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Ambient Lyric: Apollinaire and the Social Imaginary of Twentieth-Century US Poetry



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Steel, Conrad 


This thesis presents a history of how poetry in the twentieth-century US became understood as a means to mediate social complexity, explored via the reception of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire becomes a crucial figure, I argue, because the articulation that he gives of his situation at the heart of a concentrated metropolitan network in pre-First World War Paris provides a template for poets in the US to make sense of their own experience later in the century. Drawing on archival research and close readings in English and French, I demonstrate how three such poets returned to Apollinaire’s example, and how, from the 1910s to the 1970s, his influence provides an index to their writing’s shifting anxieties and fantasies concerning social representation and its limits.

To show the interface between the circulation of Apollinaire’s texts and the practical and imaginative contexts in which they became effective, each of the four chapters is centred on one scene from the career of the author discussed. In chapter one, the scene in question is the recording that Apollinaire made of three of his poems in 1913, an encounter with a new medium that resonates with his longstanding concern with background noise and reception. In chapter two, it is Louis Zukofsky’s composition of the first English-language monograph on Apollinaire, in 1932, at a time when he was struggling to conceive of how his own poetry could present an adequate record of the escalating Great Depression. In chapter three, I consider Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of Apollinaire in the middle of his work on ‘Howl’ in 1955, which offered him a new model for how poetry might operate against a background of Cold War paranoia. In chapter four, I turn to Alice Notley’s references to Apollinaire in her first long poem, written in 1974 while pregnant with her second child and preoccupied with the non-representation of her care work. Between these four instances of twentieth-century poets at an impasse of representation, I argue, there appears a historical arc as the future-oriented promise of the ‘ambient lyricism’ that Apollinaire proposes at the start of the century gradually fades further into the background noise of his successors’ historical present.





Bowman, Deborah


Poetry, Social imaginary, Worldmaking, Historical poetics, Affect, Marxism, Comparative literature, Twentieth-century literature, French, Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Notley


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge