Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Barrett Watten


In The Center of All Beauty, I trace a strain of poetics in twentieth-century American poetry from William Carlos Williams through Frank O’Hara, Alice Notley, and Amiri Baraka. This poetics is founded in a radically democratic conception of the poetic subject and in the use of poetry as a tool for developing critical knowledge about the material conditions within which the poetic subject is constituted. In Spring and All and The Embodiment of Knowledge, Williams articulates a poetics that denies the authority of any grounds upon which any poetic subject would be considered inadequate to poetic speech and outlines a way of using poetry to train the poetic subject into a critical resistance to authority. I demonstrate similarities between Williams’s poetics and the political pedagogy Jacques Rancière articulates in The Ignorant Schoolmaster in order to show how Williams’s poetics amounts to a way of holding poetry open for political speech according to Rancière’s definition of politics as a rupture in the distribution of the sensible. I outline how Frank O’Hara develops a poetics of everyday life and sociality that renders the social formation the poetic subject exists within visible for critique and poetic articulation. Following Rancière’s definition of dissensus as the means by which politics operates in an ongoing present, I argue O’Hara makes this poetics part of a process of dissensual collaboration among members of the oppositional queer social world he is a part of in 1950s New York. I turn to Alice Notley’s poetry in the 1970s to show how she develops an everyday life poetry of the maternal subject. Following Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, I argue that Notley’s poetry initially functions by trying to disalienate the material of everyday life from the poetic field of meaning. She tries to enact this poetics by modeling it after Williams and O’Hara. However, the social relations she invokes for poetic collaboration are mystified rather than alienated in their definition under capitalist patriarchy. Her poetry develops a critical knowledge of this domestic situation, making visible the ways these relations are constructed from a system of demands for labor. Finally, I turn to Amiri Baraka, who, in making use of this poetics encounters the problem of how to declare the possibility of speaking without qualification as a Black poetic subject engaged in the struggle for African-American liberation without seeking the invisible qualification that such a declaration should begin in an attempt to transcend or disavow Blackness. Ultimately, Baraka sees that in order to fully articulate the ways a poetic subject is subject to systems of domination according to race and class, this poetics must treat the material of historical and political analysis as available to the poetic subject in the same way as the materials of everyday life. Baraka’s poetics shows us the necessity of not only disalienating the materials of everyday life from poetic meaning, but also of disalienating systems of historical and political analysis from the everyday life of the poetic subject.