Pastoral Modernism: An American Poetics

Chang, Jennifer, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ramazani, R, Department of English, University of Virginia

Pastoral Modernism: An American Poetics uncovers the re-emergence of an ancient literary mode as a vehicle for both poetic innovation and cultural investigation in three exemplary America modernist poets: William Carlos Williams, Claude McKay, and Ezra Pound. In the first half of the twentieth century, the United States experienced dramatic demographic changes due to global migration, immigration, and the Great Migration, which effectively relocated black life from the country to the city. Further, the expansion of cities, as physical locations and cultural centers, not only diminished their distance from the countryside, but also altered rural topographies into suburban and commuter towns. This dissertation argues that by turning to the pastoral mode American modernist poets documented these shifting demographics and topographies, revealing the integrality of place to cultural and social identity. William Carlos Williams’s pastorals—from his early short lyric poems to later world-building epics—reflect on how new populations of immigrant and blacks created political fissures in his small town of Rutherford, NJ, while necessitating a reconsideration of American space and cultural identity within the formal context of modernist poetics. For Williams, questions of cultural topography come to inform the typography, lineation, and other formal procedures in his poems. While the poems of Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows are largely set in New York City, the Jamaican-born poet inscribes Diasporic history into his pastoral lyrics by observing the confluences of weather and geography in the islands of Manhattan and Jamaica and, moreover, expresses a critique of American life, exposing tropes of nature as capitalist commodities. McKay illuminates how the social and emotional distances that pastoral historically tracks as geographical distances become absorbed into the very experience of modernity for marginalized individuals, whether they are in the city or the country. The final chapter turns to Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, in which his fusing of pastoral and poetic experimentation encompass a surprising, yet unintentional, transnational and multicultural American community. In reading Pound’s pastoralism as a foil to Williams’s and McKay’s embrace of American potentialities and as its inevitable culmination, this final chapter posits the future of culture as balancing the accidents and intentions of both history and poetic design. How do poems reflect and, at the same time, remake our world? Pastoral Modernism: An American Poetics investigates how modernist poets attempt to innovatively answer this question through their pastoral writing.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Modernism, American Poetry, Pastoral, Transnationalism, Race
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