Embodied voices: Public and private self-presentation in modern poetry

Lisa R Myers, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation takes the public performance of lyric poetry as a point of intersection between public and private discourses in order to argue for a new mode of biocritical inquiry. With the development of the radio and phonograph, poets' physical voices were newly able to circulate separate from their bodies; the resulting paradox--that of the private, personal voice that is simultaneously available to anyone--has been a generic characteristic of lyric poetry since the advent of print culture. Bridging the (perhaps always illusory) gap between public and private spheres becomes a model for interrogating other familiar divisions: masculine and feminine, personal and political, life and work. The dissertation treats the work of four poets--T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay--in a selection of forms addressed to different audiences: lyric poetry, public lectures and poetry readings, essays, personal letters, and ephemera such as shopping lists and menus. By integrating traditionally literary genres with those traditionally excluded from critical examination, it paves the way for fuller and richer considerations of these (and other) poets' careers. Chapter One examines Eliot's late efforts to theorize voice in poetry so as to remove himself from the spotlight, or even from the realm of fit topics for inquiry; it juxtaposes two late lectures with the earlier poetry. Chapter Two considers Moore's almost obsessive focus on external or surface characteristics as a symptom of dual anxieties--self-exposure and class status--as illustrated by her early correspondence with Ezra Pound and with her immediate family, and her poetry. Chapter Three demonstrates that Stevens's notorious reluctance to read his own work in public was for him bound up with ideas about performance and the peculiarly performative context of modern poetry. Chapter Four provides perhaps the most positive example of this modernist self-fashioning: in the early part of her career at least, Millay's experience as a stage actress enabled her to manipulate her self-presentation to suit her own purposes.

Subject Area

American literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Myers, Lisa R, "Embodied voices: Public and private self-presentation in modern poetry" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9308632.