American Eidolons: Saying, Not Knowing the Immanent Sublime Poetics of William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, and H.D.

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Scott Slawinski

Second Advisor

Dr. Elizabeth Bradburn

Third Advisor

Dr. Todd Kuchta

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Charles Altieri


Lacan, Leaves of Grass, Helen in Egypt, Kora in Hell, Paterson, Postlude


This study explores a distinction Ralph Waldo Emerson makes between “The Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer” in “The Poet” (1844) through the triadic framework of Jacques Lacan’s The Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. More specifically, this study considers how a poet may perform an important function as a “sayer” in relation to the Real (the fullness of experience that cannot be integrated into our systems of representation) by registering in language traces of that which exceeds the resources of the Symbolic and the Imaginary to present.

The initial consideration, in part one of this three-part dissertation, is on the pragmatic pressures that can drive a poet toward such an attentiveness to the Real. The textual focus of part one is on the early work of William Carlos Williams, especially from his “Postlude” (1914) to Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920). Williams would be driven toward an attentiveness to the Real through his ambition to say something new, beyond the work of his early poetry (which bears the heavy mark of his influences).

In part two, this study considers how Walt Whitman and Williams each present forms of “projection” in the sense that the Real (which cannot be fully represented) is suggested through an emphasis on either the Imaginary or the Symbolic. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) presents a projection of the American Real that emphasizes the Imaginary (Lacan’s term for the interpersonal pressures of identity and ideology). Williams’ Paterson (1946–58) also presents various projections of the Real in relation to the physical and cultural objects of his attention as well as the activity of his poetic imagination. Instead of the Imaginary, however, Williams emphasizes the Symbolic (Lacan’s term for a system of related differences that includes language).

In part three, this study provides a final example of a poet’s projection in relation to the Real by considering H.D.’s Helen in Egypt (1961). Rather than toward the Imaginary or the Symbolic, H.D. uses a highly referential web of associations structured through the Imaginary and the Symbolic in order to project toward the Real. This Imaginary/Symbolic web consists of the myriad narratives of Helen of Troy that exist, with the Real Helen being that Helen for whom the cultural resources supporting her representation do not yet exist. This final example of Real projection underscores the important function poets perform as “sayers”: the Real Helen is a Helen who confounds an academic act of knowing but presents an important opportunity for a poet’s act of saying that which resists full representation. The dynamics of how literary “knowers” and literary “sayers” interrelate across all three Lacanian modalities—the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real—can be a limitless source of literature’s enduring value.

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