Date of Award

Spring 4-30-2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Mark Noble

Second Advisor

Paul Schmidt

Third Advisor

Stephen Dobranski


Dissertation Abstract

My dissertation concerns the use of the sonnet in twentieth-century American poetry. In it, I dispel the notion that the rise of Modernism resulted in the disuse of poetic forms like the sonnet during the period and analyze sonnets by two specific schools, the Harlem Renaissance and the Confessionals, to demonstrate the importance of the form throughout the century. My project pursues the question of how poets in the twentieth century continued the formal tradition. I conclude that these sonneteers rejected Modernism’s call for free verse, marking their allegiance to tradition at a time when it was being heavily challenged. The frequent use of the sonnet during the period reflects a continuation of the formal tradition incompatible with the “victory of free verse” narrative that figures Modernism as what John Barth calls the twentieth century’s “predominant aesthetic.” My work contributes to the discussion of how formal poetry responded to the attacks on it by Modernists and what those responses mean for our understanding of the century’s contribution to the larger history of formal poetry. In this project, I identify the lack of scholarship on the use of form in the century, explain the reason that such a gap exists, and work to fill in that gap by looking at the use of form by two of the century’s major schools. Because, as T.S. Eliot says, the addition of a work to a tradition alters the entire tradition, recognizing that twentieth-century American poetry continued the formal tradition modifies that tradition itself.

In the first chapter, I outline the history of how this narrative came to be, how Modernism as both a poetics and a reading practice came to define the way scholars have approached (and still approach) the literary contributions of the period. To better illustrate the Modernism vs. formal poetry debate and to more clearly outline how the battle between the two looked on the level of individual poems, I examine the battle for the imaginative topos of Ancient Greece between Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Sara Teasdale as it appears in the poems “Oread” and “To Sappho I” with a specific emphasis on the poets’ use of the figure of Sappho. The second and third chapters are comprised of analyses of sonnets written by authors from specific movements, a move that begins the work of filling in the dearth of scholarship about the use of form in the period. In the second chapter, I discuss sonnets by poets of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Melvin Tolson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Jean Toomer with an eye toward how these sonneteers subverted the history of “white” form by placing themselves simultaneously inside and outside of the formal tradition. In the third chapter, I look at sonnets by poets of the Confessional school, such as W.D. Snodgrass, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell, examining how these poets used their own personal experiences with mental illness to link the irrationality of madness to what Edward Hirsch calls a “rational form.” In all of these chapters, I use comparative close readings to examine the way that these poems use form and how the relationships among them make larger theoretical claims about poetics, race, and mental illness.