Document Type


Date of Award



Whitman, Walt, Stevens, Wallace, Olson, Charles, American poetry, History and criticism

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

William V. Spanos

Second Advisor

Robert Kroetsch

Third Advisor

Gerald Gillespie


The literary history of Modern and Postmodern poetry needs to be rewritten because much of this poetry throws into doubt the very language which critics normally use to write such histories. Furthermore, Modern poetry provides a more adequate, because less rigid, sense of poetic “tradition” upon which authentic literary history must "rest." The "history" of Modern and Postmodern poetry is largely the work of New Critics and New Critically trained academicians. Although there have been recently some attempts to deal with Modern poetry from non-New Critical standpoints, they have not succeeded. Indeed, a deconstruction of the rhetoric of the New Critics and its antagonists—Harold Bloom, Walter Jackson Bate, Northrop Frye, and Roy Harvey Pearce to mention only a few—reveals that the recent alternatives to the New Criticism are really not substantially different from it at all. A destructive reading of Bate, Bloom, Cleanth Brooks, and to a lesser extent, Paul de Man, shows that they all are caught within essentially the same metaphysical tradition. To varying degrees all of these critics are dedicated—consciously or not—to the project of preserving the static existence of an aesthetic order—known most commonly as “the tradition"—as an alternative to the radical flux, disorder, nothingness and death which characterizes the world. The purpose of this dissertation is to demonstrate the a-temporal critical stake in the preservation of this “tradition” as well as the inevitable perversion of poetry which is the agency of this preservation.

Although the dissertation seemingly has two successive parts—a critical destruction of the Modern critical mind and a destructive reading of the poetry of Whitman, Stevens, and Olson—the structure of the dissertation is “actually” circular. For the most part, the condition for the possibility of performing the destruction of the traditional critical rhetorics in chapters one through three is an awareness of the nature of the poetry of “interpretation” or “destruction” which makes up the second part. In other words, experientially, the second half of this dissertation must have occurred first. The readings of the poems do not grow out of the “method” derived in the first chapters; rather, the awareness that the critical tradition needs to be destroyed emerges from my understanding that a great portion of Modern poetry refuses to be coerced into the concrete universals and aesthetic monads of Modern criticism. The Modern critical tradition begins to crack under a close reading of Wallace Stevens’ poems, and it “breaks down” completely when it is brought into contact with the poetry of Whitman and Olson.