The Decorative Imagination: American Modernist Poetry and the Art of Adornment

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Oliver, Elisabeth
Modernism , Poetry , Decorative Art , Wallace Stevens , Marianne Moore , Mina Loy
Focusing on the work of Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Mina Loy, this thesis argues that late nineteenth-century decorative art had a profound influence on American modernist poetry. Despite the fact that many modernist artists and critics actively disavowed any decorative influence, I argue that a decorative ethos lives on in modernist poetry. Many of the aesthetic features that we associate with modernist poetics (such as figurative abstraction, spatial form, and fragmentation) actually owe a debt to nineteenth-century decorative theories and practices. The first chapter provides an historical and theoretical context for these poets' ambivalent engagement with decorative art, and will consider some of the unconscious ideologies that shape the tensions and anxieties that define this inter-art relationship. In my second chapter, I argue that the gaudy interiority of Stevens' early poetry is influenced by Aestheticism's material culture of decoration. Rather than perpetuate the critical model of Stevens as a retiring dandy aesthete, however, my analysis reveals the ways that his poetry both evokes and disrupts Aestheticism's decorative ideals by opening up his verse to the imperatives of social reality. The third chapter argues that Marianne Moore turns to the logic and rhetoric of evolution as a basis for legitimating what she perceived as the ornamental aspects of her poetry, including descriptive detail, rhetorical complexity, and graphic patterning. She does so in order to prove the social utility of her style, which might otherwise be deemed frivolous or effeminate. The fourth and final chapter considers Mina Loy's poetics of fragmentation and decomposition in light of nineteenth-century decorative theory and practice. Like Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, who emulated the ideal of the modern artist as rag-picker/decorator, Loy recuperates the aesthetic value of broken and discarded materials by submitting them to decorative techniques. The influence of decorative art on American modernist poetry has long been neglected in the scholarship. This study seeks to fill this critical gap and aligns itself with the general effort in modernist studies today to expand and redefine new social, theoretical and cultural modernities previously ignored or suppressed in twentieth-century criticism.
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