Date of Award

12-2009

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

Allen Dunn

Committee Members

Amy Elias, Mary Papke, Alexis Boylan

Abstract

Since the publication of J. Hillis Miller’s seminal chapter on William Carlos Williams in Poets of Reality (1965), there has been a uniform trend among critics to read the poet’s early experiments in relation to Marcel Duchamp. Miller situates Williams’s poetics within a range of avant-garde neologisms thought to challenge the autonomy of the bourgeois art object. Williams’s poetry rethinks the function and form of language and it is this self-reflexivity, and Miller’s deferral to the ready-made, that provides the foundation for this study. Inspired by a Dadaist-revival that reached its peak in the years leading up to the poet’s death, literary critics— including Miller—have glossed over Williams’s difficulties developing his own theories of art in relation to these avant-garde precedents. In the late 1960s, a new generation of artists revaluated Duchamp, a reconsideration that corresponds to Williams’s early commentary. Throughout his writing from the early 1920s, Williams emphasized a notion of the found easily confused— sometimes even by the poet himself—with the ready-made. Williams’s responses to Duchamp and the expatriated avant-garde evolved over the poet’s life as his and Duchamp’s works were embraced by the very institutions both had initially set out to complicate.

Chapter One rethinks the ready-made’s legacy as the animating innovation within modernism. The ready-made embodies a principle of negation that contrasts with Williams’s far-ranging theory of the imagination. In driving a wedge between Williams’s troping of the found and the ready-made, I lean on postmodern theories of art, especially the ideas of Robert Smithson, the Earthworks artist, who named his childhood pediatrician, William Carlos Williams, a “proto-conceptual artist.” Chapter Two examines the broken style and theory of the imagination Williams formulates in Kora in Hell (1920), a text written in the year following the ready-made’s debut. Chapter Three analyzes the discursive interweaving of prose and poetry in Spring and All (1923), Williams’s most fully-realized avant-garde experiment. I conclude with a consideration of the verse written prior to the introduction of the ready-made, the poet’s earliest attempt to establish the local as a viable avant-garde tradition.

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