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Poets’ First and Last Books in Dialogue

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Thomas Simmons

A poet’s œuvre is typically studied as an arc from the first work to the last work, including everything in between as a manifestation of some advance or reversal. What if the primary relationship in a poet’s œuvre is actually between the first and last text, with those two texts sharing a compelling private language? What if, read separately from the other work, the first and last books reveal some new phenomenon about both the struggles and the achievement of the poet?
Drawing on phenomenological and intertextual theories from Ladislaus Boros, Julia Kristeva, Theodor Adorno, and Peter Galison, Poets’ First and Last Books in Dialogue examines the relevant texts of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Thom Gunn, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. In each of these poets’ first books, Thomas Simmons examines both the evidence of some new phenomenon and a limit or unsolved problem that finds its resolution only in a specific conversation with the final text. By placing the texts in dialogue, Simmons unveils a new internal language in the work of these groundbreaking poets. The character of this illumination expands in a coda on Robert Pinsky, whose career is particularly marked by what neurologist Antonio Damasio calls the moment of «stepping into the light.»

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CONTENTS

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS xi INTRODUCTION 1 CHAPTER ONE ROBERT LOWELL, LORD WEARY’S CASTLE, AND DAY BY DAY 13 CHAPTER TWO ELIZABETH BISHOP, NORTH AND SOUTH, AND GEOGRAPHY III 31 CHAPTER THREE ANNE SEXTON, TO BEDLAM AND PART WAY BACK, AND THE AWFUL ROWING TOWARD GOD 49 POETS’ FIRST AND LAST BOOKS IN DIALOGUE x CHAPTER FOUR THOM GUNN, FIGHTING TERMS, AND THE MAN WITH NIGHT SWEATS 67 CHAPTER FIVE SYLVIA PLATH, THE COLOSSUS AND OTHER POEMS, AND ARIEL 89 CHAPTER SIX TED HUGHES, THE HAWK IN THE RAIN, AND BIRTHDAY LETTERS 109 CODA ROBERT PINSKY, SADNESS AND HAPPINESS, AN EXPLANATION OF AMERICA, AND HISTORY OF MY HEART: STEPPING INTO THE LIGHT 131 BIBLIOGRAPHY 149 INDEX 161

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