William Burns (UCL) - 2021-22 Students
The Poetics of Vocation: Modern American Poetry and the Professionalisation of Literature
My thesis seeks to throw further light on the dialectic between critical discourse and creative expression in modern American poetry, by exploring the work of poets who, in various ways, diverged from paradigm established by the New Criticism in their negotiation of their art’s intertwined relationship with academia. Beginning with the high modernism of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, I will argue that their responses to the incoming institutionalisation of literature—including their respective performances at the lectern, as well as their sophisticated use of the devices of academic pedagogy—serve to unsettle the assumptions that underlay poetry’s eventual entrance into the academy. They also serve to prefigure the developments I will then go on to explore in the post-war careers of Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, and John Ashbery. In this way, by combining formal and biographical analysis with an attention to the university as a specific context and background, my thesis will seek to provide a broadly chronological overview of the relationship between twentieth-century American poetry and the academy up to the new millennium. By exploring the responses of poets to the professionalisation of their vocation, I hope to cover not only the changing conditions of poetic production over the course of the twentieth century, but also consider how poetry itself may provide a means by which the hyper-professionalised character of our daily lives—both inside and outside of the university—can be reimagined and rethought.