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Poets’ First and Last Books in Dialogue


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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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The idea for this book has hovered in the back of my mind since Robert Lowell’s Day by Day appeared in 1977, the year I was sup- posed to enroll as a transfer student in his workshop at Harvard; news of his death came the day I arrived in Cambridge. I have often read back through Day by Day since then, consistently startled at its difference from Lord Weary’s Castle but startled as well with ways in which it seemed to speak clearly to that first book. That pattern stayed in mind without my doing a thing about it. By the late 1970’s I had also come into contact with Ladislaus Boros’ The Mystery of Death, courtesy of my sister, the Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault. Bo- ros’ argument that only at the moment of death do we truly make the existential choice that defines our whole being has captivated me since then. Over time, these two ranges of observation—about poets’ careers, and about death as release and affirmation—began to coa- lesce around the idea of a special relationship between a first and last book. If Boros were right, then for a poet one aspect of this liberation might be the affirmation of a primal relationship between the poet’s last words and his or her first. As I thought further on this, it inter- ested me how those poets I myself most preferred—Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Thom Gunn, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes—all had...

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