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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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CODA ROBERT PINSKY, SADNESS AND HAPPINESS, AN EXPLANATION OF AMERICA, AND HISTORY OF MY HEART: STEPPING INTO THE LIGHT 131

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Coda ROBERT PINSKY, SADNESS AND HAPPINESS, AN EXPLANATION OF AMERICA, AND HISTORY OF MY HEART: STEPPING INTO THE LIGHT I wish to turn now to something I see as a complementary phe- nomenon to the relationship between first and last books—the mo- ment when, in a poet’s career, he or she suddenly apprehends the meaning of a life’s work, and clears a new literary space for that en- deavor. This phenomenon may seem tangential to the other studies in this book, because what is absent is precisely what is central about my earlier arguments—the dialogue between first and final text that liberates both text and author into a new dimension of authority up- on the death of the author. Stepping into the light might thus be seen as an intermediate stage, the moment when a set of phenomena la- tent in the first book coalesce around a new drama of possibility, and new experiments in poetry yield strikingly different results. Another way of considering this phenomenon owes a debt, like that of Ladis- laus Boros, to early Christian mysticism,1 and particularly to Grego- ry’s argument that spiritual insight occurs, not in blinding light, but rather in increasing and encompassing darkness, until—prefiguring medieval Islamic Sufism—one is “alone with the alone.” If one ima- gines the conversations between first and last books occurring in such a conceptual environment, their dialogue—finally audible to us—would otherwise take place unheard and unseen, as Gregory believed the most profound...

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