"The Occasion of These Ruses": The Mid-Twentieth-Century Poetic Speaker in the Works of Robert Lowell, Frank O'Hara, and George Oppen
Abstract: This dissertation argues for a new history of mid-twentieth-century
American poetry shaped by the emergence of the figure of the poetic speaker as a default
mode of reading. Now a central fiction of lyric reading, the figure of the poetic speaker
developed gradually and unevenly over the course of the twentieth century. While the field
of historical poetics draws attention to alterna... read moretive, non-lyric modes of address, this
dissertation examines how three poets writing in this period adapted the normative fiction
of the poetic speaker in order to explore new modes of address. By choosing three
mid-century poets who are rarely studied beside one another, this dissertation resists the
aesthetic factionalism that structures most historical models of this period. My first
chapter, "Robert Lowell's Crisis of Reading: The Confessional Subject as the Culmination of
the Romantic Tradition of Poetry," examines the origins of M.L. Rosenthal's phrase
"confessional poetry" and analyzes how that the autobiographical effect of Robert Lowell's
poetry emerges from a strange, collage-like construction of multiple texts and
non-autobiographical subjects. My second chapter reads Frank O'Hara's poetry as a form of
intentionally averted communication that treats the act of writing as a surrogate for the
poet's true object of desire. Drawing on the antagonistic relationship between the
affective structures of desire and the compromised possibilities of desiring subjects that
Laruen Berlant describes in her book Cruel Optimism, my chapter resists confusing the
intimacy of O'Hara's poetry with the effect of the poet's presence and points to locations
where Frank O'Hara contrasts his own personal wellbeing with that of his poetic subjects.
My final chapter examines the differences between George Oppen's poetry before and after
his twenty-five year departure from writing in 1934. While Oppen's work strives to treat
its objects in concrete and objective ways, the mid-century expectation of an abstract,
singular poetic speaker conflicted with Oppen's Marxist-inflected principles. My chapter
argues that Oppen creates a new phenomenology of reading that attempts to ground the
fiction of the poetic speaker by historicizing it as a genre-inflected mode of poetic
address. Ultimately, this dissertation asks how these poets imagined themselves addressing
and not addressing their actual reading publics. By doing so, I hope to outline the
emergence of a modern poetic norm and uncover a version of literary history that has been
hidden in plain sight behind that norm.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2016.
Submitted to the Dept. of English.
Advisor: Virginia Jackson.
Committee: John Lurz, Ichiro Takayoshi, and Steven Axelrod.
Keywords: American literature, Modern literature, and Literature.read less