Poetry and mass rhetoric after World War II: Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Seamus Heaney
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This dissertation tells a new story about the way poets responded to the clichés of public speech in the four decades following the start of World War II. During the period, many public intellectuals lamented that political discourse had become saturated with abstract stock phrases like “the fight for freedom,” “revenue enhancement,” or “service the target” that are bureaucratic in origin, designed for the mass media, and used to euphemize, obfuscate, and evade. This diagnosis, which was shared by such prominent critics as George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, and Herbert Marcuse, led to a unique response in the field of poetry. Instead of ridding their verse of such language, poets developed a distinctive approach I call “echo and critique,” whereby they would echo the clichés of political discourse and then examine their implications and study their effects. Poetry, with its attentiveness to linguistic particulars, was especially suited to this mode of close listening. At the same time, postwar poets were deeply conscious of their susceptibility to doublespeak, so that taking on political clichés obliged them to subject their own writing to scrutiny and admit to the inevitability of cant while pushing against it. Each chapter in the dissertation pairs a poet with a different form of public discourse he or she was especially drawn to: Robert Lowell and political speeches, Randall Jarrell and military propaganda, Elizabeth Bishop and news reports, and Seamus Heaney and everyday talk on political events. Crucially, these four writers were interested in specific genres for the traits they recognized in their own work. By taking apart various types of cant, therefore, they were also trying to understand where their language stood in relation to that of the politician, the propagandist, the reporter, or the ordinary citizen, and to push back against their own rhetorical tendencies.