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Bodies on the Line

Performance and the Sixties Poetry Reading

Raphael Allison

Bodies on the Line offers the first sustained study of the poetry reading in its most formative period: the 1960s. Raphael Allison closely examines a vast archive of audio recordings of several key postwar American poets to explore the social and literary context of the sixties poetry reading, which is characterized by contrasting differing styles of performance: the humanist style and the skeptical strain. The humanist style, made mainstream by the Beats and their imitators, is characterized by faith in the power of presence, emotional communion, and affect. The skeptical strain emphasizes openness of interpretation and multivalent meaning, a lack of stability or consistency, and ironic detachment.

By comparing these two dominant styles of reading, Allison argues that attention to sixties poetry readings reveals poets struggling between the kind of immediacy and presence that readings suggested and a private retreat from such performance-based publicity, one centered on the text itself. Recordings of Robert Frost, Charles Olson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Larry Eigner, and William Carlos Williams—all of whom emphasized voice, breath, and spoken language and who were inveterate professional readers in the sixties—expose this struggle in often surprising ways. In deconstructing assertions about the role and importance of the poetry reading during this period, Allison reveals just how dramatic, political, and contentious poetry readings could be. By discussing how to "hear" as well as "read" poetry, Bodies on the Line offers startling new vantage points from which to understand American poetry since the 1960s as both performance and text.

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The Body of Brooklyn

David Lazar

In The Body of Brooklyn David Lazar, an acclaimed essayist and prose stylist, offers a vividly detailed, hilarious, and touching recollection of his Brooklyn upbringing in the 1960s and 70s. His immigrant Jewish heritage and his bodily history—from the travails of childhood obesity to the sexual triumphs of post-adolescent leanness—form the core of this series of essays, all of which will win the interest and admiration of readers. Moreover, this film-flavored confection is so infused with Lazar's fascinating turn of mind and memory, forever digressing and reflecting upon his digressions, without ever losing the thread of his story, that his essays will give the reader the distinctive pleasure of witnessing an extraordinary mental performance.

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Vanessa Roveto

Vanessa Roveto’s debut collection, bodys, is a work of stunning strangeness, force, and audacity, generated by—and degenerating toward—the unanswerable question at the heart of poetic speech: What does it mean to be “a person?” A dizzying hybrid of poetry and prose, post-human analytics and ribaldry, spiritual autobiography, and grim satire, Roveto lends exacting voice to “a most complicated vocabulary of feeling-your-feelings.” Viscerally drawn to forbidden states and suspicious of its own desires, bodys is literature as high-risk, low-tech radiology, mapping the dim edges of identity and identification: “Brain scans indicated the moral center and the disgust center overlap on the mind field.”

Roveto’s sentences hurtle forward with withering disjunctive energy, laying down traps of wordplay, tacking toward and veering away from syntactical targets, trying-on and sloughing-off pronoun positions with abandon. Yet for all its postmodern bravado—and irreverence, and frequent scary hilarity—bodys remains abidingly attached to exploring the problem of a human speaker addressing itself to another, and colliding with its own otherness along the way. It is the same problem—articulation as disarticulation—that animates the great Renaissance sonnet sequences, from which bodys is affectionately, and perversely, descended. What is bodys—what are bodys—anyway? A dysfunction in the body’s ability to multiply itself? A dysmorphic take on the body’s sense of its reality? A dystopian vision of a world in which boundaries between selves and others have been overwhelmed by commerce, surveillance, medical technology, nihilistic agitprop? “Last night one of the girls asked about the relationship between a body and nobody,” Roveto writes. “It was the beautiful question.”

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The Book of a Hundred Hands

The hand is second only to language in defining the human being, and its constant presence makes it a ready reminder of our humanity, with all its privileges and obligations. In this dazzling collection, Cole Swensen explores the hand from any angle approachable by language and art. Her hope: to exhaust the hand as subject matter; her joy: the fact that she couldn't.These short poems reveal the hand from a hundred different perspectives. Incorporating sign language, drawing manuals, paintings from the 14th to the 20th century, shadow puppets, imagined histories, positions (the “hand as a boatless sail”), and professions (“the hand as window in which the panes infinitesimal”), Cole Swensen's fine hand is “that which augments” our understanding and appreciation of “this freak wing,” this “wheel that comforts none” yet remains “a fruit the size and shape of the heart.”

