Posts Tagged ‘supplementary long poem’

Supplementary Reading Report on “The Book of Nightmares” by Galway Kinnell

Monday, March 18th, 2013

         The Book of Nightmares is a long poem that is filled with images as chilling as its title implies. Through a dichotomy of a few joyous events against abundant descriptions of the terrors of death and the risks involved with love, Kinnell presents a warning against violence in an already fragile state of being. Although this long poem is presented in ten separate sections of seven smaller poems each, all of them are woven together with repeated images and themes to create a coherent projection of the realities present within Kinnell’s dream world of nightmares.

Kinnell dedicated The Book of Nightmares to his children and makes reference to them throughout the work. Maud, his daughter, is present in the title of the first section of the poem, “Under the Maud Moon.” In this section, songs and singing are a common and repeating occurrence. Although Kinnell associates singing as a method of comforting a child who has awoken from a nightmare, he also pairs songs with language such as “she sucks air, screams her first song” (6), and “one of the songs I used to croak” (4). This is the first example of the constant dichotomy present throughout The Book of Nightmares. While Kinnell recognizes the beauty and joy of life, and wants his children to as well, he also makes sure not to romanticize the reality of inevitable death. This is why he places negative and positive language next to each other so frequently. This is demonstrated again in the final stanza of the poem when Kinnell addresses his son saying,


“Sancho Fergus! Don’t cry!


Or else, cry.


On the body,

on the blued flesh, when it is

laid out, see if you can find

the one flea which is laughing” (75).


Even though Kinnell mentions the “blued flesh” and the desire to cry over the loss of a loved one, he hopes that his son can find laughter and joy in what is left behind in life.

Overall, I believe that being able to find joy in the face of imminent loss and death is the overarching theme of the poem. Kinnell shows how difficult this can be through all the images of the nightmare world he has created, acknowledging that while there are terrors involved with life it is worth it to try and get past them. In order to achieve this, Kinnell has put repeating nightmares throughout his work, but he has placed them alongside some repeated images of joy and hope. For example, some of the most common symbols that are constantly appearing are those of blood, fire, birth and wings- a dichotomy of destruction and hope.

The raging fires and blood seem to represent the violence that is constant in the world, which is why I believe Kinnell uses the images so repeatedly. Kinnell urges readers to see how destructive fire and violence is but he also recognizes that conflicts such as war are inevitable in the world we live in. Considering that The Book of Nightmares was published in 1971, it is inevitable that the Vietnam War must have influenced Kinnell’s writing. This idea of consistency is presented eloquently when Kinnell writes, “the chameleon longing to be changed would remain the color of blood,” (13) in one of many references to blood. One reference to fire comes directly from a battlefield when a soldier cries out, “This corpse will not stop burning” (41). This is found in the sixth section of the poem, and also references the bloodthirsty nature of the Christian man that has been present throughout history (42-44). These images of war and death are combated with talk of wings and birth. As I mentioned before, Kinnell makes sure to include the joy his children bring him in the poem. He also includes images such as “the dead wings creaked open as she soared” (14). This image is particularly hopeful because it suggests that even after death there is beauty to be found and that death should not be feared.

I noticed the idea of palimpsest present once again within this long poem. The first reference I found was in in the “Maud Moon” section when Kinnell writes,


“The raindrops trying

to put the fire out

fall into it and are

changed: the oath broken,

the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit, broken,

to be sworn again,

over and over, in the clouds, and to be broken again,

over and over, on earth” (4).


I noticed it again in the third section of the poem, “The Shoes of Wandering,” in which Kinnell describes the sensation of buying a pair of used shoes at a thrift store and walking “on the steppingstones of someone else’s wandering” (19).

The theme continues in images of hens that are also found throughout the work. The first reference to a hen comes in the second section of the poem when Kinnell writes, “ready or not the next egg, bobbling its globe of golden earth, skids forth, ridding her even of the life to come” (12). They basically represent the idea that even though the hens will die, they leave behind eggs that will hatch into hens that will later leave more eggs. It is very much the idea of the circle of life, and that although there is death, there is also life. The section that this excerpt is found in is titled “The Hen Flower,” and is also the start of many references to blooming and flowers. The seeds that flowers leave behind, even after their death, once again evoke the cyclical nature of life.

