American Poetry at Mid-Century: Warren, Jarrell, and Lowell
This dissertation explores the artistic and personal connections between three writers who helped change American poetry: Robert Penn Warren, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell. All three poets maintained a close working relationship throughout their careers, particularly as they experimented with looser poetic forms and more personal poetry in the fifties and after. Various studies have explored their careers within sundry contexts, but no sustained examination of their relationships with one another exists. In focusing on literary history and aesthetics, this study develops an historical narrative that includes close-readings of primary texts within a variety of contexts. Established views of formalism, high modernism, and the New Criticism are interwoven into the study as tools for examining poetic structure within selected poems. Contexts concerning current criticism on these authors are also interlaced throughout the study and discussed in relation to particular historical and aesthetic issues. Having closely scrutinized the personal exchanges and creative output of all three poets, this study illuminates the significance of these writers' relationships to American poetry at mid-century and beyond. Though the more experimental schools of poetry would not reach their height until the 1950s, by the 1940s Warren, Jarrell, and Lowell were already searching for a new aesthetic. With friendships strong, correspondences frequent, and critical attention to one another's work constant throughout this decade, their poetry shifted in similar ways, both in content and style, by no coincidence. Ultimately, Warren, Jarrell, and Lowell purposely amended the formalist and high modernist aesthetics of their mentors in order to create poetry that engaged in an authentic exploration of selfhood within the real-life contexts of the post-World War II era. This project joins several recent critical works that fray the edges of hard-drawn boundaries that have become generally accepted truths about American literature. Despite the fact that these three artists enjoyed and benefited professionally from life-long, well-documented literary relationships with one another, previous histories have discouraged scholars from investigating these connections. As a case study, this dissertation points to a need to widen and reevaluate the current views of American poetry in the second half of the twentieth-century, so that we may more fully grasp the complexities and origins of contemporary poetry and forge a better understanding of American verse traditions.
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