Male Poets and the Agon of the Mother
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148 pages

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A thoughtful exploration of male poets' contributions to the literature of motherhood

In the late 1950s the notion of a "mother poem" emerged during a confessional literary movement that freed poets to use personal, psychosexual material about intimate topics such as parents, childhood, failed marriages, children, infidelity, and mental illness. In Male Poets and the Agon of the Mother, Hannah Baker Saltmarsh argues that male poets have contributed to what we think of as the literature of motherhood—that confessional and postconfessional modes have been formative in the way male poets have grappled with the stories of their mothers and how those stories reflect on the writers and their artistic identities.

Through careful readings of formative elegies and homages written by male poets of this time, Saltmarsh explores how they engaged with femininity and feminine voices in the 1950s and 60s and sheds light on the inheritance of confessional motifs of gender and language as demonstrated by postconfessional writers responding to the rich subject matter of motherhood within the contexts of history, myth, and literature.

A foreword is provided by Jo Gill, professor of twentieth-century and American literature in the Department of English and associate dean for education at the University of Exeter.



Publié par
Date de parution 23 avril 2019
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611179699
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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Male Poets and the Agon of the Mother
Male Poets and the Agon of the Mother
Hannah Baker Saltmarsh
Foreword by Jo Gill
2019 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at .
ISBN 978-1-61117-968-2 (hardback)
ISBN 978-1-61117-969-9 (ebook)
FRONT COVER PHOTOGRAPH : Arrangement in Green and Black #3, Portrait of the Photographer s Mother , Aline Smithson,
For Jay and our children, Juliet, Chadwick, and Scarlett
My halflife and my own as hers.
Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That s his.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Foreword Jo Gill
Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction: At the Center of How I Think My Life -My Mother
One. And, moreover / My Mother Says : Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Confessional Maternity
Two. Freaked in the Moon Brain : Allen Ginsberg and Frank Bidart-Confessing Crazy Mothers
Three. Postconfessional Stories: C. K. Williams and Robert Hass on Maternal Breasts and Mouths
Four. Yellow Flowers with Mouths like where / Babies come from : Yusef Komunyakaa s Innuendos, Ideas, and Insinuations about Motherhood
Five. And all this time I ve stayed awake with you : Romanticism in Stanley Plumly s Maternal Metaphor
Six. I am made by her, and undone : An Anglo-American Coda; or, Thom Gunn Undone
Conclusion: You still haven t finished with your mother -Men Constructing a Poetics of Motherhood
When looking back today on the American poetry of the second half of the twentieth century, we see that for many of the major-and still dominant-poets of the period, the confessional mode was a vital force. It made-and, of course, was shaped by-Robert Lowell, whose 1959 Life Studies prompted the delineation of the style. It galvanized Sylvia Plath, sustained Anne Sexton, and provided a useful countertradition even for those who never identified themselves as confessional (most obviously Elizabeth Bishop). It also proved fundamental to the careers of many poets of the next generation (including Thom Gunn and Sharon Olds)-even as such successors to the original school spent much of their time resisting, or at least rethinking, the terms of the debate.
So far so familiar. Hannah Saltmarsh s valuable intervention in Male Poets and the Agon of the Mother: Contexts in Confessional and Postconfessional Poetry introduces a particular aspect or nuance of this kind of poetry (the representation of the mother in the work of male poets spanning some five decades) and thereby opens up a new and fruitful way of reading what we might have thought was a well-known, perhaps even exhausted, field of enquiry. Her important book joins several other recent studies-Deborah Nelson s Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America , Gillian White s Lyric Shame , and my own Anne Sexton s Confessional Poetics -in asking us to think again about the nature, focus, and significance of confessional and postconfessional writing in the postwar years.
Saltmarsh s study draws on a wide range of poets-some familiar in this context (John Berryman, Robert Lowell); others less so (Ginsberg, who tends elsewhere to be identified first as a Beat and only tangentially as a confessional); and some that are rarely considered in this context (Yusef Komunyakaa and Stanley Plumly). Saltmarsh sets the poets and their critics in the complex and changing context in which they wrote and were read. In establishing this background, Saltmarsh is refreshingly attentive to questions of race, class, sexuality, gender, place, and-perhaps most suggestively-religion. She notes that female matrilineage (or the way in which women poets have talked about mothers and mothering) has long been recognized as a poetic trope and an object of critical enquiry. Her study is informed by and respectful of this tradition, but it goes beyond the terms of this debate in its scrutiny of what this relationship has meant to male poets and of how they have handled it in their writing. The result is an engrossing and thought-provoking reading of these individual poets work and of the operation of the confessional and postconfessional lyric more broadly.
