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To Lose Oneself in the Process: Form and Praxis in Contemporary Subject-in-Process Poetry

DeBlois, Michael Anthony. To Lose Oneself in the Process: Form and Praxis in Contemporary Subject-in-Process Poetry. 2022. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation investigates the dramatization of the subject in works of contemporary North American poetry. For these works, poetic praxis foregrounds the moment of composition, leading to the development of what we might call a poetic subject-in-process. Reflexive self-awareness in the subject becomes tied to the poem’s discontinuous form, and the poem is allowed to exhibit both traditional lyric and anti-lyric subject positions. What this study describes is a pre-social aspect of contemporary poetics, present whether or not the destabilized subject is later recruited for social or political ends. The first chapter relates the formal attributes of Clark Coolidge's The Crystal Text to the praxis that Coolidge developed for his later, sentence-based improvisational work. The poem involves meditative centering on a singular object, with departures to and returns from the “noise” created in the compositional process. We posit that this poetic meditation, with its moments of emergent revelation, allegorizes jazz performance. The second chapter locates the seeds of Coolidge’s praxis in Jack Kerouac’s sketching mode for object presentation. Although sketching aims at a kind of realism, it also demands a practice of embodiment that can remove narrative structures and imagistic development. Memory, associative thinking, irrational constructions, and pure sound become the byproducts of a procedure that at its inception is merely concerned with an object set before the writer. When Kerouac’s subject is evacuated of consciousness, the irrational presentation of a fully altered state seems to mark the introduction of a wholly new subject-position. A kind of Romantic transport takes the discourse of the poem closer to pure sound than what we see in The Crystal Text. The third chapter considers what happens to the dramatized subjects of poetic works when digital or other multimedia are incorporated in their production. It first considers Kerouac’s recorded poetic performances, which use assembly strategies and collaborative musical accompaniment to add layers of multivocality to the already present “voices” of his poems. It then moves on to illustrate how poet Susan Howe and musician David Grubbs destabilize the subjectivity of Howe’s printed poem Thorow in the recording studio, with techniques that cannot be easily replicated on the page. In this recording entitled Thiefth, superimpositions, cuttings, and electronic treatments of voice and instrument complicate the subject’s presentation, which was already made complex in the text by the subject’s hesitance to approach (and potentially appropriate) historical materials. Since this work shows the poetic potential of bringing the dramatized subject back into contact with historical objects, my study concludes by looking at more recent works – M. NourbeSe Philip’s book-length Middle Passage poem Zong! and Caroline Bergvall’s multimedia work Drift – in which historical documents play a central compositional role in developing the subject-in-process. While these works put pressure on the pre-social poetics of the previously discussed works, they also can be seen to expand the formal means by which subjects can be dramatized, thus equipping the poetic subject with a more variable response to external, societal issues.

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