Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Joan Richardson

Committee Members

Wayne Koestenbaum

Alan Vardy

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Studies | Art Practice | English Language and Literature | Fine Arts | Literature in English, North America


Aesthetics, painting, abstraction, poetics, Af Klint, Thirdness


With this project, I am arguing for a particularly American visual poetics that dwells in the state of suspension implied by attention, quivering between wonder and contemplation, immobility and unfixity as it seeks to reveal, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in his 1945 The Phenomenology of Perception, the world which is “always ‘already there’ before reflection begins — as an inalienable presence.”[1] Grounded in visual theory, the project pairs poets and artists, searching not for similitude, but rather examining resemblance, difference, and most important, relation. Susan Howe, one of my guides for this project, writes that, “immense perspectives of the eye occur in unexpected word order.” I hope to enlarge her claim by placing makers from disparate disciplines in proximity to one another and allowing the space of relation between their work to light up as a moving, shifting, living thing, a space through which to view both poet and visual artist in a new light. Inspired by writers such as T.J. Clark, who passes through genre to hold open a new way of looking, I am attempting here to enmesh ways of looking in order to see more clearly, not by looking harder or better, but by focusing on what Susan Howe refers to as the “transitional space between image and scripture,” and Durer calls the “distance” between the eye that sees and the object seen. What is created in this space of relation between visual art and poetry? How do we track it, name it, write about it? While covering the work of a broad range of visual theorists, each chapter specifically pairs one poet and one visual artist in order to activate a relationship between the two out of which we might find a way into the written through and with the visual. For example, Chapter Two, “On the Verge of Seeing: Wallace Stevens, Gary Hill, and Revelation,” places the work of Wallace Stevens in proximity to the projection installations of Gary Hill in order to follow Steven’s command to, “show it to you unfixed,” and so to edge closer to Barthes’ concept of the filmic, where “language and metalanguage end.” In Chapter Three, I examine the constant notations, shifts, scale changes, blurs, and flux of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem through the lens of Svetlana Alpers’ work on Dutch painters, which leads me to Vermeer, the mapped surface, and to Paul Claudel’s “Acte de presence,” which describes the onrushing accuracy of a Bishop poem and yet does not arrest its momentum with that description – allowing one to access the desired space where meaning ghosts and hovers. In the Chapter Four, “Mind the Hidden, the Relational Space of Mark Rothko and Susan Howe,” I pick up on the question that George Quasha and Charles Stein ask in Chapter Two about Gary Hill’s projection work: “Is reality what is cast upon the surface, as the word ‘project’ (to ‘throw forth’) might suggest...or is reality what is brought up—made to disclose itself— from beneath,”[2] moving this question into space itself— not under or over, as though space is a screen upon which we live, but into space – the space between us, the space we occupy, the space we create, the spaces between our eyes and objects, between paint and canvas, between letters and words and readers and viewers and makers, between life and death. In this chapter I examine Howe and Rothko’s use of abstraction as a doorway to intimacy, rather than its more commonly understood distancing effect. How are they treating and activating abstraction in order to create clarity? What is the result of their particular, haunted-by-voices abstraction, and can we even call them abstract artists, once we have traced their use of history, voices, and human communication through their work? How can this work lead, not outward, but in, to clarity and a sense of unity and even intimacy? Pairing artists and poets in this project is more than a thought-experiment. It is my attempt to hover in the space of relation between the two, coming down on neither side, allowing the motion and flux of meaning to express, as the author and critic Joan Richardson so aptly puts it, our own particle reality. We are motion, and the motion of moving from one medium to another allows me to inch closer to expressing this. Heeding Emerson’s claim that attention itself is a spiritual practice, I want to follow the example of these poets and artmakers as they pay attention in order to unveil the wild, nearly unspeakable comprehension of vision unfolding into revelation.

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2005), Vii.

[2] George Quasha & Charles Stein, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, 2009), 269.