Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Stephen Adams


This dissertation examines how sympathy, defined as the act of “feeling with” another, develops within American poetics from 1950-1965 both as aesthetic strategy and as political response to Cold War culture. Re-examining the social aims of postwar poets typically either thought of as apolitical or yoked to political positions not in fact evidenced by their poems, I argue that these poets, by developing forms of sympathy that negotiate the middle space between the aesthetic conventions of late modernist poetry and the social concerns of postwar American culture, instantiate a self-questioning, often implicit form of “soft politics” that both prefigures and creates the conditions for the more openly political aesthetic of the 1960s.

The dissertation is divided into three parts, each of which examines two poets. The first section focuses on Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, analyzing their work in light of the affect theory first developed by the psychologist Silvan Tomkins to show how their poems invite and deconstruct the sharing of various forms of feeling between reader, speaker, and subject. I then examine the work of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, who use sympathy to fashion a radically unfinished model of selfhood that both anticipates and interrogates poststructuralist conceptions of subjectivity. The final section of my dissertation reads the work of the late modernist African-American poets Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson in the context of theorists including Frantz Fanon and Mikhail Bakhtin, demonstrating that their poems embody, by their global and sympathetic perspective, the attempt to forge of ties of sympathy between individuals separated by distance, race, gender, and history.

Using an interdisciplinary methodology that combines affect theory with historicist and formalist critique, I provide an original and important reading of mid-century U.S. poetics as defined by a radical ethics rooted in forms of shared feeling. Illuminating the soft politics of late modernist poetry, this thesis complicates the current picture of the postwar arts by arguing that it is attuned not only to the psychology of the solitary or alienated self, but to the ways in which bonds of sympathy between disparate persons can transform conceptual models of individual, community, and nation.