Joyce Carol Oates Joyce Carol Oates Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Joyce Carol Oates Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

The poetic chronicle of Joyce Carol Oates is so rich that no single study can do it justice. The poetry, for example, has humor, waterimagery, and rhythmic effects, none of which could be discussed within the present thematic emphasis. Oates’s poetry, however, forms a body of work on its own merits and does not need to be interpreted only as an adjunct to her novels and short stories, as critics have said. It pictures the United States and Americans in the second half of a violent and fascinating century while at the center of world power. Confused, energetic, speeding and groping their way to understanding survival conditions, Americans see themselves mirrored in these poems. Their dramas, very often melodramas, seem outrageous until the reader examines a newspaper with stories more like fiction than fact.

Living in Detroit in the 1960’s, Oates saw the heart of American life in the automobile manufacturer’s boast, “What is good for General Motors is good for America.” The city, though, erupted into riots, exposing its underside of poverty and rage. Perhaps these events triggered Oates’s interest in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, her parents’ struggles, and photographs of poor people in the grip of economic forces they neither understood nor controlled. Attuned to the plight of helpless people, she observed rootlessness and frustration leading to family and civil violence. The smile of consumer society that gleams in advertising and films covers a dark and dirty reality she cannot avoid. Her vision of the United States reveals a nation full of tragedy heading toward ever greater violence in public and private lives. With no religious message, but rather the stance of a witness, she reveals the difficulties of Americans trying to find love and peace in a culture that leads them toward death and destruction.

A future assessment of the place of poetry in the Oates canon may well increase its importance; such a reevaluation has happened with other major writers whose poetry was overlooked as the early readership more quickly perceived the message in prose. Poetry’s compressed language releases its power more gradually, but intelligence and verbal brilliance combined with the “talk style” rhythm that is not yet much understood should bring a wider audience to these poems.

Aspects of love

The second half of the twentieth century seemed a magic time to Oates. With a sense of wonder, she observed the panorama of American lives: family patterns that veer from contentment to fear, hatred, and worse. Questions arise: How can one know what influence one has on another person? How can one know if the encounter means love? Why is love like a fall into an abyss? Also, love has a public and private nature. The constant movement in which Americans engage effaces the private nature of love. They see and feel others in motel rooms, airports, and gas stations as they travel and become veneer people, all smooth surface from which traces of their lives are wiped away easily. What happens to love between people under these conditions? How much of a relationship is need, and what does one have to offer? How do women and men survive? Oates’s work addresses these questions and others like them.


Many thinkers have compared love, sexual love as well as mystical love, to death. Oates’s second great theme, related to the theme of loving, concerns the feelings of the living about dying. People can raise their hands against themselves in suicide, or diminish their lives by inhuman, mute behavior or by attacks on the human and material world around them; the death of human community happens in unlivable inner cities. As individuals, people experience the death of the ego or separate self-consciousness and entrance to a transcendental state. Transcendence can come to the artist and the mystic, and perhaps also in sex and violence. Like the poet D. H. Lawrence, whom she admires deeply, Oates questions the truth of being and nonbeing in...

(The entire section is 4,003 words.)