Adviser: Herbert Blau
This study argues that the life poem, an endless form of poetic composition, constitutes what the Russian Formalists called a "literary system," a distinct network of devices, concerns, and practices which interacts in various ways with other literary and cultural systems. As such, the life poem can be distinguished from its most important generic predecessor, the epic, as well as from the related, intersecting system of the long poem. While each poem considered in this study differs widely from other representatives of this system, all of the works are unified by three basic characteristics. First, they replicate, composed in such a way that new formal elements can always be added. Second, they aggregate, incorporating an infinite amount of cultural material. Finally, they navigate, engaging in history as it happens, seeking to comprehend unforeseen and unexpected events through the poetic process. When combined, these three characteristics result in an endless process of composition, a self-modifying and over-expanding poetic text.
The system of the life poem has its roots in William Wordsworth's epic revisions and Walt Whitman's open compositional strategies, the first poets taken up in this study. From there, the evolutions of this practice are traced through modernism, with figures like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, into the middle of the twentieth century with poets like Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. The study ends with a consideration of three contemporary poets. By providing a framework through which the emergence of this discrete system can be identified and traced, this study offers a more precise vocabulary for the critical discussion of modern and contemporary long poetries.