In different voices : form, identity, and the twentieth-century American persona poem

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2015-05

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Frye, Elizabeth Bradford

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Abstract

In arguing for the persona poem as a viable tradition in American literature, Elizabeth Frye reconstructs a lineage of dramatic poetry that spans the entire twentieth century. Through comparative studies of canonical poets predominately working in the aftermath of high modernism, she examines several significant performances and contends that the genre persists as a site of necessary and complicated cross-identifications. Chapter One elucidates the profound connection between Langston Hughes’s and Gwendolyn Brooks’s use of the persona poem and the Great Migration. Frye understands the blues-inflected utterances of Hughes’s collection Fine Clothes to the Jew as deeply invested in formal itinerancy and geographic indeterminacy. Similarly, she suggests that Brooks’s dramatic projections of American soldiers in the aftermath of World War II betray the poets’ dual obsessions with large-scale migration and polyvocality. Chapter Two continues to treat the persona poem as a socially invested phenomenon. Frye reads the gendered vulnerability in scenes of nascent national development in John Berryman’s “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” and Robert Hayden’s “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley” as a response to the horrors of World War II and the transatlantic slave trade. Chapter Three scrutinizes the “confessional” paradigm by revisiting the other voices and other selves that recurrently interrupt Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. By insisting on the importance of dramatic poetry in these collections, Frye further complicates the frequently invoked conflict between impersonality and personality. Finally, a coda recognizes the work of Natasha Trethewey and Elizabeth Alexander as indicative of the contemporary gravitation toward the persona poem. She positions Trethewey and Alexander as the heirs to several poets whose poems are discussed in this study. In detecting a sense of bereavement in these poets’ willfully incomplete projects of recovery, Frye proposes that the persona poem is not only a powerful tool of historical engagement, but a means of critically examining the limits of both literary community and communion with the past.

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