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A Poetics of Survival: Figures and Forms of the Ethical in Poetry after the Shoah


This dissertation considers poetic responses to the Shoah: the critical and cultural consequences of the genre in relation to this catastrophe have been largely neglected or discussed primarily in light of Theodor Adorno's narrow statement questioning the possibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz. I maintain, however, that it is vital to engage the transnational and multi-lingual breadth of poetry, which lays claim to the problems as well as the significance of its endurance, as it confronts attempts to regulate creative impulses on the one hand and to mandate forms of testimony and commemoration on the other hand. In what I term a "poetics of survival," the works I examine employ intertextuality to question the ethical implications of situating poetic voice and address. These works explore the limits of poetic form, in order to foreground poetry as a literary mode that is involved in critical discourse and ethical critique rather than invested only in aesthetic or historical representation. Thus, the poets insist upon their dialogues and disputes across genres ranging from correspondence to philosophy, as they confront cultural and textual traditions that seek to mourn and commemorate devastating loss.

In the Introduction, I focus on theoretical and critical conceptions of survival, illustrating the ways in which a poetics of survival problematizes literary forms that attempt to make sense of individual and communal suffering, both through authoring and through reading. Chapter One investigates Rachel Blau DuPlessis' long poem "Draft 52: Midrash," which argues with Adorno's famous declaration that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Through elaborating and responding to her interpretation of Adorno's claim, DuPlessis' poem urges us to reconsider the categorical understanding of his pronouncement, which has shaped critical discourse. I take up DuPlessis' poetic challenge to Adorno's critical authority at the same time that I investigate the manifold ways in which he himself modulated this argument throughout his oeuvre. Chapter Two reflects on the intertextual resonances in both the poetry and the correspondence between Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs: I examine their figurations of breath, which I read as the critical boundary that simultaneously separates and binds together life and death, and as the mutual foundation and limit of poetry and existence after the Shoah. Chapter Three offers readings of the Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman, whose work confronts, refutes, and reimagines the viability of a poetics of survival in a language whose very existence has been called into question through the annihilation of so many of its speakers.

Ultimately, I postulate that a poetics of survival both institutes and explores a crucial tension between experience and expression. This tension takes shape as a limit-space, where the urgency and difficulty of the poetic emerge with particular force, since poetry is the genre most intimately and consciously bound up with the consequence of voice and address in the context of an exploration of form. By looking at the complicated relationship between body and text - particularly through the ways in which the writers figure survival as a condition that entangles life and language - I illuminate the intertwined pressures of ethics and memory, while questioning implicit hierarchies that seek to regulate the connections between the literal and the figural, the critical and the poetic, the historical and the aesthetic.

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