Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4003
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 her exploration of the boundaries and limitations in human life. The unconscious mind has much to do with the experience of life and fear of death. Dreams mediate the worlds human beings inhabit.
Landscape and setting
A third feature of Oates’s poetry is found in her eye for landscape and setting. Few poets can rival her ability to paint a memorable scene. The details glitter: highways, newspaper pages staining fingers with ink, a ripe pear, a rumpled bed, and a decaying city square become visions in the reader’s mind. Ultimately, Oates’s poetry displays a great love for the land and people to which she belongs—a gratitude for the “multitudinous stars” and forms around her. Behind the poetry lies a mind poised, certain, unafraid, and capable of communicating honestly the contours and colors of her time.
Love and sexuality
Like Rainer Maria Rilke, Lawrence, and other modernists, Oates sees love and sexuality as the center of being; the source of both physical and spiritual energy. This recognition does not make her a sentimental or romantic poet of love. Quite to the contrary, she expresses the difficulties, limitations, and ironies that love presents. Although love is the great transforming force that accompanies growth, it most often wears a tragic face. Her source for this bitter truth is the dark side of American family life: the frequency of divorce, the incidence of rape and murder, the homeless women and children. The modern poets she reveres—William Butler Yeats, Rilke, and Lawrence—share her view; their poetry celebrates the joy of sexuality but never omits the pain, despair, or sorrow of this fundamental experience. Rilke’s mature poems “Love and Other Difficulties,” for example, render the dark melancholy of love beautifully.
Love experiences certainly include joy, and Oates has written enchanting poems of intimacy. In the collection Love and Its Derangements, the poem “Loving” describes lovers cocooned in a balloon of gauze, breathed out and invisible, a warm sac that shelters the couple from the ordinary life of people in the street. An erotic poem, “In Hot May,” tells of an influx of seeds blowing onto a brick floor. They “threaten/ to turn into voices or trees or human men” as they seek the surface of female skin. The poem “Sleeping Together” evokes the blurred calm rhythm of two bodies in harmony, “hips rocked by waves of sleep,” all distinctions lost in an infinite light. Wave motions are symbolized by the stanza lines’ indented pattern, which suggest regular and peaceful breathing.
Yet intimacy can jar the nerves. “What I Fear . . .” tells of sleeplessness when the lovers are alert, feeling separate, dull, and “newly derailed . . . In the silence after love.” The fear of drowning in a merged identity assails the speaker in “Women in Love” from Anonymous Sins, and Other Poems. “My arms pump/ high to keep/ from drowning.” Love makes its way into a person’s life, flowing like water, and, like water, can refresh and nourish or flood and destroy. The rhythm of moving from oneness to separation is depicted in the poem “Where the Shadow Is Darkest” from Angel Fire. The poem’s lovers swing in and out of their unity, but where the shadow is darkest, they are merged.
Coming-of-age and women’s lives
Coming-of-age experiences of young women are an important part of Oates’s vision; one of her finest novels, Marya: A Life (1986), captures the tumults, often violent, of this period of life. Falling in love provides the topic for a humorous poem, “The Small Still Voice Behind the Great Romances.” The young speaker is dominated by a need for drama, a sense that death must happen for life and growth to be possible. She wants to upset time, speed it up, “to see the reel run wild, the film/ torn off its track!—I needed to die/ so I fell in love.” Death occurs in sexuality, and the poem concludes in wisdom: “I died only in moods/ and ascended again/ humanly.” The speaker of “A Girl at the Center of Her Life” from Anonymous Sins, and Other Poems experiences sex without love. In a field outside town, with a young man waiting for her in a car, she feels hate yet has no skill in confronting him. She fears the reaction of other people to her change. She is “A young girl, in terror not young,/ no colt now but a sore-jointed cow/ whose pores stutter for help, help.”