In terms of the long poems we have been studying this semester, I found the most similarities between The Book of Nightmares and Elliot’s The Waste Land. Both men present a harsh world, covered in ash, and presented through smaller sections that weave together in one large, haunting picture. Both of the author’s had seen the effects of war and death on individuals and the crises death can create within people. As Kinnell puts it, “Living brings you to death, there is no other road” (73). In The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell gives readers the challenge to approach death as joyously as possible, since it is the only possible destination in the end anyways.

Katie’s Supplementary Long Poem – Anne Sexton’s “The Fury” Sequence

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Sexton is often hailed as the mother of confessional poetry; as she trail blazed the way for women to openly write about women’s issues taboo for the time period. Sexton uses her body and surroundings as the vehicle in which she deconstructs the male canon of the time and gains her self-agency by doing so. What makes the confessional female poet so intriguing is not only the intersection of her physical/emotional body and the physical world around her, but the collision of the two within that intersected world, providing insights of the raw pain and beauty of being a woman. Sexton’s authority on women’s issues, and most importantly, her own issues, allow readers a never-before-seen glimpse into the honest and raw life of a woman of the time period. Sexton writes poetry in the time of the focus on the nuclear family, when the continued stereotype was that of the good housewife, doting mother, dutiful Christian; something she made clear within her poetry that she could clearly never be.
The confessions of confessional poetry come from the usage of “I,” allowing Sexton the freedom to consciously transform herself before herself and her readers. Sexton’s standard themes include God, depression, suicide, rage, drug addiction, homosexuality, and loneliness. Her work is ultimately the experience of being a woman, and it includes many key sub issues important to women such as sex, menstruation, abortion, infidelity, and masturbation, as well as amazing symbolism of earth, understanding of death, and God.
The “Fury” sequence is comprised of 15 raw and powerful poems that were published in a later collection in 1974 titled, “The Death Notebooks” in which readers questioned a decline in the quality of her poetry. This was the first collection of poetry published after her divorce from her husband, as well as the last publication before her suicide. Her mental decline can be felt while flipping through every page, as an unapologetic experience of what she was enduring.
Sexton uses the power and experimentation of self to explore the experience of what it is to be an American woman. Although the reader understands her femininity, quarrels with religion and male entitlement, as well as her struggle with simply being a woman alive in the times, the collection is impossibly personal in nature and the poems read complex and elusive. The metaphors and extreme symbolism confirm that Sexton is the ultimate high priestess of the confessional poetry genre, but ultimately leaves readers searching for answers and hidden meanings. Specifically in her “Fury” sequence, she interweaves many themes and symbols, most notably (and reoccurring) are her search for God ( [The Fury of] “Beautiful Bones,” “Hating Eyes,” “Guitars and Sopranos,” “Earth,” “Cook,” “Cocks,” “Abandonment,” “Overshoes,” “Flowers and Worms,” “God’s Goodbye,” “Sundays,” “Sunsets,” and “Sunrises,”) the supreme power of woman/women’s sexuality/fertility and earth (“Guitars and Sopranos,” “Earth,” “Jewels and Coal,” “Cocks,” Rainstorms,” “Flowers and Worms,” “Sundays,” “Sunsets,” and “Sunrises.”)
Sexton arduously struggles with her understandings of God as the creator and Jesus as the son, questioning continuously for answers, as well as leading readers to wonder their beliefs. At the time of Sexton’s writing of the poems, religion was something still rather imposed on women. Sexton blatantly questions it and pays her odd respects to it, as well as pushes the envelope of appropriateness with her usage of sexuality and religion together within the confines of her poetry. Within the 15 poem sequence, “God” is directly used 17 times. There are also many other religious metaphors (day of fire, Gethsemane, male privilege/position of power, etc.)
