Democracy, Diction, and the Birth of Modernist American Poetry


ACLS Fellowship Program




Twentieth-century modernist American poets presented their work as a radical break with their nineteenth-century predecessors. Modernist innovations in poetic diction represent a relatively late stage in the struggle to define authority in American public discourse. Building on research by Kenneth Cmiel and others documenting democracy’s destabilizing effects on linguistic authority in America, this project demonstrates that the startling early twentieth-century emergence of non-literary language in American poetry marked a belated adaptation of nineteenth-century rhetorical strategies for marshalling linguistic authority—a perspective that lays the groundwork for a broad reconsideration of the trajectory of American poetry.