This We Call Many Things: A Collection of Poems

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Marilyn Kallet

Committee Members

Amy Billone, Robert Sklenar, Art Smith


The “I” in lyric poetry has not only shifted expectations throughout time, but has been called many names including the authorial persona, the biographical self, or, in Helen Vendler’s term, the ‘fictive poetic self.’ Currently, the term “authorial ‘I’,” which denotes a first-person poem (or collection) that invites conflation between the author and speaker, such as with the Confessionals, continues to face critique as it has since the 1950s, critique toward The New York School poets and later toward the New Formalists, Language poets, and these days toward the New Thing poets who stress self as object. Furthermore, amidst the current fascination with recording private moments and distributing them to the public via Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and blogs, poetry that reveals personal details and conflates the identity between speaker and author can inadvertently be viewed as yet another commoditization of the self. Stephen Burt and other critics voice another concern that the authorial “I” is a “bourgeois illusion, an outmoded epiphenomenon” that is simply a construct of systems outside the self.

This issue regarding the authorial “I” is of particular importance to me since my dissertation is heir to Confessional poetry. My dissertation, This We Call Many Things, combines personal and scientific inquiries regarding evolution, specifically addresses the anatomical changes that enabled communal living within our species, as well as my father’s paranoid schizophrenia and subsequent chronic homelessness. The interdisciplinary weave of the personal with another subject in a tightly unified collection, which I term a “concept collection,” represents one strategy to subvert the authorial “I.” Post-millennial practitioners of such concept collections include C.D. Wright, Anne Carson, Louise Glück, as well as a growing number of other poets who merge the concept collection with the Confessional such as Joseph Harrington, Beth Bachmann, Karyna McGlynn, and Natasha Tretheway. The concept collection’s structure and subject matter suggests that the personal and political, the domestic and the international, and the private and public are not dichotomous subjects, but interconnected ones. This sense that all spheres are connected encouraged me to find the connection between my family’s personal story and the human race’s evolutionary story.


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