Invention's Enemy: Twentieth-Century American Poetry and the Performance of Medieval Authorship

Sara Nicholson, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


This dissertation traces the widespread—yet little researched—influence of medieval literature on twentieth-century American poetry. More specifically, it investigates the work of a particular school of poets—the San Francisco Renaissance—and uses as case studies the two figures who lie at its heart, Jack Spicer (1925 – 1965) and Robert Duncan (1919 – 1988). I read their work as a performance of the roles and rhetorical stances available to medieval authors and translators. I find in their vastly dissimilar poetics a similar play with medieval authorial techniques, and find that this illuminates some of the fundamental connections between Spicer’s theory of dictation and Duncan’s theory of derivation. Furthermore, I argue that their work must primarily be read as a performative act, and that this helps us understand some of the seemingly paradoxical and self-effacing statements both frequently made about their work.

Much of the scholarship that exists at the intersection of medieval studies and modern poetics tend to focus on Pound, Eliot, and their British contemporaries (W.H. Auden, David Jones, Geoffrey Hill, et. al.). But of the later schools of American poetry, much important work has yet to be done. This dissertation focuses solely on the later work of Spicer and Duncan, rather than on the early work they produced while students at Berkeley (Duncan’s Dante Études and Spicer’s Troilus and The Holy Grail). In addition, I read Spicer along with two of the female authors who most influenced him—Laura Riding and Mary Butts—both of whom had decades earlier engaged with some of the same medieval texts Spicer himself would. I also read Spicer’s and Duncan’s work through the lens of medievalism, a burgeoning field of scholarship that studies, in all its diversity, the continued existence of the Middle Ages in post-medieval times. If, according to Lucia Boldrini, medievalism is “a language that can ‘translate’ the Middle Ages into any current idiom of political, Social, or cultural self-definition,” I consider how the Middle Ages was translated into a poetics of the post-war American avant-garde (“Translating the Middle Ages” 44).