"Language is not a vague province": mapping and twentieth-century American poetry

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Newmann, Alba Rebecca

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In recent years, the terms “mapping” and “cartography” have been used with increasing frequency to describe literature engaged with place. The limitation of much of this scholarship its failure to investigate how maps themselves operate—how they establish relationships and organize knowledge. In this document, I offer a rigorous examination of the structural and epistemological parallels between the fields of poetics and cartography. I argue that William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Hass can rightly be named cartographic poets, not only because they are invested in places, nor because they write evocatively about maps, but because, while maintaining the commitments to order and analogy long associated with both poetry and mapping, they deliberately challenge the traditional sources of their poetic authority, which include an emphasis on visual mastery and the singular, “authentic” voice of the lyric poet. By offering these challenges, they participate in what J. Hillis Miller identifies as twentieth-century American poetry’s desire to “abandon the will to power over things,” or the “emerging skepticism toward all mastering discourses of vision and voice” that Barbara Page discusses. While each of these poets calls up specific geographical frames of reference— New Jersey, Brazil, Northern California—geographic presence is not, in and of itself, enough to qualify their texts as maps. Maps contain an important dual potential: to master and control what they depict, and to serve as testaments and invitations to exploration. My discussion of cartographic authority, particularly in claims to objectivity, draws on the works of J.B. Harley and Mark Monmonier. Maps, however, allow us to explore not only physical territories, but conceptual ones as well; and it is in the investigation of these potentials I turn to the works of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Frederick Jameson, and James Corner.