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Poetry in America: Whitman


Elisa New, PhD, Powell M. Cabot Professor of Literature, Harvard University



Leah Reis-Dennis, HarvardX Lead Course Developer

John Radway, PhD candidate in English, Harvard University

Ari Hoffman, PhD candidate in English, Harvard University



Poetry in America: Whitman introduces students to the poetry of Walt Whitman, a quintessentially American 19th-century poet, and arguably the first modern American writer. Topics include Whitman and the City, Whitman and the Self, and Whitman and the Body. This module will expose students to Whitman’s iconic long form poetry in the context of his life and times in the mid-19th-century United States. Students will encounter distinguished Americans as they read and discuss the poetry of Walt Whitman, and they will have opportunities to practice and refine the way they read, and write about, poems. Course materials include video lectures, roundtable and online discussions--but also interactive exercises and interpretive expeditions.

Poetry in America surveys nearly 400 years of poetry in America.  Treating individual figures (Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Williams, Hughes), major poetic movements (Firesides, Modernist, New York, Confessional, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E) and probing the many uses of poetry across changing times, the course provides a historical time line for the American poetic tradition while also giving students tools to approach any poetic tradition. Who, and what, are poems for? For poets? Readers? To give vent to the soul? To paint or sculpt with words? Alter consciousness? Raise cultural tone? Students will read, engage with, write about and also recite and record American poems.


Course/Certificate Expectations:

This course will run for eight weeks, from January 15 to March 14. 

Many of you have expressed an interest in taking this course for a certificate. We wanted to explain clearly the standards for receiving a certificate from edX.

Students who complete 75 percent or more of their Coursework Portfolio will receive certificates. To accumulate credit toward a certificate, students complete readings, view the videos, post twice per part in the discussion forum, and complete the free response and annotation exercises. Students may, of course, participate in all of these activities without submitting them for portfolio credit, but those who are working towards a certificate can simply click on "submit for credit" at the end of an exercise or part, and the assignment will be recorded in their portfolios. 

It is difficult for a course in which learning occurs through reading, listening, writing, and discussion to render this sort of participation into a score. Rest assured that the teaching staff have been reading through your comments with great interest and responding to many of them, and we will continue to do so.

Students who can’t complete all of the course materials and assignments are welcome and encouraged to audit this class by engaging with the course materials to the extent that they can.

All content for a given week will be released by 12 PM Eastern Standard Time (EST) on the day indicated on the syllabus.

For more detailed information about the course structure, certificates, and additional resources, we invite you to visit the FAQ tab HERE and the Resources tab HERE.



Students will have access to the poems being covered each week under the “Poems” tab (read-only), as well as the “Course Info” tab (printer-friendly). Poems will be downloadable as PDFs for those who wish to print them in the “Course Info” tab under "Course Handouts." Clicking on any poem in this syllabus will bring you to a printer-friendly PDF version of that poem.

You will notice that the reading load varies from section to section, with the heaviest volume of poems arriving in Part 3. The poems for the entire module will be available throughout the duration of the module, and so we invite you to read ahead if you so choose.




All questions should be made on the FAQ Discussion Thread. If your question remains unanswered, please email the Course Staff at



Part 0: Introduction to Poetry in America: Whitman -- releases January 15, 12 PM EST

Readings: No assigned reading. Feel free to get a head start-- you'll find all of the poems for this module in the links below in this Syllabus. If you have extra time, we recommend that you check out the Resources tab HERE. Scroll down to the bottom for suggested reading on Whitman's poetry and his cultural, historical, and literary context.

Part 1: Whitman and the City -- releases January 29, 12 PM EST


Students seeking a certificate should annotate each poem according to the prompts provided, in addition to completing this week’s Open Response Exercise.


Part 2: Whitman and the Self -- Releases February 12, 12 PM EST


Note: We will study this long poem in sections. Although we will provide PDFs of particular sections of “Song of Myself” HERE, go to the Poetry Foundation to read the full-length text.

Students seeking a certificate should annotate each poem according to the prompts provided, in addition to completing this week’s Open Response Exercise.


Part 3: Whitman and the Body -- Releases February 26, 12 PM EST


 Students seeking a certificate should annotate each poem according to the prompts provided, in addition to completing this week’s Open Response Exercise.