If it is a poem / It will affect people
(Jackson Mac Low, “Social Significance”)
My research focuses on the evolution of the American avant-garde throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, paying close attention to how writers as diverse in their subjects and styles as Russell Atkins, Erica Hunt, Lyn Hejinian, Jackson Mac Low, and John Ashbery have sought to establish new perceptions of reality by engaging in experimental, innovative, and conceptual uses of language. This interest in the intersection between poetic language social practices opens my work to influences from modern rhetorical theory — especially from “New Rhetoric” theorists like Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, Susanne Langer, and Kenneth Burke. By studying avant-garde poetry as a rhetorical act aimed at changing the way individuals think and speak about the world, my research demonstrates how texts that are often ignored in the mainstream poetry community work to establish (and expand) the very conditions that make concepts like “poetry” and “community” possible in the first place.
“Rhetoricizing the Avant-Garde: The Illegible as Argument”
Committee: Sarah Robbins (Chair), Ann George, David Colón, Brian M. Reed
This dissertation project expands the current available resources for criticism and scholarship pertaining to twentieth and twenty-first century avant-garde poetry by appealing to an underutilized resource: modern rhetorical theory. Capitalizing on a recent renewal of interest in the rapprochement between literary and rhetorical study, the dissertation considers the avant-garde’s illegibility—its refusal and/or failure to produce determinate meaning—as a series of complex arguments that call into question current systems of linguistic, political, and economic order and control. It is my primary contention throughout the project that radical deviations from the accepted norms of language use should be read as rhetorical interventions designed to bring about new understandings of these norms. And since, as many of the leading rhetorical theorists of the twentieth century attest, changes in the way we write and speak about the world can lead directly to changes in the way we understand that world, experimental and innovative poetic practices represent viable rhetorical strategies for building and sustaining new public communities dedicated to the avant-garde tropes of multiplicity, indeterminacy, and inefficiency.
By turning to the “New Rhetoric” of the twentieth century as a means of understanding the avant-garde’s famed difficulty—its tendency toward outright illegibility—this dissertation opens lines of cross-disciplinary communication between the field of rhetoric and the field of literature. As a study that, in Kenneth Burke’s words, falls “on the bias” across disciplinary boundaries, this project models the kind of audience construction and community building that it argues lies at the core of avant-garde innovation and experimentation.
*For further info, please see my full CV, which you can find here.