Desire and Subjectivity in Twentieth Century American Poetry
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Many studies of American poetry view modernism as an eruption of formal and technical innovations that respond to momentous cultural and political changes, but few attempt to consider the flow and restriction of desire among these changes. This dissertation argues that American modernist poets construct models of desire based on the rejection of sensual objects and a subsequent redirection of desire toward the self and the creative mind. In addition, these models of desire result in a conception of subjects as whole, discrete, and isolated. In the first chapter, I distinguish between Walt Whitman's sensualist model of desire and Emily Dickinson's intellectualist mode that defers satisfaction. I contend that Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) develop from Dickinson's perspective of deferred satisfaction to an outright rejection of physical desire. The manner and implications of this reorganization of desire differ among these poets, as do the poetic techniques they utilize, but underlying these differences is a related refusal to pursue objects of sensual pleasure. Pound withdraws desire from the world by turning objects into static images; desire is then able to flourish in the creative mind. Stevens allows the imagination to remake the world, creating manifold abstractions for subjects who otherwise reject sensuality. The second chapter provides a close reading of Eliot's The Waste Land to show how the presentation of sexual futility leads to a poetic experience of separation as a means of spiritual reformation. The third chapter reads H.D.'s Trilogy as a contemplation of the destruction of World War II and the persistent, unified self that outlasts it. Rather than interacting with this devastated world, H.D. insists that desire must be redirected toward the effort of spiritual redemption. In the fourth chapter, Elizabeth Bishop begins to question the deliberate rejection of the world. She sees a world that reasserts itself and imagines a subject who, though still yearning for unity, must admit an inescapably physical environment. The conclusion considers how postwar American poets continue to dissolve the subject and release desire into the world, emphasizing the present moment rather than a lasting, unified self.