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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 Five SYLVIA PLATH, THE COLOSSUS AND OTHER POEMS, AND ARIEL Although Frieda Plath Hughes’ Ariel: The Restored Edition has been in print since 2004, it is both important and irritating to observe that the edition of Ariel that most readers still have in mind is the “original” 1965 version, re-created by Ted Hughes from Plath’s man- uscript and with Robert Lowell’s introduction. Though Frieda Hughes’ restored edition of Ariel is the one that truly speaks back to the 1960-62 The Colossus and Other Poems, I want to open with Hughes’ version because its emphasis on the performativity of the first-person narrator is so striking. Moreover, it is clearly an autobio- graphical performativity: with “Morning Song,” about ambivalent motherhood, “The Couriers,” about betrayal, “Sheep in Fog,” about merging with the universe, “The Applicant,” about anonymity, and then the first show-stopper—“Lady Lazarus”—the order of the po- ems is absolutely arresting. It shows a first-person narrator in the act of laying out her compromised identity systematically, and it abso- lutely insists that the reader identify the author with this narrator. As Ted Hughes acknowledged in the 1982 Collected Poems, and as Frieda and Diane Middlebrook explain in more detail, respectively, in Ariel: The Restored Edition and Her Husband: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes: A Marriage, Hughes had a number of reasons for re-arranging what Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) had set out. As Frieda explains, In considering Ariel for publication my father had faced a dilemma. He was well aware of the...

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