Apparatus Poetica: The Question Of Technology In Mid-Twentieth-Century American Poetry

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"Apparatus Poetica" considers how four poets in the late modernist tradition reconceive the potentials of poetic language in order to address the question of advanced technology. Outlining challenges posed to language by communications industries, information theory, computation, and the threat of nuclear war, I show how four poets-James Merrill, Muriel Rukeyser, H.D., and Jack Spicer-explore affinities and crucial distinctions between poetry and technology. Through their experiments in what I call "apparatus poetics," these poets denaturalize culturally embedded assumptions surrounding technology's "neutrality" and poetry's expressive "purity." They do so through procedural innovations in the genre of the poetic epic, that form not coincidentally deemed by modernist anthropologists as the earliest human memory-technology. I begin with a discussion of how the montage apparatus of testimonial poetry in Rukeyser's The Book of the Dead works to indict industrial capital's technological tactics of historical effacement. I next discuss how Jack Spicer, working as a structural linguist in the age of IBM, uses a late modernist method, the "serial lyric," to set up a confrontation between poetic consciousness and language. Spicer casts the old predicament of thought's alienation from language in a new light defined by contemporary forms of technological emergence (especially computational intelligence). In the historical moment where databases begin to supplant cultural archives, H.D.'s Helen in Egypt meditates on translation and disintegration at the virtual horizon of memory and myth. I attend to how H.D.'s late-career epic revives an earlier, modernist moment of inquiry into the "machine mind" and "mnemic technology" through her collaboration with Sigmund Freud. I conclude with an exploration of how James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover engages language's aleatory powers to situate inspiration's accidents amid uncertain historical and technological horizons. This dissertation explores how these late modernists use language's technē to rethink mid-century historical forces catalyzed by technology. Insisting on language's poetic ability to exceed instrumentalized capture, these poets share an interest in theorizing new ethical relations for reconnecting "subject" and "process" in an age when forms of collectivity are undergoing rapid technological redefinition.

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late modernism; American poetry; technology


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Culler, Jonathan Dwight

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Jacobus, Mary Longstaff
Caruth, Cathy

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English Language and Literature

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Ph. D., English Language and Literature

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Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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