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

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2011

Hardcover | 2010 | $29.95 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691145341
168 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
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Helen Vendler
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In Last 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. In The Rock, Wallace Stevens writes simultaneous narratives of winter and spring; in Ariel, Sylvia Plath sustains melodrama in cool formality; and in Day by Day, Robert Lowell subtracts from plenitude. In Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop is both caught and freed, while James Merrill, in A 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.


"Close reading of poems, especially for nonacademic audiences, is hard to find. This makes Helen Vendler's Last Looks, Last Books an attractive proposition. Vendler, long a tastemaker equally respected inside and outside the academy, wants to find out how her subjects 'do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit.'"--Daisy Fried, New York Times Book Review

"[A] book that needs to be read and heeded."--Peter Brooks, New York Review of Books

"Helen Vendler is our great biographer of the poem. . . . Her lucid, plain-spoken narratives make the poem seem as engrossing as a 'life of the poet' tale."--David Gewanter, Times Higher Education

"Vendler convincingly demonstrates how this liminal moment demanded that each poet render a new style in his or her verse. By illuminating the varied and fluid poetic equilibrium between life and death in her precise, nuanced readings, Vendler shapes the reader's own last look at a major vein of American poetry."--Choice

"[A] sumptuous banquet."--John Cunningham, Rain Taxi Review of Books

"Vendler's insightful critical study is essential for lovers of these American poets. . . . Vendler makes an especially important case for Lowell . . . and thus provides readers a new means of appreciating these late poems."--Stephan Delbos, Prague Post

"Last Looks, Last Books is a valuable contribution to the understanding of the five poets' aesthetics and can thus be useful for both scholars and students as a source of new insights on these oeuvres, as well as for those interested in the interaction of death and artistic creation."--Boglárka Kiss, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies


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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
Chapter 1: Introduction: Last Looks, Last Books 1
Chapter 2: Looking at the Worst: Wallace Stevens's Th e Rock 25
Chapter 3: Th e Contest of Melodrama and Restraint: Sylvia Plath's Ariel 47
Chapter 4: Images of Subtraction: Robert Lowell's Day by Day 70
Chapter 5: Caught and Freed: Elizabeth Bishop and Geography III 94
Chapter 6: Self-Portraits While Dying: James Merrill and A Scattering of Salts 117
Notes 143

Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Helen Vendler:


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Published in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington

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