Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry
Ways of Nothingness
The eve of the second millennium falls 50 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Looking across the spectrum of American poetry since 1945, John Gery explores the role that poets have begun to play in the nuclear age. While their diverse voices join in protesting against the end of the world, poetry also embodies what Gery calls "the way of nothingness" in contemporary experience, an individual sense of human continuity paradoxically coupled with a global sense of impending annihilation.
The first full-length study of nuclear theory and American poetry, this book examines four distinct poetic approaches to nuclear culture--protest poetry, apocalyptic lyric poetry, psychohistorical poetry, and the poetry of uncertainty. Each is developed through a discussion of representative poems from a range of poets, including an extended study of works by Denise Levertov, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, and John Ashbery. As a chorus of voices, Gery contends, these poets articulate both resistance to annihilation and an acceptance of the nuclear present.
What recommends this poetry, he argues, is not its oppositional posture as much as its "unique imaginative ability to connect the material threat and symbolic presence of nuclearism with the deepest confines of the human spirit." He concludes that art, especially poetry, has a critical role to play in our time. Though it serves as a resource on nuclear-age poetry and theory, the book also speaks to general readers interested in art, literature, and contemporary American culture.
John Gery is professor of English at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of two books of poems, The Enemies of Leisure (1995) and Charlemagne: A Song of Gestures (1983), and of articles on contemporary poetry in journals such as Verse, Critique, Essays in Literature, and War, Literature, and the Arts.
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"an impressive tribute to the multifaceted and life-affirming response poets have made to this grimmest of al topics."
"Drawing from theories of Robert Jay Lifton, Theodor Adorno, and Edith Wyschogrod, Gery offers a cogent and nuanced discussion of Auschwitz as both a uniquely extreme event and a human disaster comparable to the nuclear 'death-world.' Building on Wyschogrod's study of Martin Heidegger's call for a 'reassessment of the relationship between language and "techne"' (25), Gery argues that poetry provides both a 'pertinent voice in the discourse of survival' and a hermeneutic mode of disclosing what is at stake both in nuclear catastrophe and 'the more abstract concept of annihilation' (8)." -- Contemporary Literature
"Gery's important achievement has been to integrate a field full of fugitive insights into a coherent schema in which the integrity of the poems as linguistic artifacts is fully honored at the same time that their revelations about our precarious life in the next century nourish our ability as citizens to exert control over our fate."
--Michigan Quarterly Review