Expression of sexuality is incredibly prevalent within all of Sexton’s poetry, and is specifically confronted in “The Fury of Guitars and Sopranos” and “The Fury of Sundays.” In guitars, she refers to a “dream-mother nursing a guitar” and introduction of a “flute” is immediately providing the reader with enough information to understand the yonic and phallic symbolism of the instruments. The introduction and description of the “beautiful woman” is overtly sexual, as Sexton describes her sensually, referring to her feminine features (sand with her fingertips/her eyes were brown like small birds) and becomes Sapphic in context. She relates her sexual relationship with the woman lover to that of Jesus in the sense of her providing and drawing food (figs) and drink (wine) from her “breasts/mound” which is evidence of a woman being capable of providing/assuming the Jesus role. She then relates her experience to a morning glory which is symbolic of the fleeting nature of love. In “Sundays” she brilliantly uses sexually connoted language such as “heat,” “moist,” “throb” in her description of a hot July day shared between herself, another female and a male companion.
Sexton’s use of God throughout her poetry signifies an understanding of the connection between life and death, and the parallels between God the creator versus woman as the creator. The main imagery she uses is death imagery, earth imagery, or God imagery, all of which are similar and easily connected. The reader observes death imagery in eight poems within this sequence, earth imagery in eleven poems, and God imagery in fourteen poems.
The best and most important example of the mashing of religion and sexuality is displayed in “The Fury of Cocks”. The poem combines religious experience with sexual encounters, Sexton writes lines like “When they fuck they are God/all the cocks of the world are God/blooming, blooming, blooming, into the sweet blood of woman” providing the reader with the understanding that although God creates, so does woman. This combination of controversial ideas allows Sexton to explore her boundary pushing in a way that opens reader’s minds to wonder who the (more important) creator really is.
Sexton’s work is very relatable to that of Walt Whitman’s in the sense of the focus on body imagery and divine power and influence. Whitman famously discussed the connection of the spiritual and physical being saying, “I am the poet of the body / and I am the poet of the soul” (85) and Sexton acknowledges that she is focused on this as well, openly interested, “I wonder about this lifetime with myself, this dream I’m living” (372). Whereas Whitman writes “Song of Myself,” Sexton pens the songs of women, allowing for the similarities to be seen and connection to be made between them.
Sexton’s poetry somewhat contradicts my idea of what a typical long poem truly is (what we’ve read and learned in class has solely been the mainstay for my understanding of the genre thus far.) I chose her because her writing is perfect to me; metaphors readily available upon the surface combined with expertly hidden, deep symbolism. Sexton really makes the reader do the research to further understand the depths of her genius, and it’s incredibly rewarding. This sequence is different than anything we have explored so far this semester because it is broken into fifteen shorter poems that when put together, constitute a technical long poem. Whereas H.D. or Walcott have long poems separated into different sections or books, Sexton has a collection. Sexton’s formation of her poetry is something I am unfamiliar with at this point in my academic poetry career. The one thing that really speaks to me about Sexton is that she’s so relatable, yet so untouchable. She discusses what a common yet unique experience being a woman is, allowing the reader to assimilate with the universal experience. She was a visionary, which ultimately lead to her early death by her own hand.


