Anthology Spotlight: The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820

9781611688887.jpgThis week our Anthology Spotlight series returns with a profile of The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820. Citizen Poets, like its straightforward title suggests, is an anthology of poems from Boston periodicals during the early national period. The collection was edited by Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College. Packed with poems and slim as anthologies go, Citizen Poets, published by the University Press of New England, comes in at slightly less than 240 pages and is attractively priced for classroom use at $22.95.

The Origins and Focus of Citizen Poets

Before considering the content of Citizen Poets, especially for a book that could possibly be included in the classroom, it is important to note that the book derives from the work of students at Boston College. While Paul Lewis is listed as the editor of Citizen Poets, the book is a collaborative effort by students at Boston College. Both the “Preface” and “Introduction” to Citizen Poets highlight the role of students in creating this anthology. Citizen Poets derives from increased access to online archives and the opportunities such access provides for the classroom. As the preface to Citizen Poets notes “students, working in small groups over three years, reviewed thousands of poems that were published in Boston magazines between 1789 and 1820” (xiii). The student-involved origin of Citizen Poets would make for an interesting classroom discussion of the role of student work and research. Additionally, Citizen Poets also serves as a model for the incorporation of similar local projects in our own classrooms. Frequently the introductory materials Citizen Poets calls for teachers and students to turn to local projects for the classroom. The origins of Citizen Poets could potential make for fascinating discussion in the classroom as students consider their roles in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. While many colleges and universities tout programs dedicated to undergraduate research, it can remain an abstract concept, especially for students not in the sciences. Considering the origins of a work like Citizen Poets could help make such undergraduate research projects concrete for students. You can read and listen to profiles of Citizen Poets here and here that discus the origin of the project.

The poems included in Citizen Poets were collected from the periodicals that circulated around Boston during the early national period. The anthology focuses on poetry written by “citizen poets.” As the introduction notes, the “citizen” of Citizen Poets “refers not to residents who enjoyed rights and privileges but to residents in general, who, if they were so inclined, could attempt to participate in the give-and-take of Boston’s nascent literary culture” (4). Citizen Poets emphasizes the sights, sounds, and experiences of Boston during the period of 1789 to 1820. The collection focuses on the inclusion of original poetry, much of it anonymous, written for Boston periodicals. While we might not know the identity of many of the poets included in Citizen Poets, the poems provide enough clues for students to speculate about the background of many of the authors.

The Scope and Organization of Citizen Poets

Citizen Poets begins with a brief “Preface” that provides background on the origin of the book, its relationship to both digital and traditional archives, and many of the source periodicals. Citizen Poets also includes a succinct note on the editorial practices employed in the book. The “Introduction” to Citizen Poets includes an overview of Boston, its literary culture, and introduction to the state of print culture during the time period. Additionally, the topic of literary recovery is addressed in an accessible and concise manner. Several poems included in the anthology are mentioned throughout the “Introduction” and provides students with specific examples of poetry that link to the content discussed. The front material of Citizen Poets is characterized by a genuine enthusiasm for the project and the works included. The enthusiasm of the introductory material is marked by a playfulness, like, for example, when it describes the roots of the rivalry between Boston and New York.

Citizen Poets is divided into thematic chapters that focus on particular aspects of life in Boston, and the later chapters represent universal themes, not only ones limited to Boston. In the first chapter, “Coming to Boston,” the poems focus on detailing journeys to Boston. Other chapters focus on gender, the politics of the day, family life, work, and death. There is also an interesting (and fun and challenging) chapter on “Rebuses, Riddles, Anagrams, Acrostics, and Enigmas.” Each chapter includes a brief chapter introduction that situates the chapter’s theme and the poetry in the larger social and print culture context of the era. Unfamiliar people, places, archaic words and spellings, and languages, like Latin, are lightly annotated. Citizen Poets includes a list of periodicals that were used in the creation of the anthology. One appendix includes a sampling of “Representative Editorial Statements” from Boston periodicals, which is great for those of us that might not have access to databases were we can few similar pieces. Citizen Poets ends with a short bibliography highlighting poetry and literary and print culture in Boston and the United States.

