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Last Looks, Last Books

Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill

Helen Vendler
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 176
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    Last Looks, Last Books
    Book Description:

    InLast Looks, Last Books, the eminent critic Helen Vendler examines the ways in which five great modern American poets, writing their final books, try to find a style that does justice to life and death alike. With traditional religious consolations no longer available to them, these poets must invent new ways to express the crisis of death, as well as the paradoxical coexistence of a declining body and an undiminished consciousness. InThe Rock, Wallace Stevens writes simultaneous narratives of winter and spring; inAriel, Sylvia Plath sustains melodrama in cool formality; and inDay by Day, Robert Lowell subtracts from plenitude. InGeography III, Elizabeth Bishop is both caught and freed, while James Merrill, inA Scattering of Salts, creates a series of self-portraits as he dies, representing himself by such things as a Christmas tree, human tissue on a laboratory slide, and the evening/morning star. The solution for one poet will not serve for another; each must invent a bridge from an old style to a new one. Casting a last look at life as they contemplate death, these modern writers enrich the resources of lyric poetry.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3432-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction: Last Looks, Last Books
    (pp. 1-24)

    There is a custom in Ireland called “taking the last look.” When you find yourself bedridden, with death approaching, you rouse yourself with effort and, for the last time, make the rounds of your territory, North, East, South, West, as you contemplate the places and things that have constituted your life. After this last task, you can return to your bed and die. W. B. Yeats recalls in letters how his friend Lady Gregory, dying of breast cancer, performed her version of the last look. Although for months she had remained upstairs in her bedroom, three days before she died...

  5. 2 Looking at the Worst: Wallace Stevens’s The Rock
    (pp. 25-46)

    Wallace Stevens had always refused to yield to Alfred Knopf’s desire for aCollected Poems;such a volume, Stevens must have felt, would impose a premature closure on his writing life. But finally, after completing a group of new poems—to be calledThe Rock—and fearing (with reason) that he would not live to write another book, Stevens allowed the publication of hisCollected Poems,which appeared (by Alfred Knopf’s decision) on Stevens’s seventy-fifth birthday, October 2, 1954. Ten months later, Stevens died of advanced stomach cancer. During the five years preceding his death, as we can see from...

  6. 3 The Contest of Melodrama and Restraint: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel
    (pp. 47-69)

    In Sylvia Plath’s juvenilia, we can see that the chief danger to her style is restraint: formality encases her emotions. And yet her style was endangered equally—once she allowed emotion its freedom—by a theatricalizing melodrama. Both of these dangers always hovered over her poetry, and no one—as we can see in her journals and letters—was more aware of their perils than she. She died a suicide at thirty, but the fact of death, and death as a subject of expression, had preoccupied her from the time she was eight, when her father died in a fashion...

  7. 4 Images of Subtraction: Robert Lowell’s Day by Day
    (pp. 70-93)

    In his last book,Day by Day,Robert Lowell, when confronting life with anticipated death, made such poems persuasive by setting, against the completions achieved in life, multiple images of subtraction.Day by Daywas published in September 1977, just before Lowell died, at sixty, of a heart attack. Although his death appeared premature, he had expected its arrival, as his medical history, his poems, and his late letters reveal; both of his parents had died at sixty, and he had already, in January 1977, been hospitalized for congestive heart disease. He had lived impetuously in his last seven years,...

  8. 5 Caught and Freed: Elizabeth Bishop and Geography III
    (pp. 94-116)

    Elizabeth Bishop’s last published book, the 1976Geography III,was not composed in any knowledge of certain death; Bishop died suddenly, two years after the appearance of that collection, at sixty-eight. Nonetheless, she was writing several of its poems—and other poems composed after its publication, to be included here—with approaching death in mind. My title “Caught and Freed” in fact comes from one such poem, called “Sonnet,” concerning the moment when the poet, after death, becomes her poems. I begin, however, with a failed poem, the 1974 “Breakfast Song,” from a recent edition containing Bishop’s manuscript drafts that...

  9. 6 Self-Portraits While Dying: James Merrill and A Scattering of Salts
    (pp. 117-142)

    By the time James Merrill was writing his last volume,A Scattering of Salts(1995), he had been ill for several years with AIDS. And although he died of a heart attack after treatment for an infection, death by one cause or another was not, as he knew, far off.A Scattering of Saltsis suffused with forms of farewell in many lyric genres, including several last looks by the poet at himself. When we think of successive self-portraits in painting, Rembrandt is the model; but unlike a painter, a poet is not restricted in self-portraiture to depicting only the...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 143-148)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 149-152)