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The Book as Object and Concept in American Poetry after Modernism

Jennings, Chelsea. The Book as Object and Concept in American Poetry after Modernism. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation argues that the printed book—as a unit of meaning, a sculptural and visual object, and a consumer good—has been important to American poetry after modernism, and in particular to writers who directly engage the materiality of language in their poetry. In postwar poetry criticism, the “material text” is much discussed but often remains abstract: an emphasis on language as a medium tends to eclipse the literal sense in which texts are made of matter. This dissertation contends that in American poetry a self-consciousness about the materiality of language has been intimately related to experiments with the physical features of the book. It focuses on the work of four poets—Ezra Pound, Jack Spicer, Susan Howe, and Anne Carson—who exemplify this dual interest in materiality, and who, because they move beyond the isolated lyric toward book-length compositions, also implicate the conceptual force of “the book” in their poetry.

The dissertation's first section, “Production,” is situated in the small press printing revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Its chapters on Pound and Spicer demonstrate how the material features of book-objects (including paper, binding, typography, and images) point to production and distribution contexts and, in so doing, to larger systems of literary and economic value that become an interpretive framework for reading the poetry these books contain. The second section, “Reproduction,” turns to recent texts by Howe and Carson that exploit for aesthetic purposes the slippage between the reproducible visual features of the page and the non-transferrable material features of the book. As such, these texts challenge conventional definitions of textuality and highlight the visual and haptic potential of the printed book in the digital age. Together these sections suggest that the printed book has been, and continues to be, a key site for extending the available conditions of possibility for American poetry.

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