“The Step of Iron Feet”: Formal Movements in American World War II Poetry
Edford, Rachel Lynn, 1979-
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Edford, Rachel Lynn, 1979-
We have too frequently approached American World War II poetry with assumptions about modern poetry based on readings of the influential British Great War poets, failing to distinguish between WWI and WWII and between the British and American contexts. During the Second World War, the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated the line many WWI poems reinforced between the soldier's battlefront and the civilian's homefront, authorizing for the first time both civilian and soldier perspectives. Conditions on the American homefront--widespread isolationist and anti-Semitic attitudes, America's late entry into the war, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese internment, and the African American "Double V Campaign" to fight fascism overseas and racism at home--were just some of the volatile conditions poets in the US grappled with during WWII. In their poems, war shapes and threatens the identities of civilians and soldiers, women and men, African Americans and Jews, and verse form itself becomes a weapon against war's assault on identity. Charles Reznikoff, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Richard Wilbur mobilize and challenge the authority of traditional poetic forms to defend the self against social, political, and physical assaults. The objective, free-verse testimony form of Reznikoff's long poem Holocaust (1975) registers his mistrust of lyric subjectivity and of the musical effects of traditional poetry. In Rukeyser's free-verse and traditional-verse forms, personal experiences and public history collide to create a unifying poetry during wartime. Brooks, like Rukeyser, posits poetry's ability to protect soldiers and civilians from war's threat to their identities. In Brooks's poems, however, only traditionally formal poems can withstand the war's destruction. Wilbur also employs conventional forms to control war's disorder. The individual speakers in his poems avoid becoming nameless war casualties by grounding themselves in military and literary history. Through a series of historically informed close readings, this dissertation illuminates a neglected period in the history of American poetry and argues that mid-century formalism challenges--not retreats from--twentieth-century atrocities.
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