Monograph: Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry

By John Wrighton 


his is the first book to chart the development of a “poethical” trajectory in modern American poetry. In a path-breaking interdisciplinary move, Dr Wrighton examines ethical philosophy and the transforming politics of post-war America in order to conceptualize a historic and dynamic interrelationship between the ethical imperative and poetic practice. The book thereby revitalizes the study of American poetry with a new way of reading textual ethics. Its exceptional, literary and philosophical synergy of ethics, politics, and poetics, establishes a new standard for ethical criticism.

Thoughtful and copiously researched.

– Times Higher Education, 17 Dec., 2009

Commissioned for Routledge by Professor William E. Cain (Wellesley College, USA) Wrighton’s book makes a unique contribution to the “turn to ethics” in literary criticism. Beginning with a detailed reappraisal of Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy, the opening chapter theorizes the ethical work of language. Subsequent chapters follow a chronological and contextual approach (from the Black Mountain, Beat, Eco- and Ethno- poetics of the post-war era, to the “Language” poets, post-Vietnam). Each poetic school is situated in relation to its political context in order to show how the ethical, in its poetic realization, is directed towards an emancipatory social activism. A key chapter on Charles Olson is informed by Wrighton’s archival work at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Centre (University of Connecticut, USA) as recipient of the Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Travel Grant (the chapter includes previously unpublished manuscript images).

This book was reviewed in the Times Higher as a feature review by the American Poet and Professor David Gewanter (“thoughtful and copiously researched” Times Higher Education, December 17, 2009). In addition, Wrighton’s methodological approach has gone on to be critiqued by Alexander Howard in Textual Practice (Howard distinguishes the work for its “insightful and nuanced account” 25.2 [2011]). As Howard’s review illustrates, Wrighton’s pioneering work at the critical edge of literature and/as ethical philosophy opens new frontiers of intellectual enquiry into the multimodality of textual ethics.


An important and original piece of scholarly work, both literary and philosophical.

– William E. Cain, Mary Jewett Gaisser Professor of English at Wellesley College

An insightful and nuanced account of the emergence of ethical trends in recent American poetics … Critically engaging … Wrighton’s conception of poethics provides Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry with a clear organizational framework … excellent use of unpublished archival material and recent critical developments … a well-worked critical account of modern American poetry.

– Alexander Howard, Textual Practice, Vol. 25 (2011)

Thoughtful and copiously researched.

– David Gewanter, Times Higher Education, 17 Dec. 2009

Persuasively argued and thoughtfully researched, John Wrighton offers engaging analysis of Objectivist writing, The Beats, the Black Mountain Poets, the San Francisco Renaissance, Ethnopoetics, and Language Writing. The range of material is impressive, while each chapter builds toward a refreshingly unified view of post-WWII poetry — one in which an “ethical turn” constitutes a formative and lasting aspect of American writing…

Both sophisticated and readable, Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry is an indispensable study for literary critics, university teachers, and general readers.

– Stephen Voyce, Assistant Professor in English, University of Iowa