Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
R. Clifton Spargo
In this dissertation, I argue that poets of the late modernist period were engaged in an effort to reevaluate the early modernist aesthetics of autonomy and to redirect poetry to the ethical problems faced by a world torn by war, genocidal politics, and violent cultural exclusions predicated on race and other arbitrary markers of identity. In particular, I focus on how prominent mid-century American or somewhat Americanized poets--Stevens, Auden, Jarrell, and Bishop--deploy rhetorical strategies associated with ekphrasis to meet these ethical crises. Each of these late modernist, formalist poets makes a strategic turn toward a self-critical poetry in order to imagine a mode of poetic speech that can reflect and accommodate the cultural differences and othernesses in a society that might seem otherwise incapable of taking account of the great variety of perspectives on which it is based. As such, the turn to responsible rhetoric in mid-twentieth century American poetry is not merely a "return" to rhetoric, but a reevaluation and reimagining of rhetorical procedures. I call this the "turn" of responsible rhetoric, the rhetorical "torsion" to which poets submit their language in order to wrest modern poetry from the grip of an aesthetics of autonomy and open it, again, to communication with otherness.
What is most surprising in their rhetorical experimentation is that these poets should consistently reclaim ekphrasis, a mode emblematic of the solipsistic modernist lyric, as a rhetorical strategy for staging the encounter between a text and that which is other to it both culturally and semiotically. By appropriating this strategy and taking it beyond its ordinary high aesthetic focus, these poets commit themselves to rethinking a community open to cultural differences and constant self-critical interrogation. Rather than simply being a genre associated with modernist aesthetic autonomy, I argue, ekphrastic rhetoric helps poets mediate political, historical, and cultural differences precisely when poetic art makes its self-inquisitive turn; that is, ekphrasis is not merely a self-referential articulation of autonomy, but a means of exploring and questioning the construction of the autonomous poem by way of a crossing into otherness. In my analysis, I lean heavily on the ethical discourse developed by such late-twentieth century philosophers as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida in order to draw out the significance of these poets' experimentation with ekphrastic rhetorical strategies and to suggest how their ethical concerns both prefigure and serve as an aesthetic counterpart to ideas later developed by these philosophers.