Citizen Poets includes some poems by well-known writers, like Judith Sargent Murray, but the majority of poems are anonymous

The Poems of Citizen Poets

The majority of the poems included in Citizen Poets represent the production of anonymous poets contributing to the periodicals of Boston during the early national period. However, there are a few selections from better-known authors such as Judith Sargent Murray and William Cullen Bryant and Susanna Rowson. The lack of canonical writers in Citizen Poets provides an opportunity for students to consider canon formation and to address the tension between high and low art. In short, Citizen Poets marks an excellent occasion to answer that question of “but is it any good?” raised by Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs. However, as the introductory material points out, and my reading sustains this claim, there is a freshness to the work of these anonymous poems because they aren’t familiar and they aren’t high art. I found that many of the poems were chortle worthy. Some of the poems are indeed “good.” Additionally, many of the poems make great reading because of the simplicity and accessibility of their meter, rhyme scheme, and accessible topics. The poems of Citizen Poets, regardless of their artistry, are pieces that could lead to fruitful discussions and explorations in the classroom. The size of the poems also makes them appropriate for the classroom. The poems of Citizen Poets range in size from a page or two to handful of stanzas or a single short stanza. The format of the poems could lead to a fruitful discussion with students about the form and layout of periodicals.

Citizen Poets reminds us that when we study literature we often forget that authors and readers had lives beyond the page; beyond a world of reading and writing. One poem that I think captures the multifaceted lives of the authors is Susana Rowson’s poem, “God is There,” a work written in response to a performance by The Handel and Haydn Society. Rowson’s poem about one of America’s earliest (and continuing) musical organizations, illustrates for students that people of this time did things like listen to music and attend concerts. Rowson’s short piece, like many of the poems included in Citizen Poets, invites students to engage these poems in the larger contexts of literature, history, art, and music.

Is there Too Much Boston in The Citizen Poets of Boston?

City or regional focused anthologies are a popular genre and often have a specific draw to classrooms. One thing in the back of my mind as I read  Citizen Poets is if it would be, well, too much Boston for students. From my own experience of spending two weeks on a text, or tracing through a theme over the course of a semester, I know that even the most engaged students can grow weary of a course theme or topic. Might students tire of the Boston of Citizen Poets, no matter how evocative the poems and the poets are? Yes, that is a possibility, especially for students that might not engage with the entirety of the text and see the universality of the thematic chapters.

However, the topical scope of the poems included in Citizen Poets makes Boston-fatigue unlikely. Beyond the title of this anthology, beyond the introduction, and beyond the first chapter which features poetry about journeys to Boston, the world of Boston recedes with the later chapters’ thematic focus on universal topics. Yes, these are poets with ties to Boston writing in periodicals circulating around Boston. However, the thematic division of Citizen Poets revolves around the universal: work, family, death, and even word games and having fun. It goes without saying that each of these topics aren’t specific to Boston or any one area, or anyone person, or even any one time period. Citizen Poets takes on universal themes  and would fit well within in many different courses.

From the introductory materials (both to the book and the individual chapters) through the variety of charming and playful poems included, Citizen Poets is an accessible book, even for students in general courses or early career majors. Given the Boston focus coupled with the emphasis on poetry and print culture, Citizen Poets might be best suited for a seminar or topics class consisting of juniors and seniors. Still, I’d be comfortable assigning this text in lower level classes.

Classroom Text Pairings for Citizen Poets

What kinds of texts would pair well with Citizen Poets? Several come to mind for a class on the American city. For example, Citizen Poets would dovetail nicely with texts like The Quaker City, New York by Gas Light, and many others. Another natural pairing would focus on print culture in early American and could include works by Phillis Wheatley, Ben Franklin, and Susana Rowson. The variety and universality of subjects covered in the thematic chapters of Citizen Poets makes for a versatile text.

