Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Jeremy Green

Second Advisor

Karen Jacobs

Third Advisor

Julie Carr


Writing the Disasters: The Messianic Turn in Postwar American Poetry looks at how postwar avant-garde poets adopt Jewish textual tropes in their search for forms capable of regenerating the ruins of language after the catastrophe of Auschwitz. This study will show how three major postwar poets, George Oppen, Michael Palmer, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, employ these tropes to critique the culture of disaster, from the Holocaust to the Cold War's perpetual state of emergency. Working within the Objectivist tradition of adherence to things through rigorous perception, each poet stakes his or her claim for radical form's ethical engagement with history as outlined by Theodor Adorno's call for a new categorical imperative after Auschwitz: nothing less than the interruption of the hypnotic spell wrought by the homogeneity of everyday speech and kept intact by the logic of the disaster.

Though it encompasses many varieties of Jewish textuality, I name this moment the messianic turn in order to emphasize its interventional character. By interrupting the regulatory surface of poetry's reifying subjectivist modes, these poets attack cultural amnesia at the level of language. Walter Benjamin's advocacy of a messianic cessation of happening that can awaken awareness from the dream world of commodity culture is mapped onto the Objectivist principle of sincerity: the poem as a process for thinking within the act of perception, resulting in the liberation of repressed potential and the affirmation of difference. What Jewish textuality provides are models of interruption drawn from Talmudic practice: disruption, deferral, negation, and re-interrogation. These strategies are joined to Objectivist procedures of seriality, parataxis, and caesura to unsettle language's customary drive to closure.

My reading of Oppen's late work, such as Myth of the Blaze, demonstrates how he writes historical disaster through a constellated serial structure that prioritizes the provisional aspects of meaning, guarding its fragile and contingent status as a site for alterity. Likewise, Palmer's poetry in Sun and At Passages places a dissipating pressure on language in order to let the historical trauma of the Cold War speak through the Talmudic figure of the burnt book. And in Drafts, DuPlessis probes the complicated legacy of Poundian modernism through a midrashic poetics that dynamically subverts postwar culture's masculine discourse of power. By fashioning such self-interrupting texts, all three poets recover language by pushing it into deeper estrangement.