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“The Old Ones are Gone Now: A Collection of Poetry with a Critical Introduction”


When dealing with literary movements and how or why a certain author might choose to write a piece in one mode or method while eschewing another way of composing, one must always keep in mind the political ramifications of the author’s actions. Edward Said showed disdain to the now cliche phrase “everything is political” (22) in his article “Reflections on Recent American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism,” but he failed to realize that his claim against this phrase was an act of politics as well. To him, only certain things are political, while others are not. However, everything is political. A person who purchases a Pepsi product supports every political action that the Pepsi Corporation does (regardless if that person is aware of Pepsi’s political agenda). Therefore, something as simple as buying a soda has grand political implications. The same goes with labeling oneself a romantic poet or 2 a modernist. By accepting a title, one accepts all the political baggage that comes with the title. But what does one do, if she or he is clearly influenced by a certain method of writing and chooses to write in that mode, while refraining to accept the political weight of that group’s title? That writer can behave like the Pepsi employee who only buys Coca-Cola products and attempts to ride the fence. That person becomes akin to spirits trapped in the imagined limbo between the dead and the living; this person exists, yes, but she or he is never fully realized, for that person shares properties of two worlds, while not truly being a part of either. At best, the dead shall label them dead, while the living shall believe that poet still touches this land; but at worst, poets of that nature will become forgotten, since they belong to no one. This essay shall argue that there is a group of poets who are in this spiritual limbo, poets who are writing and publishing pieces today. They are remnants of the confessionals, the group of poets who succeeded the modernists and altered American letters irrevocably. While this limbo is nowhere near as dire as the spirit metaphor used earlier, it is still present. There are two primary reasons as to why the confessional mode goes largely unacknowledged in contemporary poetry: the first reason is that confessional poetry has been reduced in its “seriousness” thanks to the work of critics, scholars, and students. It is more acceptable to write about a confessional poet’s life than his or her work. Also, this essay will point out that the term “confessional poet” is a problematic moniker: it is a title that no one asked for, and it was bitterly rejected by the poets who were branded by it. The second reason is that subsequent writers, especially poets who were trained in the academy, realized that “confessional” has become a tainted word that is met with grimaces and disdain, so they abstain from calling themselves confessional poets in order to increase their publication chances, which in turn increases their chances of landing coveted tenure-track teaching positions.

Before this essay can continue, though, it is important to consider the state of “contemporary poetry.” Normally, works that have been published during or after the 1960s usually encompasses contemporary poetry. However, it is now 2015, so it might be wiser and more practical to push this date up another thirty or so years and start in or around the 1990s. Dates and timelines tend to be arbitrary things at best, but for the sake of this essay, times and dates are essential. To many critics and scholars, confessional poetry is technically contemporary since many of the confessional pieces were published during the sixties. This fact should explain why the standard notion of contemporary poetry needs to be revised. For example, one could distinguish between early-contemporary and contemporary poetics.

The beginning of this essay will have a broad focus and then narrow down to one poet who exemplifies the central issue of this essay: Dana Gioia, and then broaden its scope again. Gioia is a well-known poet, essayist, and former businessman. His poetry clearly has unhidden biographical information contained in its lines, yet, according to research – and some of the information found on some the backs of his published collections – Gioia is a champion of the New Formalist movement, instead of an out of place confessional. Gioia was also the chairman of the national Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. There, he practically saved the organization’s funding and launched several successful campaigns. His interests in both the academic and “real” world make him an ideal candidate to discuss, since he is impacted by the political currents of both realms. Plus, his publication time-line – from the 1980s through the 2000s – also makes him a contemporary poet.

Gioia could, however, be replaced by many of the published, mainstream (meaning non-experimental) poets of the 1990s and the 2000s. For example, Natasha Trethewey. She was the United States’ Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014 (she has since been replaced by Charles Wright), and her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry, Native Guard, if it had been published in the 1960s surely would have been lumped in with the confessionals. The decision to focus on Gioia has a lot to do with Gioia’s article “Can Poetry Matter?” In the piece, first published in The Atlantic and later republished with more of his essays in a collection that shares the title of the main article, Gioia makes several claims against the state of poetry in the 1990s.* The best thesis created a lot of response because of Gioia’s attacks on the professional poet, the state of poetry’s readership, and the performative aspects of poets’ work today. This essay shall go into more detail on Gioia’s opinions and his poetics, and why they are important to the decline of the acceptance of the confessional mode, among other things, later on.

* Gioia writes: “When the original essay appeared in the April 1991 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the editors warned me to expect angry letters from interested parties. When the hate mail arrived typed on the letterheads of university writing programs, no one was surprised. What astonished the Atlantic editors, however, was the sheer size and the intensity of the response. ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ eventually generated more mail than any article the Atlantic had published in decades”

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