Postmodernism, a movement that has influenced literature in the latter part of the twentieth century, has been defined as both a reaction against and a refinement of modernism. Some of the key elements of modernism in literature have been identified as experimentation, an emphasis on the individual and his or her perceptions, and a focus on rational thinking as opposed to the emotions. (Emotional writing was one focal point in literature during the Romantic period, a precursor to modernism.) The modernism movement is said to fall roughly between the 1860s and the 1970s. In the United States, the period is often limited to the first part of the twentieth century, up to about 1970. The British author Virginia Woolf is considered a modernist. She tended to write in a stream-of-consciousness mode (as in To the Lighthouse, published in 1927) in which the reader was privileged to the characters' interior monologues as they reacted to events around them. The American E. E. Cummings, who delivered a commencement address on modernism upon graduating from Harvard, broke many conventions of traditional poetry, as exemplified by his poem "n(o)w." Modernists tended to challenge tradition.
Postmodernism began as early as the 1920s, gaining momentum in the United States especially after World War II. One of the key elements of postmodernism is a sense of play, as opposed to seriousness. This can be seen in Fulton's poem and her...
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Someone interested in language often has sensitivity to the sounds of words. Fulton makes notable use of alliteration, the repetition of a sound at the beginnings of consecutive words, and consonance, the repetition of a sound throughout words. The title features the phrase "thou the thing." In the first line of the poem, the sibilant s is present in each of the three words. In the second line of the second stanza, "of elsewhere. Well, we must love," the letter w is repeated three times. In the lines that follow, the letter is repeated six more times at the beginnings of words. Reading the stanza aloud, one can feel the emphasis produced by the repetition of this sound and realize its power. The letter w is again employed in repetition in stanza 3, with "why we wish." Other examples of alliteration and consonance can be found throughout the poem.
Similes provide images for the mind in comparing two different things, specifically using the words "like" and "as" (whereas metaphors do not use those words), thus allowing the reader a greater degree of understanding. In Fulton's poem, in the first stanza, she writes that "aluminum-sided acres / retain us like problems." That is, the "aluminum-sided acres" can hold on to a person the way a problem can hold on to a person; the phrase is fairly simple, but its meaning can be long pondered. Indeed, the poet has left the comparison...
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Compare and Contrast
- According to U.S. Census reports, the number of small farms (of 1 to 9 acres) is about 187,000; middle-sized farms (50 to 179 acres), 712,000; and large farms (2,000 acres or more), 64,000.
Today: According to U.S. Census reports, the number of small farms is about 179,000; middle-sized farms, 659,000; and large farms, 78,000.
- According to the USDA Forest Service, the majority of the land in the Midwest is de voted to agriculture.
Today: Although the majority of land in the Midwest is still devoted to agriculture, the amount of urban space has increased by 23.4 percent since the 1980s.
- According to U.S. statistics, the percentage of the population that is divorced rises from 6 percent at the start of the decade to 8 percent by the end of the decade.
Today: According to U.S. statistics, by the turn of the century, 10 percent of the population is divorced.
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Topics for Further Study
- Read two other poems of Fulton's from her collection Powers of Congress; find and list all the examples of wordplay in the poems. Then write a short poem of your own using similar wordplay.
- Using any part of "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" as inspiration, complete a sketch or painting. For example, paint a picture of what you think the fallen tree from stanza 13 might look like.
- Research the effect of large agricultural businesses on small family farms in the United States. How has the agriculture industry changed in the past two or three decades? If you live in a farming community, interview local farmers to personalize your research; alternatively, find and interview large-scale gardeners in your city. Present your findings to your class.
- Find examples of postmodernist thought in various fields, such as art, literature, philosophy, science, religion, or political science. Can consensus be found on a definition of postmodernism? How do you see the effects of postmodernism represented in culture, in news stories, on television, and in music? Present your findings to your class.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Fulton's Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems (2004) is a compilation of poems from her first five collections, including Powers of Congress (1990) and the award-winning Felt (2002). The book offers a great overview of the author's progression from the more simple poems of her early years to the newer and more complex; throughout the collection, Fulton becomes more experimental with language as she digs deeper into her emotional world.
- Besides writing poetry, Fulton teaches and writes essays. In Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry (1999), she writes about the poetic process and the various forms of postmodern poetry, and she also examines Emily Dickinson's work. Fulton devotes a section of this book to reflections on her own work.
- Emily Dickinson, one of the most celebrated of American poets, is often mentioned in discussions about Fulton. The two poets' works indeed feature similarities, which Fulton has herself pointed out. To discover these similarities, Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (1988) is a good place to start.
- I Never Came to You in White (1996) is Judith Farr's fictionalized account of Emily Dickinson's life, focusing on some of the poet's idiosyncrasies. Farr tells her story through letters and poetry that she imagines Dickinson might have written.
- B. H. Fairchild was the 2004 winner of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, "The American Sublime, c. 1992: What Clothes Does One Wear?" in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer 1992, pp. 431, 432.
Boland, Eavan, "In Perspective," in Partisan Review, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 317-18.
"Contents of Agriculture Table," U.S. Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/statab/USA98/dd-ag.txt (February 24, 2006).
Fulton, Alice, "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted," in Powers of Congress, Sarabande Books, 2001, pp. 105-108.
Norris, Kathleen, Review of Powers of Congress, in Library Journal, Vol. 116, No. 2, February 1, 1991, p. 80.
Review of Powers of Congress, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 40, October 5, 1990, pp. 94-95.
"U.S. Divorce Statistics," Divorce Magazine, http://www.divorcemag.com/statistics/statsUS.shtml (February 21, 2006).
Addonizio, Kim, and Dorianne Laux, The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, W. W. Norton, 1997.
This book, written by two published poets, comes highly recommended for students who want to explore their own abilities to write poetry. The authors' advice addresses subjects about which to write, the...
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