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Diffractive Poetics: Material and Culture, Composition and Critique in the Late Modernist American Long Poem
AuthorJohnston, Brendan Michael
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Diffractive Poetics: Material and Culture, Composition and Critique in the Late Modernist American Long Poem explores the relationship of late modernist poetry to contemporary theories of materialism. The dissertation argues that Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” (1938), William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-58), Melvin B. Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), and even a 21st century sequence like Eleni Sikelianos’s The California Poem (2004), engage in revisionary responses to modernist poetics, particularly to the modernist long poem. Like their more canonical antecedents, these long poems also attempt modern reformulations of cultural totality and mythopoetic construction, but they use the bricolage techniques of the modernist long poem to more provisional, localized, and egalitarian purposes. Drawing particularly from the materialist theories of Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Édouard Glissant, and Sylvia Wynter, the dissertation further argues for the poems’ combined participation in what I term a diffractive materialist poetics, present in each poem’s examination of the imbricated constitution of the cultural and the natural. The poems exhibit moments of inter-field entanglement, mapping patterns of interference between the physical, cultural, and discursive. The dissertation conceives of late modernist poetics as both a theory and practice of materialist thinking. I argue the poems take up and generate working theories of materialism (philosophical, political, cultural, ecological respectively) that both anticipate and help elucidate the current interrogation of the concept and its application to critical methods of reading.