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Cantatas of the Wild: Memoir, Mysticism, and Modern Feminist Poetry

  • Author(s): Keith, Melissa Dawn
  • Advisor(s): O'Brien, Geoffrey G.
  • et al.

In this dissertation, the introduction defines the erotic-mystical mode, using the poetry and prose of the five feminist writers that I argue constitute a core poetic movement. Based on their shared understandings of the centrality of this disruptive new paradigm--with important influences from English Romanticism--these poets create both lyric and prose works that position them as major leaders in feminist thought in the seventies. Collapsing conventional binaries, their works offer examples of how to live, on the deepest level, as life-affirming beings, regardless of gender, race, class, or sexuality, on a damaged, yet still vibrant, planet. They never deny difference, embracing all that is living, yet still grounded in faith in possibilities of collective communication. No one style best expresses the erotic mystical mode; yet it occupies a place, in the seventies, I argue, linked with memoir-poems, paving the way for the contemporary surge of women's memoirs.

The first chapter concerns itself with selectively surveying the erotic mystical mode transnationally and across periods, while dipping into recent American examples, creating a kind of ground for the sustained individual author readings of H.D.'s Sea Garden, chapter three, and the poetry of Adrienne Rich, 1951-1984, chapters five and seven. The second chapter tells the stories of how this dissertation is constructed and why this particular methodology. It defines and justifies its hybrid methodology, attaching it to a history of genre-crossing writing by feminist critics. In order to do so, I draw from the fairly recent formation of an innovative, hybrid literary criticism by a vigorous diaspora of scholars, consisting of both second wave and contemporary feminist critics.

A number of feminist literary critics have written about these four poets in the past three decades. The feminist critical attention, of course, has gone largely to the poet, most famous and most lauded by the literary establishment, Adrienne Rich, whose first published book of verse predates the publications of the other three by at least fifteen years. In chapter one, I discuss a number of critics relevant to this dissertation, figures such as Francine DuPlessis, Susan Friedman, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Wendy Martin, and Jan Montefiore.

Their works inspired me to juxtapose creative memoir writing, comprising chapters four and six, with the more traditional chapters of literary criticism, chapters three and five. This personal memoir sprang up in response to years of immersion in the life-altering poetry this dissertation explores and celebrates.

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