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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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Chapter One ROBERT LOWELL, LORD WEARY’S CASTLE, AND DAY BY DAY A generation ago, the thought that Robert Lowell (1917-1977) re- quired some introduction would have been ludicrous. In 1970 Low- ell’s work to that point—including Lord Weary’s Castle, The Mills of the Kavanaghs, Life Studies, Phaedra, Imitations, For the Union Dead, The Old Glory, Near the Ocean, and the 1969 and 1970 versions of Notebooks— set a standard for stylistic and intellectual innovation that challenged both his contemporaries and the next generation of poets.1 The sixth Poet Laureate of the United States, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize—in 1947 and 1974—and, briefly, advisor to the 1968 presiden- tial candidate Eugene McCarthy, Lowell came from a background of historic American privilege, even as his own poems meditated on the decline of the Lowells and the Winslows as part of a larger vision of American decline. Now, it seems, though Lowell’s presence in con- temporary anthologies is only slightly diminished, he is known less for his own work and more for the specific historical moment of his workshop at Boston University in 1957, in which Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton both were students. I begin with him in part to attempt to rectify this oversight and in part because of the intrinsic drama of the way in which his first and final texts speak across time. It may seem dubious at the outset to argue that Robert Lowell’s first book was Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946, when in...

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