Additionally, there is an abundance of digital resources that could be paired with Citizen Poets. For example, online resources from the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Boston Athenaeum would make a great addition for background material or classroom workshops with archival materials. The Boston and/or Northeastern connections of these archives provides for a wealth of resources. I’ve used many of these websites in my classes and students often respond well to them. In the podcast realm there are several episodes from Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World and The JuntoCast that would pair nicely with the content of the book.

Citizen Poets is a welcome addition to poetry anthologies for the classroom. The variety of poems included, the introductory material, the price, and the pedagogical opportunities makes Citizen Poets an attractive anthology for classroom use.


When the Author Isn’t Dead: Teaching the Work of Living Poets, An Interview with Poet/Scholar Jordan Windholz

PALS Note: PALS is pleased to have a guest post from James Van Wyck. Van Wyck interviewed  Jordan Windholz to discuss teaching contemporary poets and being a both a scholar and poet. At PALS, we are invested in thinking about the different roles each of us plays in the classroom. The following interview provides insight into the ways the many facets of our roles as creators and scholars coalesce in a teaching environment.

One of my favorite scenes in Annie Hall is when Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) are on line at a movie theatre. A pompous Donald Trump type is mansplaining Marshall McLuhan’s work to his date. He knows some of McLuhan’s terms, but has no sense of how to apply them. When Woody’s character confronts him, the man says “I happen to teach a course at Columbia called ‘TV, Media, and Culture,’ so I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity.” “Oh do ya?” Woody’s character responds, “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here.” Out from behind a movie placard steps McLuhan, and he puts the ignoramus in his place.

Sometimes I feel like our students might feel a sense of kinship with Alvy Singer. Especially when we’re privileging our esoteric readings of texts over their emotional responses to these same texts. And I can easily imagine a scenario in which a student gets in touch with an author via social media and gleefully shares with her classmates a DM that appears to debunk a carefully-wrought lesson plan. But wouldn’t that be a great learning experience all around, even though a painful one for the instructor?

Previous posts on PALS—including this series by the very much alive teacher/scholar/poet Melissa Range—have mentioned something that I’ve found to be true in my own teaching experience: teaching poetry is hard. I think this especially true for contemporary poetry.

As a nineteenth-century scholar, I’m more at ease teaching Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, than I am teaching Robert Creeley. But I’m infinitely more nervous to teach the work of a living poet like Clare Pollard.

So I decided to sit down with a living poet, and chat about the difficultieOther Psalmss (and opportunities) connected with teaching the work of writers who aren’t dead.

Jordan Windholz is a scholar of Renaissance English literature and a poet. He earned his MFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and PhD from Fordham University in New York. His research focuses on constructions and representations of bachelor identity in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. A recent collection of poems entitled Other Psalms (University of North Texas Press, 2015) won the 2014 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize.


Q: Do you think scholars tend to “fix” poets in place and time, and too closely associate the poet and the poetry? For example, in the introduction to this interview, I unconsciously referred to “teaching Walt Whitman.”  I guess this gets me to my half-facetious title, which gestures toward the seminal Barthes essay. What changes when the poet we’re teaching is not only alive, but on Twitter?

Well, if they are on twitter, you can talk to them, and if you are teaching their work, you can ask them to Skype into your classroom so your students can talk to them. As for “fixing” dead poets in place and time, I suppose it depends on the scholar. We’re at a moment now when historicisms of various stripes dominate scholarly criticism. Poets can be fixed in time and place by such methods, but I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. Sometimes fixing them in time and place opens up some surprising readings. And I don’t know if conflating the poet with the poetry is a bad thing either. Poets write poems, and, inevitably, who we are gets into what we write.

I think what really changes for a scholar used to teaching Whitman, or in my case, Shakespeare, Lanyer, or Wroth, is learning to talk about poetry without an archive of scholarship. These poets are interesting for lots of reasons, but one of the reasons they stay interesting is that they have a chorus of scholarship that keeps talking about them. They are never without their audience. Teachers don’t have to worry about what to say about dead poets because they have this archive to dip into; if you have little to say about Whitman—or have been too busy to come up with something on any particular day—you know someone else surely has a lot to say. Living, contemporary poets can have buzz and reviews (or not), but they don’t have this archive. And if you don’t know the poet, you might not even have biography to draw upon, and certainly not in the ways you have it with Whitman.