Similar imagery of the small but furious voice of a woman standing in the center of a moment, wind or water at the speaker’s feet, informs poetry in the voice of young married women. In “A Midwestern Song” a woman has recently left her family home for life with her husband. She is bored with love and “its anatomy” and cries out, “Why do they offer me nothing more? Is there/ nothing more?” Her imagination is alive, but her voice is mute. “A Young Wife,” from Angel Fire, displays the emotions of a woman who circles “The two-and-a-half rooms of our marriage” like a fish in her scummy fish bowl, “barely living” and fearful of her childhood nightmares. She bumps her thighs against the new bedstead, and the bruised thighs appear as an image in “Domestic Miracles.” In her new and unfamiliar surroundings, the speaker feels eternal, like clay artifacts discovered by an archaeologist. Her body knows that “something miraculous must happen.”
Marriage, family life, and children are the outward signs of the great transformations love brings. Like many women poets, Oates has written a poem titled “Marriage.” Not obscure and intimidating with learned references in the manner of Marianne Moore’s famous poem or propositional and narrative in the style of Denise Levertov’s, Oates’s poem on marriage gives the voice of a woman who needs a partial escape as she grips her skull “to stay put.” She feels the heaviness of bodies. Yet the woman and her husband radiate light; they know how to love. The poem concludes with the beautifully rhythmic lines, “we touch and wander/ and draw together puzzled in the dark.”
Many poets adopt an implausible voice—of a cat, a cow, or the spirit of a dead person. Oates imagines the voice of a human fetus three months before birth in “Foetal Song.” As the poem begins, mother and child are in a car. The unborn infant guesses in his cave about the noises he hears: high heels pounding the floor, horns and drills in the street, jokes and arguments. The fetus likes to swim and feel comfortable. He knows the parents, months ago, agreed to let his life continue: “I am grateful,/ I am waiting for my turn.”
Other poems talk about the beginnings of life that did not succeed. In “Unborn Child,” the speaker meditates on an aborted fetus lost early in the life process—it has “no marks of identification.” This unborn child can be forgotten as it returns to the flux of life and the cycles begin again. A more urgent tone sounds in “A Woman’s Song.” The insistent word “pounding” dominates the poem. As the pulse of life goes on—construction of bridges, firefighters shooting water from hoses, truck wheels on the roadways—in the midst of all this vitality, “children fall in clots in water/ blood flushed safe to the river,” and the river continues pounding under a highway overpass. In its uncompromising picture of water and the flushing of the unborn, this poem recalls “Dark Stream,” a poem by the South African poet Ingrid Jonker. The fluidity of life matches in strength the pounding vitality of human action.
Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money
Oates satirizes lives that are empty of passion in “Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money,” the title poem of her 1978 volume. The housewives live through days bounded by regular schedules: the garbage day, the shopping mall evening. The workmen husbands eat lunches from bags that they fold and put away over the weekend. Evenings they watch handsome strangers on television, fidget through the emotions they witness, yawn, and go to bed. Their children come home and see that nothing has changed. The poem summarizes such stasis in its conclusion: “the relief of emptiness rains/ simple, terrible, routine/ at peace.”
In the same volume, “Wealthy Lady” and “He Traveled by Jet First Class to Tangier” reveal in stream-of-consciousness style the fantasies and anxieties of a woman and man who have money to indulge themselves. The lady (as she sits making out checks at her eighteenth century writing desk) imagines herself smiling on the many people who receive her charity. For a change of pace, she reviews her stock portfolio. Taking a pistol from the drawer, she imagines scenes: a lunch date, a visit to an art museum, perhaps also to a cemetery, and an adventure in the dangerous part of town; she will defend herself from attack by drawing the pistol. Finally returning to reality, she decides to cross off her list a church committee whose chairman eats indelicately. The traveling man’s life is narrated in a catalog of airports, destinations, Kodak film stops, hotel room bookings (always the luxury suite), festivals, and competitive conversations. His litany of “I am only human, I am normal” reveals his obsession with self and his deep anxiety. These people have not learned to lose their egos for the contentments of love.
“Lies Lovingly Told” and “Making an End”
The poem “Making an End” from Angel Fire talks of male “hunger for blows that silence words.” This insistence on a violent final solution (the “fifth act” of a tragedy) is “the deadliest of incantations/ the unsaying of love, love’s urgency/ pronounced backward into silence. . . .” The reader feels a fear of apocalypse caused by masculine violence in place of words. The failure of politics is thus a moral failure in the exchange of blows for speech.