The first part of the book looks to poets of the first generation, including Berryman and Lowell, and asks what mother-son relationships tell us about the preoccupations of confessional poetry and conversely what confessional poetry discloses about the nature of the mother-son bond in this period. Saltmarsh draws on the scholarship that first defined and then critiqued the mode-the work of M. L. Rosenthal, for example, who claims to have coined the term confessional poetry in his review of Life Studies , and Helen Vendler, whose deployment of the concept of the Freudian lyric made explicit that which had otherwise been left unsaid. But Saltmarsh also moves us beyond the concerns of the original confessional moment and suggests some new ways of seeing, for example through the lens of more recent psychoanalytic thinkers, including Adam Phillips and Jessica Benjamin. In the case of Berryman and Lowell, as indeed with respect to the other poets in the book, Saltmarsh is interested in tracing both the threads that link poems and poets and the points of divergence or separation.
Perhaps inevitably, the elegy features prominently throughout the study, as exemplified in the work of Lowell, Ginsberg, Frank Bidart, and Thom Gunn. Concerns about decorum, appropriateness, privacy, and revelation come with the elegy. As Saltmarsh shows, such concerns have long been at issue in confessional and postconfessional writing, but here, where the son (or more properly the voice of a son) is addressing the mother (or the persona of a mother), the tensions and risks of these issues are particularly acute. It is as though the son must face these challenges in order to assume the subjectivity he seeks. In extreme and visible form, the reader sees the guilt, the self-consciousness, and the deep uncertainty about the ethics of the process that always pertain in confessional discourse. Saltmarsh does not shy away from addressing these; in chapter 3 she looks unflinchingly at the voyeurism, objectification, aggression, and shame that attend many of these representations, and she asks us to think about responsibility and debt. Who owes what to whom? What do sons owe to their mothers? What do poets owe to their subjects? What is our role as readers?
These questions are expanded in the closing section of the book with its discussion of two lesser-known poets, Yusef Komunyakaa and Stanley Plumly. Saltmarsh takes on what is as yet an unexplored theme in Komunyakaa s work-that of the situation of the mother-and asks us to consider the complexities of race, class, ethnicity, and culture as they shape the mother-son relationship and thereby his poetics. Here probing questions about audience that have hitherto been implicit, come to the fore. In her chapter on Plumly, Saltmarsh shows how poetic engagement between sons and mothers has changed over the decades since the first generation of confessional writers, even as Plumly reaches further back still to the legacy of romanticism. What we see in Plumly s meditations on suffering, loss, and death is a reclamation of the possibilities of the lyric mode.
Finally Saltmarsh turns to the work of Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn and offers a sensitive reading of two poems, Mother s Pride and The Gas-poker, with a particular emphasis on the games that they play with language, structure, and address. These are pressing concerns for all confessional (and indeed postconfessional) poets. Saltmarsh s fine close reading of the poems demonstrates that Gunn-like the other poets discussed in the book-engages the memory of his mother at least in part as a way of establishing his own poetic subjectivity. In this respect we arrive at a knowing and suggestive reversal of the closing insight of Anne Sexton s acclaimed poem The Double Image, addressed to her own daughter: I made you to find me.
Jo Gill
My obsession with male poets mothers was inspired by Michael Collier while I was doing an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Maryland. Collier s recitation of song 14 in a poetry workshop sparked my interest in the work of John Berryman. While I was at Maryland, in Dr. Sheila Jelen s Holocaust literature course, I started thinking about the incorporeal presence of the mother-son bond in Holocaust texts and the longing expressed by men for their mothers, especially since prisoners were separated by gender in the camps. I moved to England and at the University of York I began to explore how male poets approached the intimate subject of their own mothers in their poems. As a young woman with three brothers, I felt drawn to this subject by my own need at the time to imagine and question what seemed like the most intense and unknowable human relationship. No matter the issues or histories of mothers and sons in the poems I read, it seemed to me that the mother-son couple emerged with richly discovered empathy, sacred praise, an insider language, an ars poetica , or at least clarity about one other, even if it sometimes seemed hurtful and self-incriminating.
Years later, when I was the mother of two small children, I became fascinated with the ways in which my lively young children, Juliet and Chadwick, embodied the beauty of creativity, in

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