And so you have the poems, which means you really can’t “fix” the poetry in place and time; it just sort of floats through the present. This might mean you have to rely more on formalist approaches than you would otherwise when you teach the work, which would be a means of trying to “fix” the poems in terms of their aesthetic merits or demerits (which can be reductive in its own way). But on the other hand, you might feel liberated to have students talk openly about the stuff we usually don’t talk about with Whitman—how the poems make them feel, what they like and dislike and why, which poems are better than others, and how we determine the terms of such a critique. You can teach them to read like reviewers instead of scholars. That’s a cultural competency worth cultivating. That’s not a bad thing.

Q: What strategies for teaching poetry have you found to be particularly helpful, especially for a class full of non-English majors?

In my classes we practice reading poetry out loud. We practice memorizing poems, even contemporary poems that have yet to prove themselves to be worthy of memorization (though I don’t really believe some poems are worthy of memorization and others are not—I believe in the mental practice of memorizing poems, of internalizing poetic diction and rhythm, so any poem that grabs a student or interests her is worthy).

We listen to readings of poets reading their work. Melissa Range has some excellent suggestions on Pedagogy and American Literary Studies for teaching contemporary poetry collections, and I heartily endorse her recommendation that we teach whole collections. I think this is especially important for non-majors, who might think of poems as one-off pieces. Books of poems tell students that any individual poem can, and often should, be read in relation to other poems.

I like to give non-majors the vocabulary to talk about poems, so I quite literally give them that vocabulary by distributing work sheets with all the keywords we might use—metaphor, anaphora, apostrophe, enjambment, elegy, whatever—as a resource (you might keep a running list of this vocabulary on a class blog or wiki).

I then ask them to apply this knowledge. Pointing them to various poetry zines and websites—The Volta, Linebreak, Fishousepoems, Poetry Magazine, Fence, CURA, Drunkenboat, Memorious (there are so, so many)—I might ask them to find a poem they like, write a one page paper about one technique the poet uses that appeals to them, and then to come to class ready to read the poem. If we’re using a class blog or wiki, we then link to these poems. I’ve had students write analysis or close-reading papers of poems, but have allowed them to replace one or two of these required papers with a video of their reading of a poem or poems (which also gets posted to our class blog or wiki).

If we’re reading a bunch of different poetry from an anthology, I might ask them to create their own anthology of the poetry in which they group and divide poets based on an alternative logic than the one the anthology presents. Really, I just try to find ways to give students various ways they can be conversant or comfortable with poetry. I want them to see there are many things one can do with poems, that there isn’t just one way of reading or appreciating or thinking about them.

Q: Can you offer some suggestions for lesson plans that involve contemporary poetry? What might a typical class look like? A week-long lesson plan? A month-long unit?

I’d start by echoing Melissa’s strategy for teaching books of poetry. It’s really excellent. And I suppose this should go without saying, but I’m going to say it. If you are teaching contemporary poetry, you should be teaching books and poets that challenge and interest you and that you are eager to engage, almost viscerally. How you will teach a particular poet depends on the class, and it certainly depends on your familiarity with the contemporary poetry landscape.

I like to teach contemporary poetry in relation to larger historical arcs. I’ve taught a course called “Verse / Versus” that asks students to think about how poets position their work against other poets, political movements, cultural trends, or aesthetic camps. In the past, we’ve started with early modernists and ended with conceptual poets, but you could really start later, with Emerson and Whitman, say, or even with the modernism or postmodernism. For this class, we’re usually reading poetic treatises in relation to the poems. So, a typical sequence of classes in this case would often involve breaking the students into groups and assigning them a portion of a poetic manifesto they read for that day. We might look at all or portions of Ken Chen’s Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show, for example. Each group will present a summary of the part of the essay they’ve been assigned, and I’ll write that summary on the board so we have a working outline. Once we feel we have the argument, we’ll discuss its advantages, disadvantages, potential and limits. That will be one class.

