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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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INTRODUCTION This book concerns itself with the relationship between the first and the last text a poet produces. In the pages that follow, I explore the possibility that first and last texts are in a specific kind of dia- logue that to some extent—at times to an absolute extent—excludes the intermediate texts. I am especially interested in whatever it is we may find in such a dialogue that we find nowhere else. Unlike Law- rence Lipking’s slim yet visionary volume from 1981, The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending Poetic Careers, this book is not primarily about the biographical implications of beginnings and endings, alt- hough biographical details will of course be everywhere apparent. This book is about how pairs of texts speak to one another across time. It would appear, then, that this book is a study in intertexuality, and to some extent that is true. One thinks, for example, of Julia Kris- teva’s “poetic language,” its “intersection of textual surfaces” that include the writer, the one to whom the writing is addressed, and the texts implicated in the new text: Horizontal access (subject-addressee) and vertical axis (text-context) coin- cide, bringing to light an important fact: each word (text) is an intersection of word (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read. In Bahk- tin’s work, these two axes, which he calls dialogue and ambivalence, are not clearly distinguished. Yet, what appears as a lack of rigour is in fact an in- sight...

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