Similarly, in “Lies Lovingly Told” from The Fabulous Beasts, Oates treats the male-female configuration in political power terms. The poem revises the saying “Every woman loves a fascist” to “Every man adores/ the woman who adores/ the Fascist.” The femme fatale, evil destroyer of a man’s wife and children, is a creation of adolescent fantasy and must not be revised. In this fantasy, the man has no responsibility but has only to feel the woman’s charms. Oates’s moral assessment of love in her poetry traces an arc from delight to boredom to emptiness and, finally, to oppression and violence.
Being and nonbeing
As well as the polarities of love and hate, the polarities of life and death occupy a large place in Oates’s poetry. Poems about accidents, near-death experiences, drownings, and suicides invite the reader to meditate with Oates on the nature of being and nonbeing. This interest in a major philosophical topic is unsurprising; Oates studied philosophy intently as a student. She earned a Phi Beta Kappa award in part by reading ancient Greek texts, and the ideas of Plato, Thales of Miletus, and Heraclitus of Ephesus, among others, contribute to her poems about the boundaries of existence.
Physical death is considered in the poem “Not-being” from Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money. Based on Plato’s difficult work Sophists (388-366 b.c.e.; Sophist, 1804), the poem’s message (spoken in the voice of a person who almost died but returned) is that Not-being is a kind of qualified Being. As the critic Thomas Chance explains,In their mutually exclusive sense, Being and Non-being are unknowable to us. They are objective termini, “located” at the outermost limits of our experience, and, like points on a compass, serve to reorient and direct our love and aspirations. Thus, only someone who “almost” died can inform us about an undifferentiated, perfect “consciousness” that recognizes no distinction between itself and its visible form on a mirror.
If one is upset or fearful about the change that will come to each, one needs to remember, as Plato said, that one can identify with the Being in one as the fixed point for one’s soul’s longing. Indeed, many of Oates’s poems of death show physical death itself as a local and ordinary event, even a good event. The poems “Forgiveness of Sins,” “Metamorphoses,” “In Case of Accidental Death,” “Seizure,” and “The Survivor” all disavow the common fear and terror of death. Instead, Oates says, death is not the most difficult experience.
Where being and nonbeing are extreme limits of one consciousness, suicide is an impossibility. Yet however enigmatic it may be, suicide seems real. “On the Violence of Self-Death” asks if the suicide is blameless or guilty; this is a death willed by an unhappy adult that takes time to be prepared and is not like death by accident. It presents questions—perhaps a person fights as bravely for death as others do for life. “The Suicide” asks questions in a stark, breathless style, “Was he grateful? . . . Did he marvel? . . . Was that human?” The reader senses a life-loving mind trying to address the mystery of a suicide’s mental state.
Arrested growth, diminished lives
More complicated than physical death is the question of the life and death of the ego. “I die because I do not die” cries Saint Teresa of Ávila. So long as she holds onto the individual ego, she will not be able to live fully. When one blocks the process of maturing into one’s spiritual self, one’s life remains stunted, ego-centered. Life events may bring one to the threshold of transcendence—beyond the ego—and one either pulls back or takes courage and accepts change. Oates sees the ego as a shadow of death between the universe and the individual.
The death or destruction of a personality—a death in the midst of life—takes the form for Oates of an arrested growth. Many years as a college teacher have made her familiar with both the usual patterns of growth in young lives and the blockage of normal growth.
A chilling poem from Anonymous Sins, and Other Poems, “And So I Grew Up to Be Nineteen and to Murder,” mentions nothing about murder in the poem itself. A boy with wealthy parents recounts the stages of his life. He is aware of class and race distinctions in his society, but he says he was “a good kid” eating his Cheerios for breakfast. At an expensive private school, he and a friend begin to steal things, and he worries about his height and his personality. A sense of emptiness invades him—even the telephone book cannot distinguish him; his name appears “fourteen separate times.” The poet leaves the rest of his story to imagination; the reader must contemplate the poem’s conclusion from the evidence of the title.
