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Intimate Historiographies: Racial Crisis and Poetics in the American Mid-Twentieth Century


This dissertation reframes the radical impulse of the ‘New American’ poetry, famously anthologized in 1960, by focusing on the racial crisis of the building Civil Rights movement and its impact on several of the generation’s most influential poets. The New American poets’ collective commitment to the unfolding present and general formal preference for rhetorical candor are largely understood to refute the historiographic investments and impersonal modalities of their high modernist forebears. I show, however, that the imperative—felt acutely by Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)—to address the psychic avoidance of history at the root of the problem of whiteness instead demanded the reengagement of these preoccupations, as well as raising the political stakes of poetry writing as a practice. As the poets found their very senses of being at once deeply unsettled by the revolutionary anti-racism of the early 1960s and more resistant to change than they had hoped, they leaned on poetry to intervene in their own racialization and in the racialization of American poetics. For Olson, Baraka, and Spicer, I argue, the ensuing confrontation doesn’t just result in new experimental forms but breaks the persistent association of poetry with idealized genres of personhood. I demonstrate how, adopting aspects of the popular discourse of psychoanalysis and looking to the Blues as model, these three poets reimagined and struggled to inhabit poetic impersonality as a means for offering up the psychic material of the self—its inherited preconditions and unconscious attachments—for use by readers who might then be moved to undertake their own intimate reckonings with America’s historical damage.

Drawing on letters and lectures, the dissertation tracks through the work of each poet a set of unrecognized and under-remarked intertextual conversations and personal crises and, attending to developments in genre and address, and to movements between method, figuration, and abstraction, the chapters provide new insights into key turns in each poet’s oeuvre. Theoretically, the dissertation brings into productive tension frameworks usually considered incompatible—offering interwoven historical and ontological analyses, psychoanalytic and historicist interpretations, and symptomatic and recuperative readings—in order to more fully see and account for the complexities and paradoxes that animated these three dissident intellectuals and found expression in their work. Treating the poets as case studies in the political value of artistic practice and the broader liabilities of idealization, I ultimately argue that their poetics were broken by the racial crisis—and poetry’s resources of figuration and address thereby made available to psycho-historical work that sits uneasily at the edge of the aesthetic frame which gave it rise, pointing toward interdisciplinary possibilities for poetry writing’s pedagogical use.

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