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Book Review: Annotating Modernism

26th February 2021

Julie Irigaray, The University of Huddersfield

Amanda Golden, Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020)

‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’  After a year when teachers have had to adapt to online teaching, this adage sounds particularly insensitive and inappropriate. In the case of Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Ted Hughes, one can say that those who do can also be teachers. Great poets do not automatically become great teachers, but Amanda Golden’s Annotating Modernism demonstrates how these four put a lot of effort into designing and delivering courses that would enable their students to achieve a better understanding of modernism, as well as the creative process itself.

Annotating Modernism is not the first book dealing with writers’ teaching experience. Yet Golden’s original angle – focusing on these poets’ teaching notes and the annotations from their personal library – is what makes this volume so compelling. It informs us not only about their teaching practice: it also re-evaluates the relationship between modernism and academia, and the impact of teaching modernism on these poets’ development.

Golden perfectly summarised their teachers’ persona in these terms: ‘If Plath is the student, Berryman is the scholar, and Sexton is the teacher, then Hughes is the poet’ (175). She had already researched Plath’s teaching year at Smith College from 1957 to 1958, and even interviewed one of her students.[1]But in this book, Golden explains why Plath – who had been a student at Smith College from 1950 to 1955 – struggled to emancipate herself from her education. Plath’s insecurities as a teacher resulted in her need to rely on her own student notes and the critics her teachers trusted, though she used additional literary criticism. However, Golden underlines how Plath added to this modernist discourse a sensitivity towards World War II that one can find in works like The Bell Jar (1963) or “Lady Lazarus” (written 1962, published 1965).                                 

Plath’s teaching notes for James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) are particularly illuminating. As she taught about Stephen Dedalus’s intellectual development and passion for the arts – a character that she described in her notes as an ‘aesthete more than artist—full of theories of art & language—not a “maker”—except of a few verses—’ (42), Plath realised ‘that to be a writer herself, she needed to leave teaching behind.’ (42) Among the many other modernists Plath taught, D. H. Lawrence was the most influential on her development as a writer, and she complained about having to ‘[talk]about D. H. Lawrence and about critics [sic] views of him. I like reading him selfishly, for an influence on my own life & my own writing’ (63).Golden notes that this year at Smith College opened Plath’s eyes to the irreconcilable gap between the way literature is taught in academia and real life (63). She finally chose to dedicate herself to her writing.

Berryman’s meticulous and scholarly approach to modern texts contrasts with Plath’s, who rejected the idea of seeing literature as a system to decipher. Berryman was educated at Columbia University and Cambridge University, before teaching at various other universities. Academia was at the centre of his life from the 1930s to the 1970s. Upon being invited to edit Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems in 1945, his academic expertise and his position as a poet made him an obvious choice. But Pound’s reception of Berryman’s detailed commentary was lukewarm as he found it too academic and difficult to comprehend (104). Golden’s research shows that this experience changed Berryman’s teaching practice, making it ‘Poundian in its comprehensiveness.’ (18). For one of his humanities courses, Berryman chose to contextualise modernism within its historical, psychological, philosophical, and cultural contexts. According to Golden, Berryman’s interdisciplinary approach towards modernism from a mid-century point of view ‘reflects the significance of the poet’s role in shaping the post-war reception of modernism in universities’ (93). His poetry mirrors his reflections on modernism, especially The Dream Songs (1969).

Golden does justice to Sexton’s teaching methods by examining the notes of her “Anne on Anne” course taught at Colgate University in 1972. Sexton was more of an autodidact: she did not attend college, and improved her work via workshops. Golden points out how Sexton successfully used her poetry and herself to provide students with an insight into the creative process. She mixed various activities – lectures, interviews of her, close-readings of the poems, Q&As, and creative writing exercises – to make them think critically. Sexton acted as a guide exposing her writing strategies, not as a creator who had all the answers and refused any other interpretation of her work. The comments written in her books reveal how she tried to compensate for a lack of education by reading extensively, using annotating to process new learning. For Golden, there is little doubt that‘Sexton’s teaching notes extend beyond the scope of her poems and interviews to augment the content of her oeuvre.’ (131). The study of her teaching notes reveals, among many other fascinating facts, that Sexton progressively ‘documented an awareness of the types of questions to which readers or literary critics might have answers that she could not, or declined to, supply’ (153).

Finally, Annotating Modernism gives room to Hughes’s teaching experience at the University of Massachusetts in 1958. Golden highlights how Hughes was the one who remained the most faithful to creativity, rejecting the academic trend of over-intellectualising literature. The Coda points out how, by sharing some of Plath’s books, he engaged with her annotations to develop his own teaching strategies (179). Like Plath, Hughes believed academia was killing his imagination, so he never considered it as a career.

Annotating Modernism delivers its promise of re-evaluating the significance of poets for the consolidation of the modernist discourse in academia. Thanks to extensive archival research, Golden uncovered new material that challenges our knowledge of Plath, Berryman, Sexton and Hughes as careful readers of the Modernists. These poets’ pedagogy engaged with modernist concerns. Golden also identifies what they fleshed out to make their courses more engaging and helpful to their students. As a bonus, readers who are also educators will find out that this book will make them reconsider (and probably improve) their teaching practices. For all these reasons, Annotating Modernism is a convincing case that what remains in the margins can be of the utmost importance.


[1] Ellen Bartlett Nodelman and Amanda Golden, ‘Recollections of Mrs. Hughes’s Student’, Plath Profiles, vol.5 (Autumn 2012), Supplement, pp.125-139; and Amanda Golden, ‘Plath’s Teaching and the Shaping of Her Work’, in Tracy Brain (ed.), Sylvia Plath in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp.255-263.


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