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Illusionism in the "Riddling" School of American Poetry

Applicant Austenfeld Thomas
Number 130139
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Département d'anglais et de slavistique Université de Fribourg
Institution of higher education University of Fribourg - FR
Main discipline German and English languages and literature
Start/End 01.05.2010 - 31.08.2012
Approved amount 119'084.00
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Keywords (5)

American Poetry; Linguistic approaches to poetry; Art and poetry in relation; visual elements in poetry; visual art and poetry in relation

Lay Summary (English)

Lay summary
The aim of this study is an investigation of selected American poets from Emily Dickinson to Mary Jo Salter as respective end points of a hitherto unrecognized school of American poetry. Visual elements familiar from painting -- such as trompe l'oeil, anamorphosis, and riddle -- are transformed into poetic language in the work of these poets. They thus establish a poetic practice which gives rise to a distinct poetics expressed in essays and statements. The aesthetic pleasure of the riddle becomes a structural device of lyric poetry. Coteries of poets are well-known, but some of the poets to be investigated here form a coterie of a special kind; more precisely, a chain of mentors and students. Marianne Moore shaped Elizabeth Bishop's style, and Bishop taught Salter, who in turn is close friends with Amy Clampitt. The poets investigated in this study wrote essays about each other's work, reflecting on the practice of poetry and inspiring each other. Wallace Stevens stands as a point of reference for all of them, as the playful language of his early work challenged others to test the limits of referential language. The prominence of identity-based criticism in the academy has in some cases resulted in drawing readers' attention away from the materiality of the poetic text. Dickinson, Moore, Bishop, Salter and company take us back to the pleasures of poetic language and to the potential for poetic distillation of close observation. The relationship between visual art and literary texts -- and the use of riddling techniques in both art forms -- will be subjected to critical scrutiny using semiotics as well as psychoanalysis, among other approaches. The question of the relationship between the artist and his or her work will thus be approached through the reader and the material text itself as much as through the author. The literary history of 20th century American poetry and its continuation into the 21st century will be challenged and, in part, be rewritten at the conclusion of this project.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



“Boston-New York: Un coast-to-coast poetico.” Bloc Notes 59 (2010): 35-147 (Essay and translations of poems by Mary Jo Salter and others)
Bertoli Mariacristina (2010), “Boston-New York: Un coast-to-coast poetico.” Bloc Notes 59 (2010): 35-147 (Essay and translations of poems by Mary Jo Salter and others), in Bloc Notes, (59), 35-147.
“The Borderland of Prosody: Theory and Practice of Horizontverschmelzung in Poetic Translation.”
Bertoli Mariacristina (2010), “The Borderland of Prosody: Theory and Practice of Horizontverschmelzung in Poetic Translation.”, in Camboni M. and A. Carosso and S. Di Loreto (ed.), 123-129.
“Cinq voix romandes pour cinq poètes américains”: anthology of poetic translations.
Bertoli Mariacristina Natalia and E. Bourguet O. Madhour F. de Lucia S. Zink, “Cinq voix romandes pour cinq poètes américains”: anthology of poetic translations., in La Page Blanche .

Scientific events


Title Year
Fellowship granted by Jean Nordman Foundation, Fribourg 2012

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
143301 Raw Sensibilities: Elizabeth Bishop and the Philosophy of Beatitude 01.10.2012 Project funding (Div. I-III)


The project entitled “Illusionism in the ‘Riddling’ School of American Poetry: Poetic Forms of Riddles, Anamorphoses and Trompe l’œil” will result in a new understanding of American literary history by offering a conspectus of poets not hitherto grouped together. We intend to analyze in detail a cluster of common devices - i.e. riddles, anamorphoses and trompe l’œil - characterizing both the lyrical poems and the underlying poetics of selected American writers from Emily Dickinson to Mary Jo Salter. The identification of these common devices will enable us to demonstrate the existence of a “riddling” poetic school which - although dating back to Emily Dickinson’s poetry - has not been recognized as such by literary criticism so far. The identification, description, and analysis of riddles, anamorphoses and trompe l’œil in some of their poems is not the only criterion used for identifying the “members” of this school, i.e. Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Wallace Stevens, Richard Wilbur, Brad Leithauser, John Hollander and Mary Jo Salter. Although these (and/or analogous) effects occur in the production of other authors as well, we recognize in these poets the constituents of the “riddling” school we postulate because of the mutual relationships and acknowledged influences knitting their production into a mesh of interlocking themes and stylistic patterns. It is well known, for instance, that Moore was Bishop’s mentor and that, in turn, Bishop was Salter’s professor at Harvard; these personal contacts have resulted in a stylistic continuum due to the mutual influence these poets have exerted on one another. The same holds true for the marriage of Salter and Leithauser, which is reflected in the common features and themes characterizing their poems. It is likewise easy to recognize in the similarities Salter’s poetry shares with Clampitt’s the influence of their long-lasting friendship, and the same can be said of the productions of Leithauser and Wilbur, who have been friends for a long time. Although unmediated by personal contact, an equally strong influence has been exerted on Salter’s poetry by Emily Dickinson and on John Hollander’s by Wallace Stevens, the “riddler” par excellence of American poetry. These connections will often be explored in the light of the essays these authors have written on each other (e.g., Clampitt on Moore, Salter on Clampitt and Dickinson, etc.). Such essays offer evidence beyond the lyric poems of a true poetics extending into the reflective and preparatory work of the writers.This project will expand and enhance the critical discussion in at least four ways. First, it will draw attention to the devices of anamorphoses and trompe l’œil which, so far, have been explored largely by art criticism, but have practically been ignored in literary studies. Second, it will clarify the common mechanisms these two devices-commonly understood only within a visual framework-share with riddles and, thus, will contribute to the current semiotic and critical studies of the relationship between visual arts and literature. Third, it will shed new light on a part of the production of poets like Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, which - though have long been of great interest to “canonical” literary criticism - have been little analyzed from the standpoint of their potential illusoriness (Bishop’s in particular). In other words, while Moore and Bishop are firmly established in any history of American poetry, their commonalities as “riddlers” remain underappreciated because insufficiently recognized. Fourth and last, this project will explore the poetics of some authors who are not yet as firmly established in the canon; that is, Amy Clampitt, Brad Leithauser and Mary Jo Salter or who, like Richard Wilbur, have dropped off the critical radar screen with the prominence of identity-based schools of criticism. The project will result in a book authored by Mariacristina Bertoli, principal investigator. We propose as preliminary title Illusionism in the “Riddling” School of American Poetry: Poetic Forms of Riddles, Anamorphoses and Trompe l’œil (expected length: around 300 pages). The intended employment of a doctoral student, Ms Bertoli, will ensure that the work here outlined is performed within the requested period of support. Conference and article submissions, prepared jointly by Ms Bertoli and myself, will serve as a first venue in publicizing our findings.