Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Wayne Koestenbaum

Committee Members

Kandice Chuh

Peter Hitchcock

Subject Categories

Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics | Intellectual History | Literature in English, North America | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Poetry | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Gertrude Stein, Amiri Baraka, Marcel Mauss, poetic reparation, colonialist appropriation


This dissertation investigates the conceptual relationships between poetry, magic, and race and their effects on both intellectual and creative practices from modernism through the post-war era. In doing so, this study works cross-disciplinarily, tracing early anthropological and sociological characterizations of primitive religion in connection to early-to-mid-twentieth-century literary study and writing. In working across disciplines at this particularly fungible moment in the history of the academy, this dissertation attempts to understand how the concurrent colonial global context effects the production and organization of knowledge just prior to and during modernism. It ultimately seeks to de-colonize literary thinking about poetry by performing a racial critique of the role of magical thinking in its generic conception and production. The first chapter establishes the intellectual history of the dissertation’s key problem, the presence of primitivism throughout modernist and post-modernish approaches to poetry and the desire for this poetry to offer reparation; examines the ethnographic texts, especially Marcel Mauss’s General Theory of Magic, that relate poetic language to the language of magic ritual and animistic belief systems; considers how these foundational beliefs continued to influence modernist critics like Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James, and how certain poets and critics attempt to subvert these intellectual trends that associate blackness with magic and magic with poetry; and lastly questions the ethical implications of assuming that poetry’s “magic” could cure socio-cultural loss. The second and third chapters further develop and test the dissertation’s argument that regardless of poets’ intentions, magic operates within their understanding of poetic function, and that these understandings stem from racist, colonialist understandings of primitive space, time, and culture, while simultaneously attempting to understand their works’ attitude toward poetic reparation. In the second chapter, I examine Gertrude Stein’s 1932 Stanzas in Meditation in an attempt to understand the text’s relationship to concepts of magical language, and its trance-like, reparative effect on readers, an effect complicated by its appropriation of primitivist concepts of time. In the final chapter, I turn to Amiri Baraka’s 1969 compilation Black Magic to explore this work’s relationship to its titular “magic.” I ultimately demonstrate how Baraka’s work re-theorizes a kind of poetic spirituality that eschews white capitalist magic and offers a materialist, pragmatic poetics for surviving racism and strengthening Black consciousness. In concluding, I look to the contemporary moment and claim that the current upswing in the poetry community’s interest in the occult serves as further evidence for one, how the role of magic and poetry corresponds to a social desire for reparation, and, two, how the racialized thinking at stake in the invocation of magic in poetry continues to merit critical and popular examination.