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Title:The Good Darkness: Affirmation in the Poems of Robert Bly, W. S. Merwin, and James Wright
Author(s):Stiffler, Harold Randall
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Literature, Modern
Abstract:Robert Bly, W. S. Merwin, and James Wright are Post-Modern American poets who share aesthetic, moral, and political concerns. All show a desire for an affirmative vision as well as a sense of how to arrive at it. Rather than extol the traditionally affirmative resonances of lofty mountains, starry skies, and rising suns, these poets write of ceaseless rivers, chaotic seas, and profound darkness and silence. Though such subjects are ordinarily connected with fear and death, these poets explore their potential for complex, often uneasy, and remarkably intense forms of affirmation.
Robert Bly himself explains his commitment to the "good darkness" in his provocative theoretical essay in Sleepers Joining Hands. Bly uses the unorthodox imagery in inconsistent ways, however, and in both optimistic and pessimistic contexts. In his pastoral and in some of his prose poems, Bly indicates how water, wild animals, darkness, and silence can communicate a sense of spiritual presence and continuity. For Bly, such communication animates a poetic of ecstasy. But in his political poetry, Bly abandons the affirmative associations he had worked for years to instill into traditional imagery of risk and despair. There he resurrects the threatened responses this imagery usually prompts and he manipulates them to advance his own partisan political positions.
W. S. Merwin handles the unorthodox imagery much more consistently. In his earlier poems, Merwin worked rather frankly within the tradition for which light is an affirmation. What is silent needs articulation, he implied, and he tried first to elucidate mystical experiences borrowed from religious history. He tried to find an order in the chaotic sea he saw without and felt within, and then he tried to describe the peculiar consciousness he attributed to animals. In these three segments of his earlier poems, Merwin attempted to bring certain mysteries to conscious knowledge. Those mysteries successfully resisted his efforts. That Merwin then turned to an exploration of the unorthodox imagery of affirmation should not come as a total surprise, for we can see in his earlier work a steady erosion of confidence in his own attitude toward the traditional imagery of affirmation.
James Wright's poetry may be divided into two basic categories: the poems of epiphany and the poems of despair. The poems of epiphany rise from darkness toward imagery of light, and the poems of despair drop out of the light and fall into the darkness. This darkness Wright generally associates with death, particularly with drowning, but unlike Bly and Merwin, Wright is unwilling either to exploit our fear of death or to work to contain it. Wright seeks out that very "drowning" in ceaseless waters that terrifies him, an immersion that proves regenerative. He is not destroyed by his descent into the dark waters because he can see that the extinction of personality leads unexpectedly to a reinvigorated life. In Wright's last poems, the traditional imagery of pessimism and despair is tranformed into an unorthodox way of structuring an affirmative vision. The complex of traditionally malevolent imagery becomes in Wright's last work another version of the "good darkness" crucial to each of these poet's visions.
Issue Date:1981
Description:170 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1981.
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI8127704
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-12
Date Deposited:1981

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