Totally Bound: Tracing a Levinasian Ethics From Objectivism to Language Poetry

Dissertation, University of Notre Dame (1999)

My dissertation charts a new understanding of the Objectivist tradition of American poetry by reexamining the troubled relation between poetry and ethics. Beginning roughly in the 30's with the group that coined the term "Objectivism" and extending through the Black Mountain Poets of the 50's and 60's to the contemporary Language poets, this strain of experimental poetry calls into question the ancient belief that poetry is incompatible with ethics. As the term "Objectivism" implies, this ethics involves the way poetry can encounter reality unfettered by a controlling poetic imagination or unencumbered with ornamental language. ;By rethinking Objectivism through the ethical theory of Emmanuel Levinas, I contend that Objectivism's so-called aesthetic totalization of reality offers us more precisely the impossibility of totalization, and such a failure opens the possibility of ethics in the poetry. The poets of my project, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Susan Howe, and Lyn Hejinian, are exemplary of an Objectivist ethics because their work is not only specifically concerned with issues and themes of interpersonal relationships, such as genocide, love, and sexual difference. But they also investigate the way poetic form can shape those relations and evoke what is fundamentally ethical about them. Using unconventional poetic techniques---such as fragmentation, parataxis, and spacing---these poets expose and cultivate the linguistic inner-workings of the relation with the Other that allow for moral systems to arise at all. This emphasis on language-as-ethics shows that poets are not as concerned with the advent of some Ideal Order, whether poetic or political, and never do these poets claim to know for certain what it means to live the Good Life. Because this poetry maintains that language is itself ethics, it obligates us always already to rethink not only how we can live among others but that we live among others in a tenuous and pressing way. That we live among others is what Objectivist George Oppen calls the "open miracle," and what I call, a "poetics of obligation."
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