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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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CHAPTER TWO ELIZABETH BISHOP, NORTH AND SOUTH, AND GEOGRAPHY III 31

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Chapter Two ELIZABETH BISHOP, NORTH AND SOUTH, AND GEOGRAPHY III With Robert Lowell, we saw that the creation of Lord Weary’s Cas- tle was a furious obsession. No poem in the collection dates in any- thing near a final form from before 1939, and two-thirds of the poems in the collection were written between 1942 and 1945. With Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), the very subject of speech itself, in its connection to poetry, is troubled water: the poems in her first collection, North and South, which appeared the same year as Lowell’s first collection, date as far back as 1934, and are arranged roughly chronologically: “The Map,” which Bishop began in late 1934 during one of her more intense episodes of asthmatic illness, marks the collection as a twelve-year-long endeavor. Bishop’s exceptionally deliberate manner of composition might scarcely attract attention here except that the particular character of its reticence has, I think, been misunderstood. Perhaps no poet could mull over a poem for as long as Bishop (for example, “The Moose” begins in the summer of 1946 as a notebook entry when Bishop is revisiting her family home in Nova Scotia, but only comes to fruition 26 years later, in 1972, as Bishop’s Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard (Millier 183)). But the reasons for this method of composition have little to do, I think, either with a particu- lar kind of aesthetic refinement or with a tentativeness about finality. Rather, Bishop ironically represents in psychological terms a phe- nomenon that...

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