Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry

Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry

Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry

Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry


Theoretical accounts of modern American poetry often regard literary texts as the expression of a subjectivity irremediably fractured by the dividing practices of power. In Changing Subjects, Srikanth Reddy seeks to redress our critical bias toward a fatalistic poetics of rupture and fragmentation by foregrounding a fluent tradition of writers from Walt Whitman to John Ashbery who explore digression, rather than disjunction, as a rhetorical strategy for the making of modern poetry.

Mapping the ramifying topography of literary digression,Changing Subjectsoffers a wide-ranging anatomy of "the excursus" within twentieth-century American poetics. Moving from aesthetics to the archive to narratology to figures of identity, Reddy considers various spheres in which American writers revisit and revise our models of purposeful discourse by cultivating a poetics of digression in modern literature. In new readings of authors such as Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Frank O'Hara, and Lyn Hejinian, this study proposes that "changing the subject" offers a digressive method for negotiating the vexing complexities of art, knowledge, history, and subjectivity under the curious conditions of modernity. The book concludes with a survey of "Elliptical" strategies employed by a new generation of poets, writing in the wake of John Ashbery's aleatory craft, who seek to extend the digressive project of American poetry into the twenty-first century.


In the autumn of 1937, a visitor to the offices of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, leafing through the pages of that institution’s venerable house organ, The Hartford Agent, might have come across a wry little reflection, penned by a newly minted vice president in the agency’s Bonding Division, on the subject of “Insurance and Social Change.” Toward the end of this commentary, the author—who had, like his fictional contemporary Walter Mitty, excavated from countless ordinary evenings in bourgeois Connecticut a rather extraordinary imaginative cosmos—draws our attention to a surprisingly stable market for securities in this period of economic and social upheaval:

In a late number of the Accident Company’s Confidential Bulletin, it was said that
“Cemeteries have been found by a number of offices to be a very definite market for
the Hartford’s All Risk Securities Policy.” This observation would apply to the Hart
ford’s policies generally under Communism and, to some extent, under Fascism.
(Stevens, Collected, 796)

A grave irony rests in the fact that cemeteries, their inhabitants blissfully oblivious of both accident and indemnity, require coverage against flood, fire, and sundry other acts of God. The living must underwrite the dead. In his alter ego as debonair aesthete, Wallace Stevens had articulated an earlier version of this custodial imperative—here inflected by the American drama of race—in his modernist version of Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”: “Mow the grass in the cemetery, darkies,” declaims the . . .

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