Sexton, Anne. The Death Notebooks. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. New York: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.

Jen’s Supplementary Long Poem Report: Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Like many of the other modernist poets of his day, Wallace Stevens wrote during a period in American history marked by war, chaos, and religious disillusionment. Published in 1942 during the midst of the Second World War, Stevens’ poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” claims its place in the lineage of modernist poems that have strived to create a “poem equivalent to the idea of God” (Carroll). When considering the title of the poem, close attention to Stevens’ word choices is important. According to critic Keith Booker, the poem is a collection of “notes” because the idea is still undeveloped and “toward” a supreme fiction because the goal is ultimately unattainable (1). Thus, although Wallace Stevens strives to offer a criterion for what the “supreme fiction” must be, his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” does not claim to recognize this fiction. While Stevens shares the modernist fascination with finding definitive answers, he also realizes that the “supreme fiction” can never be attained due to the limitations of personal perception. It seems that in the process of trying to define the “supreme fiction,” Stevens discovers that the long poem, as a genre, cannot provide an ultimate “set of beliefs” or “model for living” for all humanity; instead, the genre must attempt to present the multiplicity of “fictions” that readers perceive (Miller13).

Stevens shares in many of the forms typical of modernist poetry, and it is this form that reinforces the fragmentation and multiplicity of our imagined or fictitious realities. Like Eliot’s “fragments” and Pound’s “Cantos,” “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is structured as a series of lyrics that Stevens calls mere “notes.” The work is composed of a prologue, thirty lyrics divided into three distinct sections, and a final epilogue. Furthermore, each lyric is composed of seven stanzas of three verses in a meter resembling iambic pentameter. Despite this seemingly regular meter and form, the structure of events is not linear and multiple voices are present. While the primary voice in the poem is that of the master poet addressing the “ephebe,” or lyricist-to-be, other characters like MacCullough and Canon Aspirin drive the narration as well. The narrative streams intersect and have no clear beginning and end. In addition, a shifting “you” throughout the poem allows the speakers’ audience to take on many identities, often making it unclear whether the ephebe, a group of poets, or the reader is being addressed. This emphasis on heteroglosia and shifting identities, consistent with works like “The Wasteland” and Montage of a Dream Deferred, reinforces the realization that the “Supreme Fiction”—the master narrative of reality—is ultimately unattainable.

While form and structure are important to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Stevens’ ideas about the power of language and the limitations of personal perception are the poem’s defining elements, as well as the thematic threads that run throughout modernist poetry. In fact, critic James Miller considers Stevens’ poem “a focal point for the discussion of the theory of an American long poem,” for the “supreme fiction” that Stevens strives to define is the very thing that other modernist poets like Whitman and Eliot had tried to create with their poetry (21). Thus, in a very metafiction-like way, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a poem about writing poetry—a poem that prescribes that the “supreme fiction” “Be abstract,” “Change,” and “Give Pleasure.” In the first section of the poem, the master poet challenges the ephebe to “[perceive] the idea/ Of this invention, this invented world” (3). Immediately, Stevens reminds us about the fiction of our reality—that reality, as we perceive it, is something the human imagination has invented. This notion of invention is reminiscent of the themes of rewriting and revision that we encountered in H.D.’s Trilogy. Similarly, another moment of parallel comes as the master poet expresses the same hesitations that H.D’s speaker has about naming, saying, “But Phoebus was/ A name for something that never could be named” (16-17). In these lines, in particular, we can see that Stevens was heavily influenced by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche deconstructs language, asking, “What is a word…[but] the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus?” (2). Thus, if Stevens agrees that a word cannot adequately describe the essence of the concept it conveys, then he also comes to realize that a group of words, or even a group of lyrics, can not adequately present a single “truth” about the essence of reality.

Stevens builds upon these ideas in his second and third criteria for “the supreme fiction.” In the section titled “It must change,” the master poet again struggles with the elusive nature of reality. He contemplates how he is to reveal “the uncertain light of a single, certain truth,” and comes to realize the impossibility of the task (2). When reflecting on the inexorable connection between personal perception and reality, the speaker acknowledges, “These external regions, what do we fill them with/ Except reflections” (30). Here, Stevens concedes that poetry, literature, or anything that tries to define reality is limited by individual experience. Like many other modernist poets, Stevens grapples with the role of poet as a “potential configurer of public consciousness” (Schlosser 78). In the final epilogue or coda, he addresses a soldier—symbolically, the ephebe at war with the poetic task at hand—and effectively fuses the public notion of war with the very private and personal process of poetic expression. Thus, although he acknowledges the poet’s power, Stevens also acknowledges the poet’s limitations in using personal perceptions to represent the “supreme” and shared public reality of their time.

Although Steven’s poem abounds with dense philosophical imagery, dissecting some of his themes can help to create a lens through which we can read other modernist works. His form and central arguments reveal that the long poem is a genre obsessed with the dream of providing America with a “Supreme Fiction.” Perhaps the reality is that the “Supreme Fiction” is merely unattainable. This analysis only scratches the surface of all that could be said about Steven’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” Although Stevens seems to raise more questions than he answers, his poem can help us to determine both the functions and limitations of the long poem as a genre.

Works Cited

Carroll, Joseph. Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State Univ., 1987. Print.

M. Keith Booker. “Notes Toward a Lacanian Reading of Wallace Stevens.” Journal of Modern Literature. JSTOR. 16 March 2013. Web.

Miller, James E, Jr. The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman’s Legacy in the Personnal Epic. Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1979. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” Interactive Media Research Library. Utah State University. 16 March 2013. Web.

Stevens, Wallace. Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Online Resources. Howard University. 12 March 2013. Web.