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Poets and Poetry of New England

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Poets and Poetry of New England began in 1998 as part of a larger initiative of the Board of Trustees to link the UMass Amherst “research” campus to other sites within the Massachusetts higher education system. Poets and Poetry was the only course in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts developed for this multi-campus initiative. Initially coming together via live video hookup for one hour per week of intercampus dialogue and commentary on poetry were students and instructors at five campuses across the Commonwealth. Three campuses, led by Professor Richard Larschan at UMass Dartmouth, Professor Sheila Willard at Middlesex Community College and Professor William Moebius of Comparative Literature, continued as active participants for the next five years. In 2005, because of scheduling conflicts, Poets and Poetry was offered for the first time on the UMass Amherst campus without the weekly live interactive hookup.

The course recognizes both established English language poets usually associated with New England, and ethnic or diaspora poets who have lived and worked in New England and who may write or think in languages other than English. The work of two immigrant poets, Ann Bradstreet, from England and Phillis Wheatley, from Africa, begins the course, marking the beginning of an ostensible historical arc from the 17th to the 21st century. No course in New England poetry can ignore allusions to Greek and Roman classical, Biblical and Indic, and later European figures and traditions, so the historical range of class discussion is actually broader than the 300 year span suggested by the poets and poetry assigned. One way the literary importance of the works and artists is signalled is by close readings in class of particular poems. Another way is to have each poem to be discussed read out loud, sometimes more than once. Still a third way is to examine archival manuscript copies of a poet’s work, available in the rare book rooms of libraries of the Five Colleges.

One of the themes that runs through the course is the matter of place, and that also leads to an inquiry into New England culture and history, including the account of various migrations. Poets of New England would be expected to include the traditionally sanctioned American-born poets who lived in New England, but this course also includes poets born elsewhere (Kashmir, the Philippines, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia) who have lived or written in New England, and who speak from a perspective (Latino, Filipino, Kashmiri-American, Native American or African American) that challenges a monolithic model of the New England poet. Even Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, is included on the list, although he abandoned Massachusetts forever by the time he was 21 years old.

Videos developed for an on-line version of this course have aired on WGBY, public television in Springfield, MA. Included among these videos is a one hour two part conversation between Professor Moebius and Aga Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet (1949-2001), a video on Dr. Seuss filmed on location in Springfield, (including a reading of If I Ran the Zoo in the Forest Park zoo), and an introductory course video filmed in four locations in Massachusetts and Vermont, both developed by Professor Moebius, and a two part video on Sylvia Plath, created by Professor Larschan, who was a friend and neighbor of Sylvia’s mother Aurelia. The course is currently offered under the aegis of the Commonwealth College.

 

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