As a clumsy dodge against accusations of blogger fatigue (which has apparently taken down both A Sorter and Ululations in my absence) here is my latest summary of progress toward my 'A' exam (which, coincidentally, appears likely now to be partly focused on "A"):
Topic Area One: Aesthetics and Ideology
I’ve made the most progress in this area, having read the relevant portions of Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, all of Jameson’s Marxism and Form, and am currently embarked on reading Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory in Prof. Peter Hohendahl’s seminar on that text. The aesthetic formation that I approach this work in light of is Heideggerian, drawn from my readings of such essays as "The Origin of the Work of Art," "The Thing," "The Question Concerning Technology," etc., as well as certain inferences I’ve made for the aesthetic consequences of Being and Time. I would describe the question that I want to ask, as it’s currently taking shape, as one that pits existential aesthetic priorities (artwork as a path to subject formation) with and against materialist social and political imperatives (the objective world as it is reflected or negated by the artwork and its inevitably ideological position in a given historical moment). The beautiful subject versus the sublime object of society might be a glib way of putting this.
Topic Area Two: "Pastoral"
This is proving to be the most problematic area to define, because I find I am largely uninterested in pastoral as a genre. My pastoral is the expression of a particular form of the utopian impulse that is always in the background of the reading I do for Topic One. Pastoral as narrative function interests me (Empson’s notion of the double plot) insofar as this acts both to mirror a given social situation (of "the city") and to negate it in favor of a proletarian fantasy (of "the country"). It’s pretty obvious that I need to read Raymond Williams’ book on this subject. But the complex of ideas I’ve named "pastoral" has more to do with the subject’s fantasy of realizing his or her own "nature" while in relation with the society that, at least since the rise of industrial capitalism, has replaced nature. This has led me unexpectedly to the work of D.H. Lawrence, whose poetry I have written about in a paper that I presented at the Modernism Studies Association Conference in Birmingham (I also wrote about Gertrude Stein). Lawrence interests me because for him, the realization of the subject’s inner nature can only come about in relation with an Other which is not a representative of the society that has conditioned everything about the subject that is not "natural" to him. Lawrence becomes the epicenter of a strain of thought about subjective authenticity that for me reaches back to Whitman, encompasses Stein and Williams, and reaches forward to the Objectivists and more difficult-to-place figures like Ronald Johnson. It also requires understanding of psychoanalysis (which provides the basic concept of what I’ve been calling "inner nature" under the name of the unconscious) and the ways in which psychoanalysis has been deployed both to foster a utopian reconciliation of inner nature with objective society (Marcuse) and to debunk any such reconciliation (Lacan). It seems to me that this complex of ideas, which I still find easiest to think of as "pastoral," is rooted both aesthetically and historically in modernism, and has only a tangential relationship to the English tradition of pastoral poetry (though the tropes of such poetry are constantly surfacing, often in a highly self-conscious manner, in the work of these writers).
Topic Area Three: Objectivism and After
This topic essentially becomes the second half of the pastoral topic, in which I read the work of the second-generation modernists with an eye toward giving an account of their attempts to realize a utopia that, as the name of the major movement I’m focusing on suggests, is focused on the objective world and not on the individual poetizing subject (collective subjectivity is something else again). I see Zukofsky as the central writer here, because "A" describes a complete dialectical process: reacting, with Pound and Williams, against symbolism he focuses the first half of his long poem on an objective world comprehended through Marxist dialectics. But after World War II he turns his back on the larger objective world and creates a more modest utopia based on the family romance between himself, Celia, and their son Paul. I’m nowhere near finishing "A", so this preliminary evaluation is bound to change. Oppen’s work will also be important, especially because he embodies the contradictory position of a Heideggerian existentialist with Communist/materialist political commitments. There also appears to be a curious chiasmic relation between his way of interfacing politics and poetry and Zukofsky's; whereas Zukofsky at first decides that the point of writing poetry is to change the world, Oppen decides changing the world and writing poetry are incompatible modes of being. Both, arguably, renounce an activist engagement with politics (though they by no means abandon their critical political stances) in order to resume writing after WWII.
I also want to read Basil Bunting’s Briggflats (you see that I want to maintain the narrow bridge between American poetry and the more idiosyncratic texts of English modernism), which has obvious pastoral connotations, and end with a consideration of Ronald Johnson, who more than any other poet I’m aware of performs the emergence of "nature" (inner and outer) in his language.