Book Project




Containing Multitudes: The Social Logic of Lyric in the Mass Public Sphere

Containing Multitudes argues that a group of minoritized and social-dissident poets, including Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, Bernadette Mayer, Bruce Andrews, Lisa Robertson, and Claudia Rankine, played a decisive role in the articulation of a massified idea of subjectivity and collectivity in post-1945 North America. Focusing on the writing and performance work of these Black, queer, Leftist, and women poets, I explore how they engaged with new mass-communications technologies in ways that brought to light the hitherto repressed diversification, fragmentation, and top-down manipulation of realms of public discourse. Whereas modern lyric poetry has often been thought of as intimately “overheard” speech, or as the private expression of a personal emotion that nevertheless manages to become universal in the perception of its auditors, I show how this model of lyric became particularly incongruous for minoritized writers in twentieth-century media environments, and how they responded by enacting a critique of conventional lyric that exposes the genre’s embeddedness in a fundamentally exclusionary and classically liberal logic of self-abstraction in public. In the process, I reframe what the New Lyric Studies has called the “lyricization of poetry” as historically implicated in a reactionary desire to contain the diverse energies of the massifying sphere of social relations that emerged in the same period. Tracing a trajectory of critiques of and alternatives to the normative lyric in the mass-media-tropic work of marginalized authors, I contend that their innovations reflect the coming to consciousness of this massified arena of meaning-making, a socio-technological context requiring novel configurations of social space and public personhood.