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Booming from the Mists of Nowhere

The Story of the Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greg Hoch

For ten months of the year, the prairie-chicken’s drab colors allow it to disappear into the landscape. However, in April and May this grouse is one of the most outrageously flamboyant birds in North America. Competing with each other for the attention of females, males gather before dawn in an explosion of sights and sounds—“booming from the mists of nowhere,” as Aldo Leopold wrote decades ago. There’s nothing else like it, and it is perilously close to being lost. In this book, ecologist Greg Hoch shows that we can ensure that this iconic bird flourishes once again.

Skillfully interweaving lyrical accounts from early settlers, hunters, and pioneer naturalists with recent scientific research on the grouse and its favored grasslands, Hoch reveals that the prairie-chicken played a key role in the American settlement of the Midwest. Many hungry pioneers regularly shot and ate the bird, as well as trapping hundreds of thousands, shipping them eastward by the trainload for coastal suppers. As a result of both hunting and habitat loss, the bird’s numbers plummeted to extinction across 90 percent of its original habitat. Iowa, whose tallgrass prairies formed the very center of the greater prairie-chicken’s range, no longer supports a native population of the bird most symbolic of prairie habitat.

The steep decline in the prairie-chicken population is one of the great tragedies of twentieth-century wildlife management and agricultural practices. However, Hoch gives us reason for optimism. These birds can thrive in agriculturally productive grasslands. Careful grazing, reduced use of pesticides, well-placed wildlife corridors, planned burning, higher plant, animal, and insect diversity: these are the keys. If enough blocks of healthy grasslands are scattered over the midwestern landscape, there will be prairie-chickens—and many of their fellow creatures of the tall grasses. Farmers, ranchers, conservationists, and citizens can reverse the decline of grassland birds and insure that future generations will hear the booming of the prairie-chicken.

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Botanical Companions

A Memoir of Plants and Place

In her luminous inquiry into the intricate connections among work, place, and people, Frieda Knobloch explores the lives of two Rocky Mountain botanists, Aven Nelson (1859-1952) and Ruth Ashton Nelson (1896-1987). Aven was a professor of botany at the University of Wyoming for many years; Ruth compiled field guides to Rocky Mountain plants and wrote articles on botany for magazines. The two met and married when Aven was in his seventies and Ruth was in her mid thirties, and they developed a symbiotic partnership that joined work and play, learning and companionship. Into this relatively straightforward reconstruction of two lives Knobloch blends the history of her own life as a scholar and an amateur naturalist, her own journal entries, and her letters written to Ruth to create a transformative environmental auto/biography.

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Brave New Words

How Literature Will Save the Planet

The activist tradition in American literature has long testified to the power of words to change people and the power of people to change the world, yet in recent years many professional humanists have chosen to distract themselves with a postmodern fundamentalism of indeterminacy and instability rather than engage with social and political issues. Throughout her bold and provocative call to action, Elizabeth Ammons argues that the responsibility now facing humanists is urgent: inside and outside academic settings, they need to revive the liberal arts as a progressive cultural force that offers workable ideas and inspiration in the real-world struggle to achieve social and environmental justice.
      Brave New Words challenges present and future literary scholars and teachers to look beyond mere literary critique toward the concrete issue of social change and how to achieve it. Calling for a profound realignment of thought and spirit in the service of positive social change, Ammons argues for the continued importance of multiculturalism in the twenty-first century despite attacks on the concept from both right and left. Concentrating on activist U.S. writers—from ecocritics to feminists to those dedicated to exposing race and class biases, from Jim Wallis and Cornel West to Winona LaDuke and Paula Moya and many others—she calls for all humanists to link their work to the progressive literature of the last half century, to insist on activism in the service of positive change as part of their mission, and to teach the power of hope and action to their students.
      As Ammons clearly demonstrates, much of American literature was written to expose injustice and motivate readers to work for social transformation. She challenges today’s academic humanists to address the issues of hope and purpose by creating a practical activist pedagogy that gives students the knowledge to connect their theoretical learning to the outside world. By relying on the transformative power of literature and replacing nihilism and powerlessness with conviction and faith, the liberal arts can offer practical, useful inspiration to everyone seeking to create a better world.

