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Lyric and the Rhetoric of the Serial Mode in Twentieth Century American Poetry: Figuring Voice in the Work of Spicer, Berrigan, and Ashbery


Lyric and the Rhetoric of the Serial Mode in Twentieth Century American Poetry: Figuring Voice in the Work of Spicer, Berrigan, and Ashbery

Serial poetry has been recognized as an important formal category and writing practice in postwar experimental poetry, but the vital relationship between seriality and conventional aspects of the lyric genre has been obscure. After critiques of "lyric" that argue the term is politically suspect because it is linked to Romantic ideologies of the subject, new, historicized models of lyric emphasizing the functions and effects of voice have returned in recent criticism of Modernist and postwar experimental writing. Building on this recent criticism, this dissertation proposes that lyric rhetoric informs the turn towards the serial mode in poems by Jack Spicer, John Ashbery and Ted Berrigan. The serial poetry of these postwar writers makes lyric poetry function contextually, reviving the notion of voice. Seriality is best understood as a mode, not a form, that decontextualizes and re-contextualizes prior lyric fragments and allows poets to think about social relationships in terms of poetic ones, and vice versa.

Seriality has been discussed in criticism of Spicer, but has not been a key term in appraisals of book-length poems by Berrigan and Ashbery. Therefore my research offers seriality as a new perspective to understand these poets' practices of citation, appropriation and generic mixing: methods of constructing their own poetic voices out of existing textual materials from traditions that they write themselves into. I argue that these practices of textual rearrangement and revision offer a model of historically responsive lyric that challenges assumptions about how postwar poets read lyric and imagine more engaged audiences for their own writing. Through analysis of the serial mode in poems by Spicer, Berrigan, and Ashbery, I trace the outline of a common poetic voice in different series constructed from diverse materials: an epistolary exchange, a recursive sequence of sonnets transformed by scissors and scotch tape, and a meditation about lyric that is written in diaristic prose. I frame my analysis with a critical discussion of "The New Lyric Studies" and modern histories of lyric genre by Marjorie Perloff, Mark Jeffreys, Virginia Jackson, Mutlu Konuk Blasing, and others. Lyric rhetoric and voice in the serial mode matters, I propose, to scholars of 20th century American experimental literature seeking to move beyond reductive conceptual oppositions that divide the field.

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