English literature, “foreign literature,” and poetry month

When I was talking with a Weston English teacher the other day, I realized that my own high-school experience with literature as assigned by English teachers was badly skewed. “This is an English department, not an American department” was one teacher’s lame explanation for why we read almost nothing written by Americans. One of the many reasons why it was unconvincing was that our readings were not actually limited to English authors, though admittedly they did form the bulk of the curriculum. It was true that Hardy, Dickens, Milton, Donne, Herrick, Herbert, Tennyson, Shaw, Yeats (OK, those two were Irish, not English), T.S. Eliot (technically American, but English in spirit), Orwell, Jonson, Marlowe, and of course Shakespeare tended to predominate, supporting the “English department” explanation. (Naturally there was nothing by Austen, the Brontés, or George Eliot, but I’m sure you can figure out why they didn’t count any more than the Americans did.) But the explanation collapses because we read plenty of authors who were neither English nor American, not just Joseph Conrad but also lots of Ibsen in translation and even more ancient Greek literature in translation, ranging from Homer to Sophocles to Aristophanes. All this amounted to a rather peculiar collection of authors, though I admit to enjoying most of it (all but Hardy, of whom we had read one novel a year). It’s odd that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eugene O’Neill were considered “foreign” when Ibsen and Sophocles were not, but that’s what happens when an American school considers itself to be English. This was Phillips Academy in the early ’60s; I’m sure it’s different today.

In all fairness, I have to admit that my wonderful AP English class taught by Dudley Fitts included not only a huge amount of Greek literature, which I loved, but also an entire collection of poetry by a contemporary American author — a woman, no less. Unfortunately almost nobody has heard of her today. But do check out Jean Valentine’s website, from which I re-learned something that I had forgotten: her collection Dream Barker, which is what we read in 1965, was almost literally hot off the press, having been published mere weeks before we read it. That was truly an unusual opportunity in those pre-Internet days.

Finally, as you probably know, National Poetry Month is coming up in April. We were each asked to select our favorite poem to put in the school library’s display case. I chose Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, apparently for the second year in a row, though I didn’t remember that. “Well, it’s still my favorite poem,” I explained.

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning