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Reading Close Reading: Twentieth-Century Criticism, Twenty-First-Century Poetry


In the prevailing critical reading paradigm, poetry is an exceptional instance of language that projects its own world. Cleanth Brooks holds that a poem should be read as if it were in "dramatic context": any effects the poem might have only apply as if on stage. This dramaturgical metaphor frees poetry of obligation to verisimilitude, and suggests an orientation that Theodor Adorno then construes into a politics: poetry stands so resolutely apart from society as to repudiate it. But the figure also predetermines that the relation between poetry and its immediate referents will be universally vicarious: poets and readers only engage with their worlds through what Kenneth Burke calls "identification," which Paul DeMan darkly extrapolates into the state of all language, a "linguistic predicament" also known as "death." We can only imagine doing something in a poem, never actually do it.

In my dissertation, I read eight twenty-first-century poems -- Vanessa Place's Statement of Facts, Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw, Juliana Spahr's The Transformation, Rob Fitterman's "The Goths," M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!, Claudia Rankine's "Situation #1," Bhanu Kapil's Humanimal, and Lisa Robertson's "Face/" -- in which the poets try to reclaim agency for poetry by performing poetic acts of reading that mimic or parody the "dramatic" metaphor in poetry criticism. I cast these poets' interventions into twentieth-century institutional, disciplinary, and pedagogical history into relief by the poems with four reading methodologies -- close reading, contextualization, historicization, and lyricization -- in each of my chapters. In my readings, I attend to these poems' direct repercussions--the ways they move their readers; I argue that by pushing back on their readers' readings, contemporary poets are working to re-claim political efficacy for poetry.

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