English Major Scores Unrue Award for Poetry Thesis

Kelly Wenzka ’22 synthesized theory from several disciplines to analyze tone of voice in Elizabeth Bishop's poetry.

By Anna Johnson | August 19, 2022

The email Kelly Wenzka ’22 received at the end of spring semester said two things, matter-of-factly: you’ve won an award, and here’s where to pick it up.

When the English major arrived at the Center for Life Beyond Reed to solve the mystery she discovered that her 97-page thesis, “Tumultuous Listening: Tone of Voice in Elizabeth Bishop's Poetry,” had won the John Gregory Unrue ’84 Memorial Award (with its $2,500 purse) for an outstanding thesis in the division of literature and languages. Then the significance of the achievement set in.

Kelly’s innovative thesis first caught the eye of her advisor Lisa Steinman [English & humanities 1976–2022], who nominated it for the award. Tone of voice in poetry is devilishly tricky to analyze, Kelly says, and few scholars have attempted it for the simple reason that no one has a solid definition for the wriggly little literary device. When it does appear in critical articles, the authors are usually playing fast and loose with terminology.

Thus, for her thesis, Kelly had to first roam far outside the realm of literature to gather foundational breadcrumbs of theory. She consulted expert voices in such varied fields as linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. She stitched together a working definition. And only then could she circle back to Bishop, applying this rich evolving knowledge through close readings of three poems.

It was uncharted academic territory, but Kelly didn’t know that originally and wasn’t daunted by it. She is a self-proclaimed “poetry girl” who was simply drawn to Elizabeth Bishop and a burning question: how does tone of voice show up in poetry, and how can it be recognized?

“You always wish that you could come to a concrete answer,” she says. “But as it goes with poetry, stable definitions are really hard. That was something Lisa and I were really trying to figure out–where that lack of stability puts us as researchers. And at the same time, knowing that just because it can be unstable doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be explored.”

The long hours spent noodling over poetry with the legendary Steinman were one reason Kelly found writing her thesis so enjoyable. The writing process also provided the welcome relief of stability during a difficult senior year.

Ultimately, she says, she was just pursuing a passion—and learning about herself—in the process. It wasn’t about getting into grad school or changing a discourse in academia, although it could.

“What Kelly has written is not only original but also promises ways in which it can be taken further in work on other poets and poems,”  Steinman said in her nomination letter. “What she brought to bear on the questions she raised adds new ideas about how literary criticism might treat lyric poetry, crafting the beginnings of a theoretically cogent, flexible framework for talking about tone of voice.”