Halfway to My MA: Reflecting on Post Modern Literature Studies

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Comments made by an Illinois State University creative writing professor more than four decades ago truly resonated recently.

Darn if I can remember the lady’s name, but she noted something to the effect that completing a truly challenging writing task — one filled with doubt, driven by despair and desperation, fraught with indecision and frustration — can be among the most magical and rewarding accomplishments in life.

That’s how I felt after wrapping up the final paper for my most recent English course, another step toward earning my Master’s degree. I’ve reached a milestone of sorts: The credits earned from this fourth course means I’m statistically halfway to the 32 credits required.

Wonder what Walt Whitman, considered a pioneer of modern poetry, would think about some of the works I had to read this semester.

The course focused on modern, post modern and contemporary poetry and prose, but rest assured: The assigned writing last semester did not include works by Stephen King, James Patterson or any of the popular juggernaut novelists who produce fantasy and action-prone works that get made into movies and TV series. The subject of works analyzed were void of supernatural spirits and superheroes.

We studied writers of “Language poetry,” an avant garde movement that arose in the hippie era as a backlash against more traditional forms of poetry. We debated topics like alienation, the fragmentation of modern life and poetry’s place in society today. And, we learned that some modern writers employ results from Google searches to create “poems.”

Required readings from mid and late-20th century and 21st century writers were balanced by essays from Gertrude Stein and Berthold Brecht, along with an excellent modern novel highly influenced by seminal works of Walt Whitman, considered a pioneer of the modern poetry movement. For a perspective, we even were assigned essays from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century philosopher and essayist, and John Stuart Mill, the British liberal thinker.

Full disclosure: I’ve not kept up with modern poetry and fiction; none of the works by contemporary authors we read were familiar to me. That’s why I was intrigued and looked forward to each week’s reading any the challenging writing assignments.

But frankly, I was taken aback by much of the poetry and literary criticism produced today. I found some works on our syllabus bizarre and incomprehensible, unfulfilling and trite, pretentious and directionless.

A quatrain of examples:

  1. One poem has same line repeated 49 times. (I won’t post the line because it contains a swear word; plus, the line is non-nonsensical to me.)
  2. One extended poetic work has one word — “red” — on a single page. (For the record, “red” was used on previous pages, too.)
  3. One essay focused retyping every word of an issue of the New York Times as a transcendental exercise. (The author also gave this retyping exercise as a class assignment.)
  4. A series of poems included one titled, “A Poem I Didn’t Write,” containing the contents of “The Tyger,” one of the most storied poems in the English language. (No doubt, true scholars of William Blake are not happy.)

Yet, to incorporate a cliche, there were literary diamonds among the rough stuff; and I gained a much, much better appreciation of and understanding for poetry.

One conclusion: Modern language, like all creative endeavors, needs to change and evolve; new men and women of letters (to borrow a well-used moniker) should have their turn, their time. For instance, a black poet transcended convention to make thoughts known with graphic-centered poems created using In Design software. (And, said poet’s work served as the basis for my final paper.)

So, if you’re interested the next step in my Master’s challenge, for fall 2018, I’m enrolled in Theory, Rhetoric and Aesthetics — Melville’s Modernity. (I trust we’ll be assigned to read a novel featuring a really big white fish.)

And, if you’re keeping track, I received an A in the course just completed. Read by final paper by visiting my “other” website.

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