It should not come as any surprise that a poem about the human tendency to match order with disorder should appear in 1999. By that time, the relatively stable and prosperous 1990s were already beginning to unravel. The decade began with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, ending the Cold War that for three generations of Americans had defined the issue of national defense. The biggest news story of 1991 was that U.S. President William Clinton was the first president in over a hundred years to be impeached by Congress. Clinton had been president throughout the 1990s, and investigations into his business and personal affairs had been ongoing since soon after his administration took office. In 1998 the House of Representatives voted to try Clinton for perjury after he lied to a grand jury about an affair he was having. Because of the intensive scrutiny, and the unapologetic political affiliations of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who was in charge of investigating charges against Clinton, there were at least as many Americans outraged at the politicians who were attempting to remove the president as there were people who were outraged at his dishonest behavior. In 1999 Clinton was acquitted, and his popularity rose to higher levels than ever.
The late 1990s also saw the longest economic growth period since the end of World War II. Stock prices in the late 1990s grew at a record-breaking pace, largely due to the advent of the Internet and the...
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“A Thirst Against” contains a literary allusion to William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. An allusion may be a reference to a character from another work, which an author uses to make a point come alive more clearly. In this poem, Gregg alludes to Hamlet and Ophelia as examples of two people with contradictory points of view who, in the end, are “both lost.” Hamlet is too heavy, and Ophelia too frail. These characters enable the poet to show examples of her point about the hunger for order and the thirst against it, providing broad backgrounds that illustrate Gregg’s ideas without having to include much about the characters in the poem itself.
Compared to structured poems, this poem seems to follow no particular rules. It does not have a consistent rhythm or a rhyme scheme, and it is not divided into separate stanzas. Poetry that has variable line length and no fixed metrical pattern is called “free verse.” Gregg does, however, use several poetic elements to tie the parts of “A Thirst Against” together.
For one thing, the lines of the poem are all approximately the same length. They do not have the same number of syllables, as the lines in a traditional structure would have, but none of the lines is dramatically shorter or longer than the others. Each line has between six and ten syllables; those with seven or eight syllables account for over half of the poem. Though there is...
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Topics for Further Study
Read Shakespeare’s tragic play Hamlet and choose the action of one scene that you think best shows a hunger for order and thirst against it. Write an essay explaining your position.
“A Thirst Against” makes a point of the freezing winters in Chicago. Find out what the average low temperatures are in Chicago and compare them to other cities around the globe. Then, find at least five other cities you think would have worked better in this poem and explain your reasoning.
Examine Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which he compares reality to the version of reality that people make up and carry in their heads. Compare what Plato has to say about the contrast between mental and physical phenomena to how Gregg presents the matter.
There have been many songs written about finding God in unlikely places. Set the last section of “A Thirst Against” to a song that exemplifies this experience.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bly, Robert, “Recognizing the Image as a Form of Intelligence,” in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, edited by Stuart Friebert, David Walker, and David Young, Oberlin College Press, 1997, pp. 101–04.
Cramer, Steven, “Goddesses, Gods, and Devils,” in Poetry, Vol. 159, No. 4, January 1992, pp. 223–27.
Gregg, Linda, Things and Flesh, Graywolf, 1999.
Hass, Robert, Praise, The Ecco Press, 1979, pp. 4, 5.
Logan, William, “The Way of All Flesh,” in New Criterion, Vol. 18, No. 10, p. 63.
McClatchy, J. D., “Love, Lust and the Passing of Seasons,” in the New York Times Book Review, March 16, 1986, pp. 12–13.
Milosz, Czeslaw, A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. 221.
Orr, David, “Review of Things and Flesh, in Poetry, Vol. 176, August 2000, p. 294
Review of Things and Flesh, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 39, September 27, 1999, p. 100.
Roffman, Rosaly DeMaios, Review of Alma, in Library Journal, Vol. 111, February 15, 1986, pp. 183–84.
Sadoff, Ira, An Ira Sadoff Reader: Selected Prose and Poetry, Middlebury College Press, 1992, pp. 207–21.
Bloom, Harold, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, Riverhead Books, 2003. Bloom,...
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