Laughter Shared or the Games Poets Play: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Irony in Postwar American Poetry
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During and after the First World War, English-language poets employed various ironic techniques to address war's dark absurdities. These methods, I argue, have various degrees of efficacy, depending upon the ethics of the poetry's approach to its reading audience. I judge these ethical discourses according to a poem's willingness to include its readers in the process of poetic construction, through a shared ironic connection. My central ethical test is Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative and Jurgen Habermas's conception of discourse ethics. I argue that without a sense of care and duty toward the reading other (figured in open-ended ironies over dogmatic rhetorics), there can be no social responsibility or reformation, thus testing modernist assumptions about the political usefulness of poetry. I begin with the trench poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose sarcastic and satirical ironies are constructed upon a problematic consequentialist ethos. Despite our sympathy for the poets' tragic positions as soldiers, their poems' rhetoric is ultimately coercive rather than politically progressive. It negates the social good it intends by nearly mimicking the unilateral rhetoric that gave rise to the war. The next chapter concerns Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, fundamental modernist poems defining the postwar Anglo-American era. In contrast to the trench poets, I argue these two poems at their best manage to create an irony of free play, inviting the audience's participation in meaning-making through the irony of self-parody. Traditional ethical critiques of these poets' troubling politics, I argue, do not negate the discourse ethics present in these texts. The final three chapters follow the wartime and postwar ironies of the American poets William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens. Williams, a medical doctor, makes use of the ironic grotesque in his poems to offer the voice of poetry to the disenfranchised, including individuals with disabilities. Moore, a modernist and early feminist, pairs her poems to decenter poetic authority, depicting possible ethical poetic conversations. Finally, Stevens's democratic, pragmatic ethics appears within poetry that continually invites its readers to fill in gaps of meaning about the war and beyond.