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Paul Valéry and the Poetics of Attention


This dissertation is about how we pay attention to poetry. Paul Valéry’s work in

particular is famous for asking us as readers to attend to a kind of language that isn’t

always resolvable into any one idea, any one meaning. His poems speak, though that

speaking doesn’t always give way to a something-said. In this project, I ask— if poetry

falls shy of what it stands to say, what does it mean to hear it? What is this listening

that falls so beautifully shy of what we stand to hear, and meaningfully so?

Over four chapters, I explore what it looks like to attend to what we cannot

resolve: be it the purely possible, the liminal, or the ever-emergent. Attention, I argue,

takes many shapes: waiting, listening, weariness, even sleep. I show that these forms of

attention constitute the experiential flipside of Valéry’s purely formal poetic language.

Indeed by entering his poetics from the standpoint of embodied experience, we realize

that the unresolvedness of his work is not synonymous with the difficulty of its less-than-

representational language. As a whole, then, this project countervails the

widespread tendency to see Valéry’s work as a mere harbinger of the 20th-century’s

preoccupation with the procedures of language, an approach that so often elides the

specificity of the poet’s relationship to the sensual world of lived experience.

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