Mary Jo Bang Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Mary Jo Bang, who came to poetry relatively late in life, has been remarkably prodigious, completing five volumes since the start of the new millennium. Her works of poetry largely define her reputation. Because of her background in teaching and because she regards the explication of poetry as a prime responsibility of practicing poets, she has given numerous interviews in which she discusses the creative process as well as her theories of poetry. Bang has written numerous book reviews and essays, work that inevitably sheds light on her own poetry. Given her extensive theoretical work on the music and rhythms of language, Bang is an adept translator, focusing on the works of Dante.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although well past middle age, Mary Jo Bang is very much in midcareer. Initially, her poetry reflected her long background in the visual arts (principally photography) and her fascination with the potency and subtleties of language itself. These early works are dense, often experimental in their use of nontraditional rhythms and sonic effects, lyrical in their feel, and abstract in their thematic argument, posing questions about the function of art, the nature of beauty, the logic of time, the implications of mortality, and ultimately, the dynamic relationship between poets and words. The works, often difficult and cerebral, earned lavish praise from academic presses and won prestigious poetry prizes, most notably the Katharine Bakeless Nason Poetry Prize (1996) and the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award (2001) from the Poetry Society of America. However, in 2004, following the death of her son, a promising artist in his own right, Bang’s poetry took a marked turn toward the introspective and the confessional as she examined her private anguish. If her early work was applauded by the academic establishment for its audacity and density, Elegy received recognition from a much wider audience of readers (and critics) drawn to the poems’ honesty. Elegy not only made Bang the subject of numerous national profiles (and much sought after for public readings) but also earned the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Ashley, Renée. Review of Elegy. Literary Review 51, no. 4 (Summer, 2009): 244-248. A favorable review of Bang’s work, which says the poetry “embodies and enacts the numbing impossibility of understanding and the ongoing nature of Bang’s suffering.”

Bang, Mary Jo. “I. E.: On Emily and Influence.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 15, no. 2 (2006): 66-70. Revealing analysis that underscores the tremendous influence of Dickinson on Bang. Stresses Bang’s signature fragmented line and experimental use of ambiguous imagery.

Hacht, Anne Marie, and David Kelly, eds. Poetry for Students. Vol. 23. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2006. Contains an analysis of Bang’s poem “Allegory.”

Heffernan, James A. W. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Helpful and accessible, provides context for Bang and her interest in the visual medium. With illustrations.

Jackson, Virginia. Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. Helpful explication of Dickinson’s lyricism in poetry that, like Bang’s, can seem fragmented and harsh.

Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Important overview of the tradition in which Bang gained national prominence. Investigates the relationship between grief and art, intimacy and publicity, and consolation and self-pity.

Seaman, Donna. Review of The Bride of E. Booklist 106, no. 4 (October 15, 2009): 17. The reviewer praises the abecedarian, or book of alphabet poems, by Bang, saying that the poet is “antic and reflective, funny and oracular.”

Swensen, Cole, and David St. John, eds. American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009. This anthology examines the work of seventy-three poets, including Bang, who combine the traditional and experimental in their poems. Poems from each poet are accompanied by short introductory essays providing background and positioning the poet in the contemporary poetic world.