Vibrant materiality in modernist women's poetry.
This project combines thing theory with material culture studies to demonstrate how modernist women poets Elizabeth Bishop, H. D., and Marianne Moore reveal the vibrant materiality of the object world in their poetry and prose. These writers show the vitality of the material world through their artistic representations of encounters with thingness, a term that troubles the typical subject/object relationship. By doing so, their work also interacts with particular cultural discourses that shape modern conceptions of the things they include in their work—the printed materials in Bishop’s poetry, H. D.’s ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and gemstones, and the botanical decorative objects or art-like flora that appear in Moore’s writing. As these poets uncover the potential effects and responses to encounters with vibrant thingness, they reveal a complex relationship to the gendered discourses of the modern market, often resisting but also reflecting the way in which interactions with these materials are understood in the cultural imagination. The first chapter argues that in poems from across her career, Bishop enacts immediate interactions between human perceivers and printed materials—a map, an illustrated Bible, and a National Geographic magazine. In these poetic meetings with thingness, she illuminates how a sense of openness can offer a confusing yet delightful response whereas a limited perspective yields existential disappointment and disorientation. In the second chapter, I demonstrate how H. D. presents Egyptian mineral objects—stone columns and hieroglyphs, handheld gemstone jewelry—with a mystical resonance, a kind of metaphysical thingness that offers a spiritual connection to ancient wisdom and power. Consequently, she challenges the gaze of a modern tourist and consumer culture that strips ancient materials of any spiritual potential. Lastly, I analyze Moore’s poetic critiques of botanical decorative objects as well as her own aesthetic display of plant life. In these poems, Moore reveals how artistic representations of flora can either express the fertile dynamism of plant life or limit it. These important modernist poets offer an alternative way of engaging with materiality that moves readers to examine their own assumptions about the object world and acknowledge the latent effervescence inherent in things.