Singing in the Late Season: Prophetic American Poetry in the Post-War Period

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation shows how social protest poetry written in the U.S. after the second World War, by Robinson Jeffers, Muriel Rukeyser, and Jorie Graham, challenges and complicates traditional notions of prophecy in American poetry. Even as they attempt to speak prophetically to a range of social crises, including racialized oppression, global war, and climate change, these poets disclaim an understanding of the American poet-prophet as an authoritative voice of moral certitude speaking to and for the people. Instead, they offer a version of the American poet-prophet that is self-critical, uncertain, and disinvested in individual forms of authority.

Especially after witnessing the rise of fascism, the idea that a single poet might be able to unify and address a diverse collective grew increasingly suspect. Recognizing the inadequacy of old forms of prophetic speech but desiring to speak in politically resonant ways, Jeffers, Rukeyser, and Graham engage in a practice of prophetic self-critique. While critical conversations commonly identify these poets in the traditional vein of American prophetic poetry, my dissertation questions the foundational assumptions of that tradition, providing new insight into the ways in which these poets actively work both within and against the category of American prophecy.

With an eye to political and theological conversations about prophecy’s role in American politics, I show how these poets challenge what it means to be a prophet in America through recursive habits of self-reflection and self-criticism. By applying the same interpretive critique to their own poetry as they do to the social problems they speak against these poets undermine any sense of certainty or fixity in their work. This recursive practice requires a rehabilitative reading of these poets, one that considers the entirety of their careers, and pays particular attention to the later work, where these recurrences can be seen most clearly. By interpreting their own poetry in this way, the poets invite their readers into a collective practice of critique and revision that is aimed at keeping open possibilities for continued communication.

Importantly, this revisionary work occurs in what I call the “late season,” referring both to the condition of living under late capitalism, and the condition of writing later in life, with an eye back to the earlier work. A sense of irreversibility shapes these poets’ aesthetic responses to the interconnected crises they speak against, and their visions do not anticipate a teleological progression toward a perfected subject position or a utopian political future. Rather than make proclamations, these poets engage in a process that is necessarily ongoing. This investment in ongoingness is most easily identified in their prolixity—they seem to never stop speaking.

The work of these poets suggests that if we accept the title of “prophet” too easily, we risk reinforcing the very systems that we hope to critique. By bringing an active, rigorous self-critical self-awareness to the work of social protest poetry, these poets help us think in more ethical ways about who we call a prophet and why, and how we imagine possibilities for living in and through the crises of the present, with an eye toward a future that will surely require we are capable of reimagining everything we thought we knew.


Attribute NameValues
Author Sara Judy
Contributor Romana C. Huk, Research Director
Contributor Mark Sanders, Committee Member
Contributor Francisco Robles, Committee Member
Contributor Cyril O'Regan, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline English
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
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Defense Date
  • 2022-02-28

Submission Date 2022-04-10
Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

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