James McMichael Essay - Critical Essays


During his graduate studies, James McMichael was influenced by Professor Winters, whose analysis of poetry disdained extreme emotionalism in language or content. Winters was a critic of Robert Frost and the emotional writing practiced by the prominent poet. After graduating from Stanford, McMichael produced both long poems and short collections.

Against the Falling Evil

McMichael’s first book of poetry, Against the Falling Evil, is characterized as a rejection of the strictures followed by his mentor Winters and is an anomaly when compared to his later works, which are better known. The book contains a group of poems called “The Vegetables,” a surrealistic portrayal of ordinary objects with strong sexual overtones. “The Artichoke” presents an image of peeling back the leaves to uncover the portions desired by all, each part enjoyed and used: “She bore only the heart/ Worked at the stem with her/ Fingers, pulling it to her/ And into her, like a cord.” McMichael introduces another phallic comparison in “Asparagus,” the heating of the vegetable producing the inevitable results: “She can smell him, steaming, his crown/ Already tender, his spine going in/ Now he is threatening to wither terribly.” “The Vegetables” differs from McMichael’s later works in both form and substance, as the poet began focusing on long poems.

The Lover’s Familiar

McMichael’s reputation stands on a trio of long poems, sometimes epic in scope, sometimes historical in their approach to a subject, and sometimes personal. His first, The Lover’s Familiar, is an historical look back, a journey through time starting on the West Coast of the United States, that traces the country’s development and the all-consuming drive to head west.

Four Good Things

His second long poem, Four Good Things, describes the Southern California real estate boom, complete with the subdivisions, arroyos, workers, and landscapers, as well as the difficulties of his youth, his mother’s death, and his collection of stamps, both bought and stolen. The poem sometimes descends into a cacophony of actions and words, and other times convincingly speaks in the voice of a teenage boy struggling in a single-parent family: “There were fewer lots each month/ new storefronts and more traffic/ speculating boomers and pikers/ midnight sales, bands and free lunches at the auction.” McMichael recalls being alone after his mother’s death, waiting for his father to come home from work, and his fear of what would happen to him if his father left him: “I’d listen to the radio and wait to hear him drive in late/ I’d worry every way he might be killed/ would give it up only and completely when his car was there.” Throughout the poem, he relates the bustle of the region and describes the real estate market with its Levittown precision and conformity. His father was feeding the boom, mapping out neighborhoods and lots. McMichael describes being a lonely teenager in a single-parent home with a father who used his work to combat his loneliness as well as his fears of being left alone, parentless, a youth lost in the bustle of the adult world.

One critique of Four Good Things is that the subjects covered by the poem are too diverse and that the topics resemble a stream of consciousness rather than a long, continuous thread. Though the poem focuses on...

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