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A Brighter Word Than Bright

Keats at Work

Dan Beachy-Quick

The Romantic poet John Keats, considered by many as one of the greatest poets in the English language, has long been the subject of attention from scholars who seek to understand him and poets who seek to emulate him. Bridging these impulses, A Brighter Word Than Bright is neither historical biography nor scholarly study, but instead a biography of Keats’s poetic imagination. Here the noted poet Dan Beachy-Quick enters into Keats’s writing—both his letters and his poems—not to critique or judge, not to claim or argue, but to embrace the passion and quickness of his poetry and engage the aesthetic difficulties with which Keats grappled.
Combining a set of biographical portraits that place symbolic pressure on key moments in Keats’s life with a chronological examination of the development of Keats-as-poet through his poems and letters, Beachy-Quick explores the growth of the young man’s poetic imagination during the years of his writing life, from 1816 to 1820. A Brighter Word Than Bright aims to enter the poems and the mind that wrote them, to explore and mine Keats’s poetic concerns and ambitions. It is a mimetic tribute to the poet’s life and work, a brilliant enactment that is also a thoughtful consideration.

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A Broken Thing

Poets on the Line

edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee

In the arena of poetry and poetics over the past century, no idea has been more alive and contentious than the idea of form, and no aspect of form has more emphatically sponsored this marked formal concern than the line. But what, exactly, is the line? Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee’s anthology gives seventy original answers that lead us deeper into the world of poetry, but also far out into the world at large: its people, its politics, its ecology. The authors included here, emerging and established alike, write from a range of perspectives, in terms of both aesthetics and identity. Together, they offer a dynamic hybrid collection that captures a broad spectrum of poetic practice in the twenty-first century. 

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Building Their Own Waldos

Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age

Robert D. Habich

By the end of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was well on his way to becoming the “Wisest American” and the “Sage of Concord,” a literary celebrity and a national icon. With that fame came what Robert Habich describes as a blandly sanctified version of Emerson held widely by the reading public. Building Their Own Waldos sets out to understand the dilemma faced by Emerson’s early biographers: how to represent a figure whose subversive individualism had been eclipsed by his celebrity, making him less a representative of his age than a caricature of it.
Drawing on never-before-published letters, diaries, drafts, business records, and private documents, Habich explores the making of a cultural hero through the stories of Emerson’s first biographers— George Willis Cooke, a minister most recently from Indianapolis who considered himself a disciple; the English reformer and newspaper mogul Alexander Ireland, a friend for half a century; Moncure D. Conway, a Southern abolitionist then residing in London, who called Emerson his “spiritual father and intellectual teacher”; the poet and medical professor Oliver Wendell Holmes, with Emerson a member of Boston’s gathering of literary elite, the Saturday Club; James Elliot Cabot, the family’s authorized biographer, an architect and amateur philosopher with unlimited access to Emerson’s unpublished papers; and Emerson’s son Edward, a physician and painter whose father had passed over him as literary executor in favor of Cabot.
Just as their biographies reveal a complex, socially engaged Emerson, so too do the biographers’ own stories illustrate the real-world perils, challenges, and motives of life-writing in the late nineteenth century, when biographers were routinely vilified as ghoulish and disreputable and biography as a genre underwent a profound redefinition. Building Their Own Waldos is at once a revealing look at Emerson’s constructed reputation, a case study in the rewards and dangers of Victorian life-writing, and the story of six authors struggling amidst personal misfortunes and shifting expectations to capture the elusive character of America’s “representative man,” as they knew him and as they needed him to be.


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