Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2019

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 07/29/2021

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Voyce, Stephen

First Committee Member

Fox, Claire

Second Committee Member

Thaggert, Miriam

Third Committee Member

Stecopoulos, Harilaos

Fourth Committee Member

Fixmer-Oraiz, Natalie


This project reconceives the methods critics use to define and analyze the critical field of documentary poetry. Although scholarship on documentary in the visual arts abounds, literary criticism that explores poetry through a documentary lens is sparse. Documentary poetics criticism focuses almost exclusively on socioeconomic class within the poems and on defining the genre. Critics have not attended to the ways that the category “document” inflects this poetic arena. I argue that documentary poetics includes engagement with specific documents and with the power they hold within a given historical moment. This requires attending to what I call document culture: a document’s visual and stylistic norms, in addition to the customs of its subject matter and material/medium. In addition to contributing to critical theory, this project traces documents’ shift from the twentieth century into the twenty-first from wood pulp to strings of code. I focus on representative collections of poetry that foreground the effects particular documents, like congressional hearings, dictionaries, and social media posts, have on people based on their position within the society in which they live. These documentary poems function differently than other poems that engage documents. A second category, poem-documents, interrogate the historical genre of English-language poetry in the nominally postcolonial US, with special focus on the African and Jewish diasporas, and experiences of indigenous people in the colonizing nation. These poems confront the genre’s social position and critically-imposed limitations to demonstrate poetry’s potential to act as a document that names and remembers injustices. My project emphasizes poetry by women, particularly women of color, in order to revise documentary poetics criticism’s interest in class and style to include textual resonances of race, gender, sexuality and nation. Just as the collections documentary poets offer are interdisciplinary in ethos, so is this project, with roots in documentary studies, media studies, feminist criticism, queer studies, and critical race studies in addition to literary criticism.

Each chapter of this project follows the slippage between poem-documents and documentary poems. Chapter one grounds documentary culture in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead (1938), widely considered to be the first American documentary poem. I juxtapose Rukeyser’s interest in document cultures and theory of poetry’s ethical possibilities in The Life of Poetry (1949) with, in Chapter two, Irena Klepfisz’s A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New 1971-1990, a collection that reframes lyric poetry as mode of documentation. Chapter three places Harryette Mullen’s critique of English-language reference texts and the accumulations of connotative meaning, Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002), in conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), which re-documents African women’s experiences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The final chapter addresses Citizen (2014), in which Claudia Rankine re-envisions the archive of anti-black racism to include speech and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015), Joy Harjo’s polyvocal and iconoclastic collection that uses poetry to redefine the archive’s temporality in a way that might counter the erasure of indigenous peoples in the Americas. The nuanced ruminations these poets offer illustrate that, as an area of study with its own investments, interests, and modes of inquiry, critical documentary poetics has just begun.


American literature, documentary poetics, document culture, feminist poetry, poetry, women's poetry


ix, 218 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 197-218).


Copyright © 2019 Chelsea D. Burk

Available for download on Thursday, July 29, 2021