Study Guide

Alice Walker

Alice Walker Essay - Walker, Alice (Poetry Criticism)

Walker, Alice (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

Alice Walker 1944–-

American novelist, short–story writer, essayist, poet, critic, and editor. See also Alice Walker Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 5, 6, 9, 19, 27, 103.

Although she is not primarily known as a poet, Walker has earned much critical praise for her five verse collections, which contain poems ranging in theme and tone from intensely personal meditations on depression, isolation, and pregnancy to very public calls for social revolution for women and people of color. But whether dealing with the public or the private, Walker's poetry is admired for its ability to tap into universal truths and emotions common to all people regardless of color or gender

Biographical Information

Walker was born and raised in Eatonton, Georgia, where her father was a sharecropper. When she was eight years old her brother shot her with his BB gun, leaving her scarred and blind in one eye. The disfigurement made Walker shy and self-conscious, leading her to try writing to express herself. The accident also had a permanent effect on her relationship with her father; because of his inability to obtain proper medical treatment for her, they remained estranged for the rest of his life. In contrast, Walker has noted that she respected her mother's strength and perseverance in the face of poverty, recalling how hard her mother worked in her garden to create beauty in even the shabbiest of conditions. Despite her disadvantaged childhood, Walker won the opportunity to continue her education with a scholarship to Spelman College. She attended Spelman for two years but became disenchanted with what she considered its puritanical atmosphere and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. There Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, Once (1968), in reaction to an unplanned pregnancy and subsequent abortion. Walker shared the poems with one of her teachers, the poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose agent found a publisher for them. After college, Walker moved to Mississippi to work as a teacher and civil-rights advocate. In 1967 she married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil-rights attorney; they became the first legally married interracial couple to reside in Jackson, Mississippi. They divorced some years later. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writing of Zora Neale Hurston, who would have a great influence on Walker's later work. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston's fiction titled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). In addition to poetry, Walker has written short stories, collected in In Love and Trouble (1973) and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), and several novels, most notably The Color Purple (1982), which received both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award and was made into an award-winning film in 1985.

Major Works

Walker's first collection of poems, Once, was precipitated by her pregnancy and abortion while she was in her senior year at Sarah Lawrence. Very personal and despairing, the poems recount Walker's confusion, isolation, and thoughts of suicide and were initially intended to be a kind of therapy while she worked through her problems. In her second volume, Revolutionary Petunias (1973), she turned to more public issues, particularly civil and women's rights, while maintaining a direct, personal voice in the poems, which often focused on an individual's struggles on a daily basis to preserve dignity and liberty despite hardship and oppression. In her next collection, Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (1979), Walker returned to the realm of the personal, using her grandparents' long, solid relationship to celebrate familial bonds and friendship. Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1985)—the title of which comes from a Native American narrative recounting the time when whites first brought horses to America—focuses once more on contemporary social issues. Her Blue Body Everything We Know (1991) reprints all of the poems in Walker's first four books of poetry and includes sixteen new poems.

Critical Reception

Walker's work, particularly her novels, has been criticized for fostering antagonism between the genders and unfairly demonizing black men. Her poetry, while it is occasionally described as overly strident and politicized, has not in general been subject to the same criticism. Rather, it has been praised for the intimate tone that often comes from Walker's use of simple form and diction reminiscent of African-American folk parables. According to Darwin Turner, this quality “permit[s] her to reveal homespun truths of human behavior and emotion.”

Principal Works

Once: Poems 1968

Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems 1973

Goodnight, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning 1979

Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful 1984

Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 1991

The Third Life of Grange Copeland (novel) 1971

In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (short stories) 1973

Meridian (novel) 1976

I Love Myself When I'm Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader [editor] (selected works) 1979

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (short stories) 1981

The Color Purple (novel) 1982

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (essays) 1983

The Temple of My Familiar (novel) 1989

Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987 (essays) 1988

Possessing the Secret of Joy (novel) 1992

Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women [with Pratibha Parmar] (nonfiction) 1993

Criticism

Darwin Turner (review date 1976)

SOURCE: “A Spectrum of Blackness” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1976, pp. 202-18.

[In the following review of Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems, Turner contrasts Walker's poetry with that of Ishmael Reed, praising Walker's simple style and honesty.]

The tradition of versatility among black writers is long and distinguished. Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks—all won respect for fiction as well as poetry. So it is no surprise that Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed write fluently in both genres. Although Walker's first book, Once, a collection of poems, was favorably reviewed, she remained relatively unknown until acclaimed for her novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970). Now, reputation established, she has returned to her primary interest with Revolutionary Petunias. Similarly, most readers know Reed not through his poems, but by his brilliant, zany, satirical fiction. The Free Lance Pall-bearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broken Down (1969), Mumbo-Jumbo (1972), and Louisiana Red (1974) expose the absurdities of American institutions while venerating the spirit and power carried from Africa and perpetuated through hoodoo. Chattanooga and Conjure, which includes verse written before his first novel, exhibit the same irreverent, surrealistic satire that delighted readers of his novels.

Walker and Reed differ in style, tone, thought, form, and even the concept of poetry. Walker prefers a plain, unaffected diction and moderately open forms which permit her to reveal homespun truths of human behavior and emotion, and sing quietly of love for family, friends, other black people:

                                                  They take a little nip
                                                  Now and then
                                                  Do the old folks
                                                  Now they've moved to
                                                  Town
                                                  You'll sometimes
                                                  See them sitting
                                                  Side by side
                                                  On the porch
                                                  Straightly
                                                  As in church
                                                  Or working diligently
                                                  Their small
                                                  City stand of
                                                  Greens
                                                  Serenely pulling
                                                  Stalks and branches
                                                  Up
                                                  Leaving all
                                                  The weeds.

