Modernist American Poetry as a Study of Objects

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link






In "Modernist American Poetry as a Study of Objects," I focus on a group of modernist American poets--Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and George Oppen--who demonstrate an interest in objects and their transformation into aesthetic things. To distinguish between "objects" and "things," I use "thing theory," which grew out of the work of Bill Brown and, to date, has not been adequately applied to lyric poetry. While the object represents an entity one encounters in the world, the thing contains diverse associations and meanings that exceed its material function. Among modernist poets, it is essential to study this point of transformation, from object into thing, to examine the "ideas in things" that get invested in this process.

 Such a study proves necessary in light of the significant role we understand things to play in modernist literature and in the modern era, when subjects were beginning to negotiate selfhood through and against a world of material things. Further, "things" are commonly recognized as a particular focus of modernist poets, thanks in part to Williams's famous dictate in Paterson, "no ideas but in things." Poets ranging from Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot, in addition to those in my study, all present poems in which things serve as a rhetorical focus. While several critics have acknowledged this modernist fascination, no study has addressed how modernist poets use the thing to resolve personal and poetic preoccupations. By focusing, specifically, on the subject's relationship to the object, I explore how things reveal the poet's process of constituting a poetic self by shedding particular anxieties over poetic function and projecting a voice of authority. 

 By bringing poets as diverse and Frost and Oppen into critical conversations about modernism, this study broadens understanding of a uniquely American strain of modernist poetry. American modernists were deeply conscious of the cultural authority inherent in the poetic act, as they sought formal and vocal innovations that could grant the poet a linguistic means to resolve feelings of fragmentation and alienation in the creation of poetic things.