Stories of diminished lives range from the voice of a ten-year-old child in “Three Dances of Death” (about a child who is fat, lonely, and full of wonder at the adults dancing gaily in their home bomb shelter, which is decorated to resemble a night club) to the famous writer W. Somerset Maugham, whose words of bitterness or self-loathing are heard in the poem “’I can stand there in the corner. . . .’” He says, “I am a small man. I can stand there/ in the corner, and maybe Death will not see me.” The way one looks at death, as confused children, young adults, or aged and famous people, reveals much about one’s sense of identity and self-esteem.
A further dimension of being or nonbeing comes in the consideration of spiritual health in society at large. Each individual’s tendency toward personal integration and maturity or blocked growth depends in part on the social environment. Like D. H. Lawrence and other modernists, Oates understands the materialistic, consumer-oriented society to be a huge obstacle to human spiritual growth. In its relentless pursuit of pleasure, American society is necessarily death-oriented, becoming saturated with desires and choking on overabundance. In the closing lines of “American Merchandise,” Oates implies the threat of death from material bloat. After a catalog of the “goods” everyone enjoys, she says “Even now the great/ diesels are headed in your direction.” The ninety-car, six-diesel-engine railroad caravans and eighteen-wheel, diesel-powered trucks can run over consumers in bringing them so much more than they need.
Travel and place
Like William Carlos Williams, who displayed a consuming interest in the silk-manufacturing town of Paterson, New Jersey, Oates returns frequently in her poems to the area of upstate New York near Lockport, where she spent her childhood. Yet, unlike Williams, she is also a rover who takes the whole United States and its people as her subject. Her frequent travels by car provide the settings for her thoughts on the highways, people, and places she encounters. Some European and Pacific Ocean places figure in poems in The Time Traveler, but she writes principally of the deserts, seacoasts, and inland habitations of the United States. Her “town” might be called Detroit, the place where she lived and taught during the riots of the late 1960’s and the automobile city crucial to America’s direction in the twentieth century.
Two of Oates’s poems are addressed specifically to Lockport: “City of Locks” from Angel Fire and “Locking Through” from The Time Traveler. Her frequent use of the idea of life “passing through us” may have been inspired by the very graphic passing through Lockport of the Erie Barge Canal, a once-vital Eastern commercial waterway. “Locking Through” describes the experience of dropping sixty feet on the artificial waterfall of the locks. “City of Locks” paints the city and its locks as a place of crude street names, sullen, foamy water, workmen repairing water damage, and cars full of shoppers. The city of Detroit becomes the quintessential urban scene. “In the Night” tells of sirens rising during the riots in the heart of the city. The speaker hears them from a distance and muses, fearfully, about the shuddering city. The poem recalls Denise Levertov’s “Listening to Distant Guns,” about the experience of hearing the guns of World War II from across the English Channel. Both poets felt the eerie contrast of battle noises and muted cries of unseen individuals.
Poems of “on the road” experiences are often dramatic and narrative. “Whispering Glades” from The Time Traveler gives a stream of talk from an elderly woman, a displaced northerner retired to a Florida mobile home. She complains to her vacationing grandchildren about the flies and fleas, the worms that eat her marigolds, and her unhappy memories. “Playlet for Voices” speaks in a cacophony of small talk at a wake. The anxious hostess wants to please the guests, who arrive and depart in a flow of exclamations and questions answered hastily. “Young Love, America” is a jazzy scene near a Pepsi vending machine. A young man and woman are flirting, playing at love; this scene could be drawn by Norman Rockwell in his characteristic realism-with-nostalgia style. Similarly, “An American Tradition” evokes the rush to return gifts to the stores on the day after Christmas. In three stanzas, the poem describes a crowd waiting outside a K-Mart store and entering in a rush as the doors open. The third stanza presents the minidrama of a wife trying to return her husband’s gift; he protests, she cries, and they leave. The poem combines the ingredients typical of Oates’s “travelogue” poems: realistic, recognizable details and a familiar moral point. American experiences teem through this poetry: rescues, near drownings, one’s house being robbed, music at a roller rink, a stuffed refrigerator in a kitchen, and always the noises of cars, trucks, jackhammers, trains, and airplanes. Oates looks into a landscape of heroism, crime, and ordinary human motivations. As she has stated, her purpose as a writer is to chronicle American life in all its breadth and depth and height.
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