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Abstract

ABSTRACT: SKELETONIZATION, CAMERAFLAGE, LOITERING: HABITS OF WITNESSING AFTER THE GREAT WAR This project tracks American non-combatant poetic modes of witnessing wartime. I focus on World War I, where a boom in American journalistic photography coincided with the growing production of little magazines, to argue that the “look” of the war on the newspaper page and the “look” of the poem shared a radical communicative efficiency called “skeletonization.” By minimalizing or occluding text or detail, skeletonization generally perpetuated the feel of the flesh-witness accounts Americans craved, producing the “I” and the seeming intimacy borne of seeming immediacy that a reader could then encounter as “the war.” However, skeletonization was actually a far more complex and composite process of transmission and reconstruction that could intensify, magnify, or shatter the image’s effects. This locus is where poetic practices have intervened in the construction of intimacy and immediacy, pressing on the lyric assumptions we have inherited about how the war was witnessed and asking us to fundamentally reconsider who counts as a witness. I test out the look of the war as a lyric problem by proposing three experiments in witnessing. Each involves a journalistic photographic provocation derived from the way the War Department’s censorship framed danger and those who deserved protection. Each experiment then close reads archival photographs and their captions to rework the terms of visual skeletonization, highlighting what journalists deemed necessary viewing and the ways they prepared audiences to interpet images, even when that reading was at odds with the War Department’s goals. Such potential “errors” in transmission had poetic effects, and each of my experiments concludes by close reading the content and look of poetry by a female American poet who is generally discounted as a flesh-witness to war, but whose work speaks to that chapter’s photographic question. These poets show the material, formal, and theoretical ways in which skeletonization can go awry during the process of re-fleshing: they focus on the relationship between who looks and chooses and what is seen (skeletonization and re-fleshing in Marianne Moore); how the everyday crops up and exceeds us when we hope to “solve” the extraordinary rather than the daily (cameraflage in Gertrude Stein); and how the fight to be seen as ordinary both requires and repudiates the extraordinary of graphic violence (loitering in Gwendolyn Brooks). These experiments collectively enrich the canon of Great War poetry and offer analogs and cautions for the way we view mediated war today. The coda shoulders this challenge, examining a 1918 Paul Scott Mowrer poem alongside a contemporary poem by Claudia Rankine and two imagined contemporary images, one of President Trump in a proleptic Veterans’ Day celebration, and one of Jemel Roberson on the Armistice’s 100th anniversary.

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