Recovering ground: Poetic strategies for placing oneself
What Walt Whitman, his British contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins, and two mid-twentieth-century American poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, have in common is their poetic tendency to approach individual places as if each one revealed a particular truth. When that place is radically altered (by technology, colonization, cultivation, or construction), the sense of disturbance erupts in a poetry that seeks to recover that particular truth. In this dissertation, I examine the poetry of Whitman, Hopkins, Bishop and Lowell, proposing that their meditations on geographic location are key to their poetic explorations of self, culture and other. Balancing a post-structuralist view, which treats nature as culturally inscribed, and a deep ecological view, which views nature as an active subject, I examine how these poets negotiate the relationship between the perceiving self and the autonomous world. Particular places take on the burden of significance in their poems. Thus, “Recovering Ground,” refers both to the sense of a lost paradise, which pervades the work of these poets, and to the way they strive to achieve a figurative ground, a basis for writing. Both Bishop and Lowell were early disciples of Hopkins: Hopkins feared that Whitman was his doppelgänger. Unraveling these complex associations, I trace the attempt to perceive and write nature in the light of a growing alienation from it.
Ecocriticism too often simply replaces the subjectivity of the human writer with an imputed subjectivity of nature. My contribution to the discourse is to consider more fully the workings of the human unconscious in relation to space. Psychologists from Freud to Julia Kristeva have articulated a connection between a human sense of an original place with the maternal body. Similarly, associating woman with nature and figuring the land as female has provided justification for the exploitation of both, as Annette Kolodny and others have amply demonstrated. I begin with the insight that the Kristevan chora, a space prior to separate places, where there is no differentiated subject and object, is a memory somewhat less dim in these poets for whom “home” has been problematized. It is a space they attempt, through language, to recreate. This approach then enables me to better understand why, for instance, Hopkins is drawn to the “snug,” Whitman to the “margins,” Lowell to dig below the surface of Boston Commons and Bishop to long to gaze upon an iceberg. My contention is that poetry, by virtue of its struggle to reintroduce the semiotic into the symbolic, which it does when it pays more attention to the sounds and rhythms of words than to logic, is profoundly connected with one's sense of place. The poems that result are bound up with the places that the poets actually experienced.
British and Irish literature
0591: American literature
0593: British and Irish literature