Date of Award

Summer 2020

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures

First Advisor

Brian Glavey


The purpose of this dissertation, Aesthetic Activisms: Language Politics and Inheritances in Recent Poetry from the U.S. South, is to illustrate how four contemporary poets incorporate and adapt literary forms and linguistic structures to emphasize the exclusionary systems of language that undergird accepted southern cultural practices. Aesthetic Activismslooks at four poets, Natasha Trethewey, Fred Moten, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, and C.D. Wright, who challenge concepts of regional literary inheritances that refuses to recognize a broad plurality of voices and histories.

Aesthetic Activisms focuses on poets whose work re-orients, or centralizes, marginalized experience through form and content, resisting essentialist ideas of southern identity by highlighting the disjunction between normalized language and marginalized presence. Most studies of southern literature begin with an attempt to define a canon based on geographic boundaries and origins, but in Chapter 1 I argue that this pedigree denies alternative southern voices.

Chapter 2 highlights contemporary poet Natasha Trethewey’s focused attention on the exclusionary practices of “official” histories. I argue that while her 2006 collection Native Guardcan be read as an acknowledgement of alternative southern histories, it also problematizes the concept of a multivalent “new” south by its huge critical success—inadvertently reinforcing some of the ideological structures Trethewey originally intended to dismantle.

Chapter 3 examines Fred Moten’s Arkansas (2000), which emphasizes social limitations imposed by standardized systems of speech. Arkansas uses fracture and vernacular to produce a particular effect, one which reflects the experience of the marginalized citizen and simultaneously offers an alternative mode of communal being. Aesthetically, these poems implicate us in social structures predicated upon exclusionary strategies.

Chapter 4 focuses on Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, whose poetry uses the structures of indigenous oral literatures to create ecopoetical dwelling in the landscape of her texts. I argue that Hedge Coke’s ecopoetics can also be read as a decolonization of southern literature’s deeply agrarian beginnings.

Chapter 5 focuses on C.D. Wright, whose work follows in the particularly southern literary tradition of the author/poet as witness and documentarian, joining her to a very particular subset of authors like Lillian Smith ad James Agee.