“They Take a Little Nip”

By contrast, Reed swirls wildly through poetic extravagances, flaunting the telegraphic style associated with Black Arts poetry. He sings blues, issues “prosy” manifestoes, narrates ballads, and derides the phony with Rabelaisian gusto:

a little red wagon for d black bureaucrat
who in d winter of 1967 when i refused to
deform d works of ellison & wright—his...

(The entire section is 1471 words.)

Mary C. Williams (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “The Poetic Knife: Poetry by Recent Southern Women Poets,” in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, November, 1978, pp. 44-54.

[In the following essay, Williams includes Walker in a discussion of women poets.]

The emergence of strongly talented women poets is one of the reasons why Southern poetry is in a healthier condition than ever before. Moreover, the distance between old-fashioned “feminine” poetry, in the sense of sentimental verse, and the powerful, sometimes outspokenly “feminist” poetry of some recent writers is indeed great. But from another perspective the span between “feminine” and “feminist” is short, for both terms often...

(The entire section is 1505 words.)

Sam Cornish (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Alice Walker: Her Own Woman,” in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 76, No. 49, February 3, 1984, pp. B1, B7.

[In the following essay, Cornish provides an overview of Walker's works, discussing her role as the most prominent woman writer in the United States at the time.]

Alice Walker is currently our most celebrated woman writer. Within the past few months, she has been featured and photographed in such diverse mass media as Vanity Fair, People, and the New York Times Magazine. Her most recent novel, The Color Purple, has been a consistent best seller and received the double honor of the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)

Sonia Gernes (review date 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful in America, Vol. 152, No. 4, February 2, 1985, pp. 93-4.

[In the following review, Gernes praises Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, but finds some of Walker's political poems to be overwrought.]

“We had no word for the strange animal we got from the white man—the horse. So we called it sunka wakan, ‘holy dog.’ For bringing us the horse we could almost forgive you for bringing us whiskey. Horses make a landscape look more beautiful.” These words from the Indian sage Lame Deer function as both epigraph and theme of Alice Walker's fourth book of poetry. “How,” she asks,...

(The entire section is 904 words.)

James Lasdun (review date 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, in Books and Bookmen, No. 359, September, 1985, p. 19.

[In the following essay, Lasdun provides a mixed review of Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful.]

‘We are indifferent to England’ writes Alice Walker in ‘Each One, Pull One,’, an impassioned poem/plea for black cultural solidarity. Somewhere in that all-encompassing shrug is a dismissal of the English way of writing poetry, with its emphasis on ironic wit and translation into metaphor—the sort of responses to life that a good poet ought to cultivate. Those seasoned virtues are replaced, in Horses Make a Landscape Look...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Alice H. G. Phillips (review date 1988)

SOURCE: A review of Once, in TLS, No, 4437, April 15, 1988, p. 420.

[In the following review, Phillips discusses similarities among Walker's Once, Ntozake Shange's Nappy Edges, and Audre Lord's Our Dead Behind Us.]

Alice Walker published Once, the first of her four collections of poetry, in 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated. Ntozake Shange's Nappy Edges appeared in 1978, soon after her play, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, began to reach audiences across the United States. These older collections are now published in Britain for the first time, as is Audre Lord's...

(The entire section is 1305 words.)

Thadious Davis (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Poetry as Preface to Fiction,” in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad Press, 1993, pp. 275-83.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1991, Davis concludes that Walker's volumes of poetry serve as a subtext of “resurgence and resurrection” to her novels and short stories.]

The recent popularity of fiction by African-American women authors has almost obscured the remarkable work in poetry since the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, poets, such as June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, and Audre Lorde, have engendered a distinctly female world while empowering...

(The entire section is 3678 words.)

Hanna Nowak (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Poetry Celebrating Life,” in Alice Walker: Critical Perpectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gate, Jr. and K. A. Appiah, 1993, pp. 179-92.

[In the following essay, Nowak maintains that Walker's poetry successfully represents a personal journey toward self-knowledge and respect.]

“And it was then that I knew that the healing / of all our wounds / is forgiveness / that permits a promise / of our return at the end”: These concluding lines of Alice Walker's third book of poetry, Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (1979), appropriately set the tone of the poet's voice and contain her essential message: a deep concern for...

(The entire section is 5392 words.)

Alice Walker with John O'Brien (interview date 1993)

SOURCE: “Alice Walker: An Interview,” in Alice Walker: Critical Perpectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gate, Jr. and K. A. Appiah, 1993, pp. 326-46.

[In the following interview, Walker discusses her background, her writing, and her major literary influences.]

Alice Walker's first collection of poems, Once, was published when she was only twenty-four. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, appeared two years later. Her second collection of poems, Revolutionary Petunias, is due in 1973, and a collection of short stories will be published either in late 1973 or early 1974. All of this suggests how productive Alice Walker...

(The entire section is 10663 words.)

Fabian Clements Worsham (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Matrilineage: Mothers and Daughters in the Poetry of African American Women, 1965-1985,” in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 117-131.

[In the following essay, Worsham includes Walker in a discussion of mother-daughter relationships as represented in African-American women's poetry.]

“The image of the mother,” according to critic Andrea Benton Rushing, “is the most prevalent image of black women” in African American poetry (“Afro-American,” 75). These images have been developed through a long and...

(The entire section is 5524 words.)