Sounding Silence: American Women's Experimental Poetics
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Traditional feminist readings have valued women's writing that voices silenced experiences. In contrast, other twentieth-century theoretical formulations regard absences, refusals, and silences as constitutive of aesthetic practice rather than as imposed upon it. This dissertation attends carefully to how U.S. women writers approach the nonlinguistic, accounting for how they have been silenced as well as for the kinds of silencing that women poets themselves perform. It argues that U.S. women's experimental poetry is driven by contradictory relationships to language and silence: in one strain, gendered cultural repression spurs American women poets to push language into new territory, often figured as speaking out. But in another mode, female identification with the nonrational or nonlinguistic, whether externally enforced or strategically inhabited, impels women to develop poetic silences in order to resist the impositions of language on a feminized other. Meeting these simultaneous and opposed goals--creating poetic forms capable of greater expressive range while signaling the inadequacy of linguistic expression--necessitates formal experimentation. My primary claim that an unresolved ambivalence toward the nonlinguistic drives innovation dictates an emphasis on formal technique, including syntax, rhyme and meter, sentence and stanza structure, and figuration. This attention to poetic particulars grounds my contextualization of the work of each poet I consider--Emily Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker, and Gwendolyn Brooks--in relation to her own life, to broader literary and cultural histories, and to poststructuralist theories of language. The first chapter of my dissertation explores the role that early American, particularly Puritan and Transcendental, attitudes toward wilderness shape poetic motivations both to extend and limit the reach of language throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In subsequent chapters, I evaluate how those motivations change in the context of Dickinson's nineteenth-century spirituality, Niedecker's modernist and postmodernist anxieties about the role of the poet, and Brooks's engagement with the politics and aesthetics of black nationalism. Reading U.S. women's poetic innovation as simultaneously breaking and cultivating silences opens a dialogue among historically feminist understandings of silence as oppressive, theories that put silence at the heart of poetic impulse, and avant-garde theoretical conceptions of linguistic experimentation as a feminist project.