Environmental Justice Witnessing in the Modernist Poetry of Lola Ridge, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Elizabeth Bishop analyzes the poetic forms used by four modernist American women poets to trace depictions of social oppression that are tied to specific landscapes. My focus is on what I term "environmental justice witnessing," which I define as accounts that testify to experiences of injustices that affect humans and the environments they inhabit. Integrating theories of witnessing, which to date have focused exclusively on humans, with environmental justice criticism, I fashion a lens that highlights the interconnectedness of social and environmental problems. In this way, I theorize the study of texts of witness and how they document the decay, disease, and exploitation of urban and rural landscapes in the twentieth century. In this dissertation, I focus on Lola Ridge's "The Ghetto" (1918), Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead" (1938), Gwendolyn Brooks' "In the Mecca" (1968), and poems about Brazil from Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel (1965) and New Poems (1979). I argue that these women poets depict environmental injustices as an inherent facet of social injustice and do so by poetically connecting human bodies to environmental bodies through sound, diction, figurative language, and imagery.
In Environmental Justice Witnessing, I expand arguments made by environmental scholars about the exchange of environmental elements among humans, animals, and landscapes to include the way poets reflect this transfer poetically. The poetry of Ridge, Rukeyser, Brooks, and Bishop allows me to investigate the ways the categories of race, gender, and class, typically thought of as human qualities, are integrally tied to the geographic, national, and cultural bounds in which those categories are formulated. This argument has clear implications on the study of poetry and its environmental contexts as it invites discussions of the transnational conceptions of global citizenship, examinations of the relationships among communities, the environment, and overarching power structures, and arguments surrounding the ways that poetry as art can bring about long-term social and environmental awareness.