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Secret Histories/Impossible Objects: Toward a Hemispheric Poetics of Twentieth-Century Long Poems


This dissertation offers a comparative study of Anglo-American and Latin-American long poems written in the twentieth century and analyzes how these works remap the emergent geographical, historical, and spatial realities of late modernity. The long poems I investigate include works that respond to disaster, war, and other forms of large-scale social transformation, such as David Jones' In Parenthesis, which records the author's experience fighting in the trenches in World War I, and Jose Pacheco's "Las Ruinas de México," which responds to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that brought the city close to ruins in a context already defined by the ruins of colonial conquest. I argue that poems since the first decades of modernism have engaged with complicated notions of time framed by disaster, crisis, and change. I thus consider how these poems meet the demands of various historical problems in late modernity by grafting together materials from different time periods and traditions, by relying on the resources of local geographies and natural histories, and by exaggerating difference and asymmetry as spatio-temporal forces that rearrange the discrete categories of literary history and national belonging. The texts I consider--David Jones' In Parenthesis (1937), Cesar Vallejo's España, aparta de mi este calíz (1937), H.D.'s Trilogy (1944), William Carlos Williams's Paterson (1946-1958), Muriel Rukeyser's The Book of the Dead (1938), Gabriela Mistral's Poema de Chile (1967), Jose Pacheco's "Las Ruinas de México" (1986), and Charles Reznikoff's Testimony (1965)--compose a heterogeneous archive that does not cohere within a single tradition associated with either modernist or avant-garde aesthetics or with the long poem. Rather than situate these texts in linear relation or according to a linguistic or national tradition, I group them according to shared themes or topoi, such that the particular discursive interventions in the poems provide the larger organizing principle for interpretation. The topics I consider are war, specifically the modes of modern warfare that emerge in three different historical sites in the first half of the twentieth century: World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II; the emergence of the industrial as a potentially dehumanizing or alienating feature of capitalist development; and the role of violence in everyday life, particularly the role violence plays in extending beneath and defining but also in threatening the preservation of the coherence of the everyday. By grouping poems within these thematic contexts such as war and industrialization rather than according to language, period, or national tradition, I explore the potential of this framework to open new contexts--material, phenomenological, cultural--for reading, interpretation, and engagement.

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