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Three Very Short Poems: The Verbal Economics of Twentieth-Century American Poetry


This study examines three very short poems from three distinct moments in recent literary history in order to determine the limits of the poetic virtue of concision and to consider the social and aesthetic issues raised by extreme textual reduction. Attending to the production, circulation, and afterlives of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913), Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” (1959), and Aram Saroyan’s “lighght” (1966), I argue that such texts necessarily, and yet paradoxically, join simplicity and ease to difficulty and effort. Those tense combinations, in turn, make these poems ideal sites for examining how brevity functions as a shared resource through which writers define and redefine what constitutes poetic labor and thus negotiate their individual relationships to the poetic tradition. In tracing those negotiations, "Three Very Short Poems: The Verbal Economics of Twentieth-Century American Poetry" participates in the ongoing reassessment of the relationship between literary modernism and mass culture by foregrounding art-poems that have reached unusual levels of popularity. Each of the three central chapters combines standard literary and reception history with formal analysis in order to tease out how the origin of a specific famous poem relates to its subsequent reprintings and reworkings. Throughout, I treat textual economization as a set of formal techniques whose variable meanings are determined by how those techniques emerge from and respond to historically located discourses of brevity. Each chapter functions as a distinct case study of a particular issue—knowledge-work and efficiency at the turn of the century, racial and economic inequality in the immediate postwar era, intellectual labor and social support in the late 1960s—and this means that each makes its own independent claims, even as the chapters argue collectively that a commitment to brevity as a value in itself unifies the diverse poetic field of the twentieth century.

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