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Making Word Machines: Researching Poetics at the Library of Congress

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The following guest post is by Anastasia Nikolis, a graduate student intern in the Poetry and Literature Center and a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Rochester.

William Carlos Williams, a famous modernist poet from the first half of the 20th century, said that a poem is “a machine made out of words,” and I think of my work as a researcher being like that of a mechanic or an engineer. I break apart poetry-machines and figure out how the language works to make meaning. Then, just like any good mechanic, I put the machine back together again with a better sense of its component parts.

Anastasia near her research shelf in the Library's Main Reading Room.
Anastasia near her research shelf in the Library’s Main Reading Room.

I am a graduate student intern at the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, and a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Rochester. I study 20th century poetry and poetics, which means most of the poets I research have their poems, their essays, and even their personal letters and diaries, widely published or available digitally. So, I don’t need to fly to a foreign country or pore over one-of-a-kind documents to do my research.

The Library of Congress has these kinds of priceless documents, but it is also the largest library in the world filled with real books for real people to use. Anyone can register for a reader’s card at the library and gain research privileges. If you are a researcher in residence, you can even apply for a shelf where you can keep all of the books you are using from the collection. As a resident researcher, I never have to wait longer than a few hours for a book to be delivered right to my personal research shelf adjacent to the breathtaking Main Reading Room.

Because of how vast the holdings are at the Library, using its resources can be overwhelming. Even after spending almost a decade doing academic poetry research and teaching academic research practices at the university level, I found the online catalog to be unwieldy. Fortunately, the Library offers Research Orientation classes on a regular basis to help researchers learn how to navigate the huge number of resources. I recommend trying out the LOC catalog even if you aren’t using the Library’s resources in person. It has so many sources in its database that it will bring back things you didn’t even know existed! One of the pleasant dangers of researching at the Library of Congress is getting lost in a book or a document you never would have had access to anywhere else and forgetting what you were originally working on. I constantly have to remind myself that my research doesn’t start in the library: it starts in the poems.

My dissertation research looks at the mechanics of confession in poetry. The confessional school of poetry began in 1959 with the publication of Robert Lowell’s volume Life Studies, through which Lowell talks about his upbringing as a member of the Boston elite and documents aspects of his nervous breakdown. At the time Life Studies was published, much of the poetry and literary community believed that poetry should be impersonal, and that poets shouldn’t address their struggles with mental illness, sex, or adultery. The reigning narrative of literary history credits Lowell with creating space for the other famous confessional poets—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman—to write a different kind of poetry, where struggles with depression and alcoholism, and lustful fantasies could be written about. This understanding of confessional poetry defines confession by its subject matter: we can identify a poem as confessional poetry if it deals with a poet’s intensely personal experience.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

But it’s important to remember that a poem isn’t a confession at all: it’s a poem. It uses language to create the experience for readers that the poem is making a confession. Furthermore, there are lots of different kinds of confessions, and confessions have been happening long before 1959 in legal, religious, and even poetic contexts. We can confess all kinds of things, from having struggled with mental illness, like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath do, to having eaten the plums in the icebox. So if a poem constructs the experience of feeling guilty for having eaten someone else’s plums and doesn’t engage a taboo subject at all, how does the language tell us it is constructing the artifice of confession? What makes us register it as confessional?

The best place to start answering this question is by looking at the poems themselves. In my dissertation, I am looking for answers in poems by poets writing at the same time as the core confessional poets—Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, as well as two post-confessional poets, Louise Glück and Anne Carson. I have been reading and rereading (and rereading again) their poems identifying the strategies, tropes, and preoccupations of particular poems.

One poem I have been examining most recently is “An Urban Convalescence” by James Merrill. Take a look at this passage:

…let me try to recall
What building stood here. Was there a building at all?
I have lived on this same street for a decade.
Wait. Yes. Vaguely a presence rises
Some five floors high, of shabby stone
–Or am I confusing it with another one
In another part of town, or of the world?–

This passage constructs the experience of Merrill trying to remember what was in a now-empty lot that has just appeared on his street in New York. It doesn’t talk about mental illness or social taboos, but it still feels personal and private. At first, Merrill signals to the reader that he is trying to remember, and then questions his process of recalling: Was there a building? Maybe there wasn’t? The language constructs an artifice of the experience of fumbling through the brain, doubting whether the sought-after information can be retrieved. Merrill’s short imperatives—“Wait. Yes.”— are issued to both himself as he fumbles through his recall, and to an audience, quieting any external input while he works through his process of remembering. But even once he constructs the experiences of retrieving a description of the building from his memory, “some five floors of shabby stone,” he again questions his own reliability. He has revised his earlier question—there is definitely a building, now—but maybe he is misremembering which building was in the location on his street.

James Merrill (1926-1995)
James Merrill (1926-1995)

Merrill’s questioning of his ability to recall and of the memories he conjures suggests heightened self-awareness and a process of self-examination. He is interrogating how much he has really paid attention to the buildings on the block he has lived on for 10 years. He is interrogating his ability to mine his own memories, and even questioning the reliability of the memories he does conjure. This process of self-conscious self-examination is a crucial part of confession. If confession is as literary critic Peter Brooks suggests, “to know oneself and to make oneself known,” the process of self-examination is part of interrogating how to know oneself, and constructs an artificial rendering in language of the experience of gaining knowledge of oneself. To make known the private experience of examining one’s own memories, so self-consciously, completes the confessional artifice.

After I have spent time steeping myself in a poem like Merrill’s, I turn to the work of other scholars who have written about the work or about related themes, as you can see in my mentioning of Peter Brooks. Scholars publish these ideas in book-length projects called monographs that dive deeply into a single topic or nuanced idea. Peter Brooks’s book, for example, is titled Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature and looks at how truth changes in a culture that places such high value on confession. Monographs are published by university presses, usually have very small print runs, and are often relatively expensive to purchase, especially in the large quantities required for dissertation research. Most monographs are only purchased by academic research libraries, like university libraries or the Library of Congress. So, to do my research effectively, I need to be near a library with access to lots of monographs on the subjects I work on.

Louise Glück (1943-)
Louise Glück (1943-)

There are many monographs published a year on a host of topics, and most libraries can’t buy them all. If you need a book and your library doesn’t have it, there is a great system in place where libraries can borrow from other libraries—even from libraries in other countries!—to get that special book to you. The interlibrary loan system is effective and very fast: I have requested a book and received it within 24 hours when I was using my home university library. But one of the huge boons of researching at the Library of Congress is every book I need is right here waiting for me!

With so many materials to wade through and so many ideas to work out, a lot of my time is spent in solitude working through stacks of books. One of the glorious things, however, is finding a poet who is writing about what I am working through or stumbling on a scholar who is working through the same ideas. That community of thinkers feels even larger at the Library of Congress, with its huge number of resources and the way the building itself is a temple to the enterprise of pursuing new knowledge.


  1. Best of luck with your research Anastasia! You have a dream job, truly in the catbird seat. Thank you for sharing your process and findings too.

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