Date of Award

2004

Level of Access

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

English

Advisor

Burton Hatlen

Second Committee Member

Virginia Nees-Hatlen

Third Committee Member

Laura Cowan

Abstract

This project seeks to illuminate one of the most troubling, baffling and most scrupulously unexamined poems in Wallace Stevens's entire body of work: "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery." The lack of scholarship on this poem results fro mthe incredible snarl of stylistic and ethical problems that the poem presents to critics. On the one hand, the poem represents the heighth of poetic modernity. On the other, the depths of racial insensitivity, if not racism. This mixture of poetic complexity and ethical callousness has combined to make the explication of the poem a daunting task and, hence, a task seldom undertaken. The question from which this project proceeds is this: What made a poem entitled "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery sound poetic to one of the foremost American poets of the 20th century? The relative lack of scholarship on "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery" says little about the poem's importance within Steven's corpus. Not only does the poem mark Stevens's sustained return to writing poetry after a dozen-year "silence," but the poem is also one of the longest of Stevens's poems to appear before 1935. In addition to these important details, the poem is also an excellent example of how Stevens took the modernist poetic techniques he had mastered in the 1920s and began to apply those techniques to the turbulent social and political exigencies of the 1930s. It was not an easy union. But such uneasiness is precisely what is so interesting about the poem. Therefore, in this study of "Like Decorations," the thorny issue of Wallace Stevens and race is discussed at length. In the two final chapters, the discussion considers Wallace Stevens and his relationshipo wit hthe visual arts. Stevens learned much from the post-WWI aesthetic vanguard, who, because of the war, relocated to New York. This relocation of artists like Marcel Duchamp brought the radical aesthetic innovations of early-20th century Europe to within a short train-ride of Wallace Stevens. By discussing Stevens in terms of the visual arts, we see Stevens in a larger aesthetic context. We see where Stevens was in line with the aesthetic trends of his day, where he diverged, and where he led. After the discussion of visual art's direct influence upon Stevens, the thesis closes on a more speculative topic: the analogy between Matisse's "The Red Studio" and "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemeteryu." Concluding sdiscussion in such a way allows us to examine the poem in the broader context of International Modernism.

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