This dissertation explores the relationship between the postmodern and the premodern in American poetry. Beginning with Lyotard's definition of the postmodern, I move to incorporate Charles Olson's introduction of the term postmodern in American letters. While Lyotards' definition offers that the postmodern is against the meta narrative of modernity, Olson's introduction of the term postmodern in 1952 emphasizes a temporal blurring that is central to the notion of the postmodern. After illustrating how the work of Olson, Burroughs, and Rothenberg are derived from anthropological and ethnographic exploration of premodern cultures and their poetic forms, I then move to the anthropologist Michael Taussig, whose contribution to the field was to turn anthropological analysis to critique Western culture. Taussig believes that our very means of representation are under siege, and that in order disrupt this siege of representation, writing must engage and disrupt the languages and images that reify the power of the modern nation-state. For Taussig, poetry can and does produce this type of disruption.
My goal is to effectively apply anthropology as an alternative method of reading poetry. Though partly informed by anthropology, ethnopoetics, textual studies and literary studies, my method of anthropoetics heavily draws on the methodology of Michael Taussig. In Taussig's methodology, the concept of returning is centralized, and in a sense will be centralized in this dissertation as well. I will show that the concept of returning to an origin in order to move forward is a significant defining practice of postmodern American poetics. Anthropoetics, in this project, is interested in exposing the material scene of the origin of texts by means of tracing the circulatory systems of poetry. In other words, the search for origins, as far as anthropoetics is concerned, is about the search for the first mimetic moment, the textual source from which the poem comes into being in order to see more clearly the ways in which poetic forms circulate across time periods as well as cultural and national borders.
My analysis focuses on a select group of late 20th century poets who derive their influence from premodern pasts. I argue that a turn towards the premodern is a distinguishing factor in postmodern American poetry and that the intention was to move forward by way of immersion in the premodern. I further offer that this forward movement results in an increased sensitivity to the sound and materiality of the historical text. The poets I take up as part of this discussion include Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Nathaniel Mackey, Steve McCaffery and Lisa Jarnot. I propose that in an attempt to exit the modern, these poets have immersed themselves in the premodern in order to recover and bring forward that which has fallen outside of Western modernity.