To begin, a confession: I am a trespasser in the territory of philosophy. I come by way of poetry. It is hard to read very far in American modernist poetry, in particular, without hitting upon the question of the status of its objects — those wheelbarrows and roses and blue guitars — and the corollary question about its subjects — who is this I, anyway? The more poems I read the more I felt that there was something up with objects and subjects in American poetry, that the poems were engaging some question, or set of questions, about what it means to be a “self,” and what we mean when we say we know something. My attempt to articulate these questions led me to philosophy and eventually to the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James — an encounter that transformed my thinking about everything in general and about poetry in particular.
What eventually built itself out of the fragments of my old thinking and those bits of pragmatism I couldn't shake was a new picture of the field of twentieth-century poetics, one in which strains of American philosophy are picked up, dropped, and picked up again elsewhere. This book traces the way the seeds of American philosophical thought, in particular of that strain of American thinking known as pragmatism, take root in the diverse field of twentieth-century American poetry. By following the currents of pragmatist thought into the realm of poetry and poetics, I hope to trace a particular epistemology that emerges from diverse forms of American writing, one in which mind and world are understood as inseparable, and the human being is regarded as, in Thoreau's terms, “an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature” (“Walking,” 149).
The structure of the book — an introductory chapter followed by five pairings of pragmatist thinkers and twentieth-century poets — is designed to reflect this new picture. Each chapter focuses on a particular philosophical problem, approached from the vantage points of both poetry and philosophy.