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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 THREE ANNE SEXTON, TO BEDLAM AND PART WAY BACK, AND THE AWFUL ROWING TOWARD GOD 49

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Chapter Three ANNE SEXTON, TO BEDLAM AND PART WAY BACK, AND THE AWFUL ROWING TOWARD GOD Which book is Anne Sexton’s last? The last book Anne Sexton (1928-1974) actually saw all the way through production was the 1974 The Death Notebooks. Prior to that text she had created, between January 10 and January 30 1973, thirty-nine poems, “a whole vol- ume” as Diane Middlebrook points out; these were to be The Awful Rowing toward God, which entered production following The Death Notebooks. Sexton had a luncheon date on Friday, October 4, 1974, with her old friend and compatriot Maxine Kumin; it was a working luncheon, as they were reviewing the proofs of The Awful Rowing to- ward God. Later that afternoon, vodka in hand, Sexton went out to the closed garage, got in her 1967 Mercury Cougar, and turned it on. By dinnertime she was dead. Rocketed into the overwhelming task, at the age of 21, of being her mother’s literary executor, Linda Gray Sex- ton released another volume of poems, 45 Mercy Street, in 1976, with this introduction: Anne Sexton’s voice did not cease with her death. She left two unpublished manuscripts: 45 Mercy Street and an untitled binder full of new poems. Alt- hough she considered the first collection “complete,” she was still revising it at the time of her death. In June of 1974, she wrote to her literary agent: “I have actually finished another book, 45 Mercy Street, but am glad to have the time to...

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