Walker, Alice (Poetry Criticism)
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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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,...
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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 carry derogatory implications. Women still face problems in assuming the role of poet; as Ann Deagon writes,
We who hunt the word, who nurse at breast that sharp malignancy the muse, still slash our bodies into music. …
Poetry for a woman may be a knife, sometimes used on others but as often on herself.
In Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition (Harper Colophon Books, 1976), Suzanne Juhasz has pointed out that a woman has been an intruder in the realm of poetry, a realm whose traditions have been created and dominated by men. Although the quality of emotional...
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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 Award. Her part in the rediscovery of black woman writer Zora Neale Hurston, and the long-overdue attention paid to black women writers within the past few years, have undoubtedly contributed to her prominence. Her latest book, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, a collection of essays and lectures, reinforces that prominence and clarifies the themes of her earlier writings, allowing her audience to reconsider both the value of her work and its literary heritage.
In Search is dominated by the presence of Zora Neale Hurston, whose research and experience with voodoo and anthropology shaped Walker's short story “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff,” as well as much of her other writing. In the long essay “Looking...
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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, “does one cope with the legacy of the white man?” Indeed, how does one cope with all the legacies that make up a life? Walker, a black poet/novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her third novel. The Color Purple, tells us in the book's dedication that she is descended not only from the children of ex-slaves in rural Georgia, but from:
my “part” Cherokee great-grandmother Tallulah (Grandma Lula) on my mother's side about whom only one agreed-upon thing is known: her hair was so long she could sit on it; and my white (Anglo-Irish?) great-great-grandfather on my father's side: nameless (Walker, perhaps?), whose only remembered act is that he raped a child: my great-great grandmother. who bore his son, my...
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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 More Beautiful, by anger and pathos; anger at racism, sexism, militarism and so forth, pathos in the matter of personal relationships—a visit from the daughter of an estranged husband, a rush of tenderness for a loved one. … Poems, Alice Walker proclaims, are ‘the tears / that season the smile’; they address themselves uninhibitedly to every grand theme, from poverty to love—‘love is concerned / that the beating of your heart / should kill no one.’
In the face of such unashamed emotionality, conventional criticism has little to offer. What is England, the dismissed England of university-nurtured lit. crit. values to make of it? It seems equally patronising to praise observations such as ‘In the world,...
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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 ninth and newest volume, Our Dead Behind Us. Together, they demonstrate that while styles in writing may have altered and awareness been enlarged, the issues of social justice and sexual equality remain pretty much the same for “the Poet Who Happens to Be Black and the Black Poet Who Happens to Be a Woman”.
Righteous anger drives all three collections. These poets carry memories of racial insults, and the knowledge of worse endured by parents and grandparents; all identify deeply with oppressed blacks, Hispanics and other people of colour, whether on their own doorstep or in the Third World; and all have reason to distrust men, America and Western culture in general. But none of them wastes time wallowing in...
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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 a distinctly African-American vision of life. Several of these women writers are multi-talented, working in poetry and in fiction. For example, Sherley Anne Williams has created the Peacock Poems and Dessa Rose, a feminist historical novel, and Rita Dove has produced award-winning poetry and short fiction. The best known of those who have moved easily between literary genres and creative forms is Alice Walker, the premiere African-American and Southern author of her generation. The fiction which she has produced since 1970 accelerated in acclaim with the publication of The Color Purple in 1983; however, her poetry, first published in 1968, has yet to attract a critical audience. Perhaps that is because Walker, a...
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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 all human beings, optimism and affirmation of life, the feeling of continuity, and a highly personal vision. To call her poems “hopeful strategies for recapturing one's humanity”1 is, therefore, entirely apposite. The whole title poem includes another typical feature: Walker draws on a personal experience. “Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll see you / in the morning”2 is the solemn and faithful promise of her mother at her father's death.
Alice Walker is better known as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist, although she has published three books of poetry: Once (1968), Revolutionary Petunias (1973),3 and Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning. A...
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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 has been in so short a time. Along the way she has also managed to publish essays, teach, and raise a family. Yet the most amazing thing is less the ambition she has demonstrated than the maturity she has achieved so early.
The thematic scope of her poetry is the past, both personal and historical. Once catalogues her experiences in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s and her travels in Africa. The poems are highly personal, recounting first loves and early disappointments. Revolutionary Petunias indicates that since her first collection, Walker learned more about both her craft and her subjects. Her poems are less marked by abstract observations than by a dependance upon brief anecdotes and precise...
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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 distinguished literary history, reaching back through the diaspora to ancient African cultures in which “the African woman is associated with core values” and is revered as “guardian of traditions, the strong Earth-Mother who stands for security and stability” (Rushing, “African,” 19). These values, passed down through an oral tradition in which women have played a major role, as well as through the medium of print, continue to define the ways black women are represented in African American literature and the ways they perceive themselves and their daughters and act upon these perceptions. Christine Renee Robinson argues that “self-reliance, independence, assertiveness, and strength are inherent characteristics of Black women which are...
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Callahan, John F. “Reconsideration: The Higher Ground of Alice Walker.” The New Republic 171, No. 11 (14 September 1974): 21-22.
Re-examines Walker's first two volumes of poetry, along with a novel and short-story collection, finding her work rich with tradition and beauty.
Isie, Peat. “Books about the South.” Southern Living 26, No. 12 (December 1991): 83.
Review of Her Blue Body Everything We Know, calling it a book “to be savored.”
Rosen, John. A review of Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, by Alice Walker New York Times Book Review (7 April 1985): 12.
Deems Walker's work “overpraised” in general and Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautifulin particular simplistic and shallow.
Williamson, Alan. A review of Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning, by Alice Walker. Poetry CXXXV, No. 6 (March 1980): 348-54.
Finds Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning to contain “moments of comparable intensity” but more often “sinks to the level of a kind of popular wisdom-poetry.”
Additional coverage of Walker's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol....
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