “It has been said that a poem should not mean but be. This is not quite accurate. In a poem, as distinct from many other kinds of verbal societies, meaning and being are identical.”
    (W. H. Auden) Discuss.
  • Ted Hughes wrote that “Most writers of verse have several different personalities. The ideal is to find a style or a method that includes them all.” Discuss.
  • Writing to Marianne Moore in 1944, William Carlos Williams observed of his own poems: “There is too often no convincing form [...]” Examine the formal problems facing AT LEAST TWO writers of free verse active since 1945, and assess their success.
  • Consider the interplay between personal expression and political intervention in the work of any TWO US poets writing between 1945 and 1985.
  • “Religion, courage, philosophy, drink, the routines of work and leisure—all these are regarded by Larkin as placebos.” (Seamus Heaney on Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’.) Discuss Larkin’s understanding of death and mortality.
  • Examine the ways in which England is represented in the poetry of any TWO writers studied on the course.
  • Examine the tensions between the rational and the irrational in any poet(s) of your choice.
  • Discuss the understanding of Australian national identity that emerges from the work of the Australian poets studied on the module.
  • “It would be as myopic to regard Mr Murray as an Australian poet as to call Yeats an Irishman.” (Joseph Brodsky) Discuss.
  • Examine the understanding of the role of poetry in defining a post-colonial identity that you find in the work of Derek Walcott OR any Australian OR New Zealand poet(s) studied on the module.
  • “In contemporary terms, the substitution of the imagination for a traditional belief in God has included the replacement of Christian and Judaic myths with myths reclaimed from the past or from other cultures.” (Mark Jarman) Is the treatment of religion AND/OR myth in the poetry of Allen Curnow OR James K. Baxter OR Seamus Heaney OR Derek Mahon evidence of cultural conservatism in this respect?
  • Consider the understanding of the city found in the poetry of AT LEAST TWO poets writing since 1945.
  • Discuss the handling of the sonnet form by poets active since 1945.
  • Examine the use of metrical composition by any poet of your choice.
Primary reading

The anthology used for the course is Michael Hulse/Simon Rae (eds.), The Twentieth Century in Poetry (Ebury Press, 2011). Supplementary material will be provided in hand-outs. For the final class, students may also wish to buy Tony Barnstone: Tongue of War (BkMk Press, 2009), but some poems will be available in hand-out.

The following anthologies are also recommended:

  • Keegan, Paul (ed.) The New Penguin Book of English Verse, Penguin, 2000
  • Fallon, Peter and Mahon, Derek (eds.) The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, Penguin, 1990
  • Vendler, Helen (ed.) The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Faber, 1986
  • Gray, Robert and Lehmann, Geoffrey (eds.) Australian Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Heinemann/Minerva, 1991
  • Hulse, Michael, Kennedy, David and Morley, David (eds.) The New Poetry, Bloodaxe, 1993

Secondary reading
  • Atwood, Margaret (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English, OUP (Canada), 1982
  • Bornholdt, Jenny, O’Brien, Gregory and Williams, Mark (eds.), An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, OUP (New Zealand), 1998
  • Buckley, Vincent (ed.), The Faber Book of Modern Australian Verse, Faber, 1991
  • Corcoran, Neil, English Poetry since 1940, Longman, 1993
  • Davie, Donald, Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988, Carcanet Press, 1989
  • Gray, Richard, American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, Longman, 1990
  • Gregson, Ian, Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism, Macmillan, 1996
  • Herbert, W.N. and Hollis, Matthew (eds.), Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, Bloodaxe Books, 2000
  • Jefferies, Lesley and Sansom, Peter (eds.), Contemporary Poems: Some Critical Approaches, Smith/Doorstop Books, 2000
  • Kennedy, David, New Relations, Seren, 1996
  • Larrissy, Edward, Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry, Blackwell, 1990
  • Markham, E.A. (ed.), Hinterland: Caribbean Poetry from the West Indies and Britain, Bloodaxe, 1989
  • Krishna Mehrotra, Arvind (ed.), Twelve Modern Indian Poets, OUP (India), 1992
  • Maja-Pearce, Adewale (ed.), The Heinemann Book of African Poetry in English, Heinemann, 1990
  • O’Brien, Sean, The Deregulated Muse, Bloodaxe Books, 1998
  • Schmidt, Michael, Reading Modern Poetry, Routledge, 1989
  • Shelton, Pamela (ed.), Contemporary Women Poets, Detroit, 1998
Autumn Term
Term One
Week 1


  • Poetry and the speaking voice
  • Poetry and tradition(s)
  • Poetry and national identity
  • Poetry and post-colonial identity
  • Poetry: the public and the personal
  • Poetry, religion, myth
  • Rhythm, image and the anti-rational
  Week 2
  • Post-War US poetry (1): a polarity
  • Richard Wilbur and Allen Ginsberg
  Week 3
  • Post-War US poetry (2): the speaking voice
  • Elizabeth Bishop and Frank O’Hara
  Week 4
  • Post-War US poetry (3): the public and the personal
  • Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell
  Week 5
  • Post-War US poetry (4): alternative routes
  • John Ashbery and Charles Simic
  Week 6 Reading Week

Week 7

Poetry and English identity:

  • Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill
  Week 8

Poetry and Caribbean identity:

  • Derek Walcott
  Week 9

Poetry and Irish identity:

  • Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon
  Week 10

Poetry and urban identity

  • Ciaran Carson (Belfast) and Tony Harrison (Leeds)
Spring Term
Term Two
Week 1

Poetry and Australian identity (1):

  • A. D. Hope and Les Murray
  Week 2

Poetry and Australian identity (2):

  • Judith Wright and Robert Gray
  Week 3

Poetry and self

  • Sharon Olds, Michael Hofmann and Hugo Williams
  Week 4

Poetry and medicine (1)

  • A. D. Hope, Julia Darling and Hugo Williams
  Week 5

Poetry and medicine (2)

  • Thom Gunn, Peter Reading and Rebecca Goss
  Week 6 Reading Week

Week 7

Poetry and myth (1)

  • Allen Curnow and James K. Baxter
  Week 8

Poetry and myth (2)

  • Ted Hughes
  Week 9

Poetry, forms and freedoms (1)

  • Free verse and syllabics
  Week 10

Poetry, forms and freedoms (2)

  • The sonnet from Claude McKay to Tony Barnstone