A Form that is Many Forms: The Stanza in Postwar Anglophone Poetry

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-0302-701X
Agnew, Caleb, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ramazani, Jahan, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

“A Form that is Many Forms: The Stanza in Postwar Anglophone Poetry” argues for the importance of stanzaic prosody in an era of unprecedented formal freedom, asserting that the shifts in stanzaic technique in the later twentieth century precipitate productive collisions between transhistorical poetic traditions and contemporary cultural pressures. My project follows the insights of Debra Fried and Jonathan Culler, who contend that critical neglect of the stanza hampers poetry studies generally. I propose that a combinatory model of stanzaic form—in which various verse segments such as rhyme, meter, syntax, and visual shape intersect to form multilinear patterns—more accurately tracks the turns and counterturns of twentieth-century verse experiments. This model facilitates the various investigations of my three chapters, each of which examines an individual poet’s rearrangements of existing stanzaic patterns to forge new links between the forms of literary history and the concerns of contemporary audiences.

My first chapter begins in the early postwar era, as I consider how W. H. Auden’s verse responds to a shifting memorial culture in the wake of the world wars, and reinterpret his directive that poetry be “memorable speech.” Understanding poetic memorability as a complex “structuring of forgetfulness” involving mnemonic schemes, formal echoes, and the amnesiac structures of literary history, I argue that Auden shapes many of his stanzaic forms to tie together cultural imperatives of memory and the inevitability of forgetting. My second chapter enters the global economy of the late twentieth century, connecting the stanzaic structures of Derek Walcott’s Omeros to the poem’s imbrication in networks of touristic value and exchange. Like the signs that organize touristic gazing, the stanzas of Omeros cater to Anglo-American audiences in search of exotic difference and frame that difference within recognizable conventions, yet I argue that its verse also disrupts touristic practices of formalist reading, forcing the reader to recognize that forms invoke cultural and historical obligations beyond the economic circuits of touristic desire. My third chapter explores Jorie Graham’s visual prosody, arguing that her typographical stanzaic patterns rearrange the poetic text as a material body and offer a new somatic paradigm for formal poetics. I demonstrate how her work moves from the traditional free verse stanzas of poets like Williams or Plath toward schemes of extreme linear contrast, increasingly employing “coaxial” arrangements and “machine-cut” stanzas to explore the possible bodies verse may take on the page in an era of climate change and technological transformation.

Auden, Walcott, and Graham engage diverse cultural formations through the stanza, a structure both remarkably central to postwar poetry and curiously neglected by poetry scholars. In renewing attention to stanzaic prosody, my dissertation aims to ask more incisive questions about the nature of structural progression and sonic return in contemporary poems and to trace more complex genealogies of formal influence. I study the postwar stanza not only to assess historical changes in verse technique, but also to track concomitant shifts in poetry’s social role, attending to the questions of memory, difference, and survival that poets and readers route through verse form. “A Form that is Many Forms” thus situates the stanza within discursive paradigms beyond the aesthetic and illuminates its response to the cultural traditions and historical conditions that shape its manifold contemporary reinventions.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Stanza, Stanzaic Form, Prosody, Poetic Form, Anglophone Poetry, Postwar Poetry, W. H. Auden, Derek Walcott, Jorie Graham, Contemporary Poetry
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