Rooted cosmopolitanism in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and Joseph Brodsky

by Olson, Jamie L., Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, 2008, 229 pages; 3328923


This study focuses on three contemporary poets—an Irishman, a West Indian, and a Russian—who shared an ethical and aesthetic outlook, became close friends, wrote poems for one another, and occasionally worked together, notably on Homage to Robert Frost (1996), which contains an essay by each poet on their modernist predecessor. Their poetry, like that of many poets whose work develops out of the experience of hybridity, ought to be understood as an expression of rooted cosmopolitanism, a term that retains the sense of tension in their writing between home and abroad. Poets such as Heaney, Walcott, and Brodsky remain rooted in particular places while entering into conversation with cultures elsewhere, not to mention with each other, and that conversation becomes essential to their art. Critics typically contend with their work by placing it within a specific geopolitical context—Northern Ireland amid the Troubles, the Caribbean at the end of European imperialism, Russia during the decline of Soviet Communism—but this study offers a unified approach to poems by all three of them.

In each chapter, I trace one poet's career through key texts, often incorporating archival materials and my own translations, in order to determine what distinguishes his cosmopolitan poetics from the poetics of his contemporaries. Heaney's oeuvre describes a journey that widens outward from an omphalos in the rural North, engaging ever more frequently with foreign cultures and forging a pluralist model of Irishness that contrasts with the rustic national image that most critics attribute to him. Walcott's poetry, on the other hand, has been cosmopolitan in nature from the beginning, owing in part to the cultural and linguistic pluralism of his native St. Lucia. His work is characterized by multivocality, which shows up in his poems both as multilingualism and as dialogue. Finally, Brodsky's cosmopolitanism, which began to appear early in his career, was transformed, after his exile from the Soviet Union, by his double-rootedness in two literary cultures: Russian and Anglo-American. Each of these three poets established roots in multiple places, which strengthened their cosmopolitanism, widening the scope of their empathy.

AdviserLaurence A. Goldstein
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsModern literature; Slavic literature; Caribbean literature; English literature
Publication Number3328923

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