The next class, students will have read the poetry, so in this case, they’ll have read Chen’s Juvenilia (2010). They’ll read Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire (2012). I’ll ask them to come in with poems they feel resonate with the poetics or seem to defy them in compelling ways. They will come in with a written response, about a paragraph. I usually ask students to take the lead on discussion here. I might call on a student to read their response or to point us to a poem. This kind of exercise asks students to read for politics and not necessarily for aesthetic value or worth, or not to prioritize form above content.

A month-long plan will ask students to consider another movement (we would have done conceptualism before this, and maybe we’ll focus on Latinx poetics after). At the end of this class in particular, I ask students in a final exam to reorganize my syllabus, to regroup poets upon other grounds than the ones I’ve laid out. 

Q: Sometime the most difficult moments in the semester (at least for me) are the beginnings of classes, early on in the semester. Do you have go-to class opening exercises that work well when teaching (contemporary) poetry?

I do. When I teach poetry, I like to open classes with readings. I ask a student to be responsible for choosing any poem that strikes her from our reading for that day. She’ll read the poem she chooses. As she reads, I ask students to write down and take note of any particular images, sounds, or turns of phrase. After the reading, we list these on the board. If an image is repeated—and this is often the case—I might circle it, and then ask students to throw out connotations, which I write around that phrase. We go on like this for two or three more phrases. Then I ask the student to read the poem again, and we listen with this new information. Upon listening a second time, and now with the poem in front of them, I’ll ask them to write a short paragraph of what they think the poem means, using specific examples from the text. They do this for seven minutes. Then we get together and discuss their observations and how they made them. I don’t do this kind of exercise every class, but I find it’s a good way to get students into the poetry, and to engage their ears, eyes, and brains (and whatever organ feelings come from—the liver? I’m an early modernist, after all).

Q: Have you noticed a difference between the kinds of pedagogies that work for, say, poetry in the Elizabethan period, and poetry by a contemporary poet like Clare Pollard?

Yes and no, but I think mostly yes. If students are coming to all and any poetry as essentially unfamiliar or difficult, then the processes of familiarizing students with poetry—some of those enumerated above—will be the same. But there is a difference between Elizabethan poetry and contemporary poetry. We write poetry for different reasons and within different social and economic systems. We really don’t have patrons, so if I’m teaching Elizabethan poetry, we need to talk about the world in which poets are writing; we need to talk about diction and Elizabethan aesthetics and coterie culture; we need to find ways to cultivate our historical imaginations in ways we might not need to when we teach contemporary poetry.

I don’t want my students to come away from Elizabethan poetry thinking Sidney and Spenser wrote poems for the same reasons poets do today (or not entirely for the same reasons) though I do want them to think about the legacies such poetry has left us. And then there’s the language. Elizabethan language is not our language, and it really isn’t the student’s language. That said, getting students to read the poetry out loud, to hear it and speak it, helps get the language inside them and gets them inside the language. I might ask them to translate the poems into their own words, and I wouldn’t necessarily do this with Clare Pollard’s work (though I might, because this is yet another way to get students to make the poem their own!)


I think Jordan’s perspective as a scholar of Renaissance literature—a field further removed from our moment than my field of nineteenth century literature—is instructive for non-experts like me who are asked to teach contemporary poetry.

We shouldn’t fear teaching contemporary poets: we should embrace the possibilities afforded to us by working with the words of living artists. As Jordan’s answers show, contemporary poetry allows us to work with words in ways ranging from the formal to the experiential, cultivating skills and habits of mind that are valuable for undergraduates of all disciplines and majors.


Contributor Bio:

James Van WyckJames M. Van Wyck is a PhD Candidate in English at Fordham University. His dissertation examines the relationship between the fictions evangelicals read in the nineteenth century and the evangelical life of the mind. His classrooms often incorporate archival research, collaboration, and public-facing projects. He’s written for venues including The New England Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed and is proud of the fine intramural and extramural publications of his students.