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Mary Jo Bang is a Missouri-based poet who has come to critical and popular attention over the course of the last decade with a series of acclaimed poetry collections. She has the reputation of being a distinctly intellectual poet who asks major philosophical questions about art and existence, but her lively poetry has popular appeal as well.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Obscurity, Critical Acclaim
Mary Jo Bang (nee Ward) was born in central Missouri, in the town of Waynesville, and grew up in St. Louis. She attended North western University, where she earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in sociology, graduating summa cum laude. Bang also earned a bachelor’s in photography from the University of Westminster, U.K. and a master’s in creative writing at Columbia University. She had one son from an early marriage; he died at age thirty-seven from an overdose of prescription pills.
Bang has made a career of editing and teaching poetry, serving as poetry co-editor for the Boston Review from 1995 to 2005 and, in her home town of St. Louis, teaching as Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University.
Bang would not publish her first collection of poetry, Apology for Want, until 1997. The book garnered immediate attention and critical praise, winning several awards, including the Bakeless Prize. She has three times been selected for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series and has won a Pushcart Prize and Guggenheim fellowship.
In all, she has published five books: Apology for Want, Louise in Love, The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of the Swans (both 2001), The Eye Like a Strange Balloon (2004), and Elegy (2007). Her latest book, Elegy (2007), was written in the aftermath of the death of her son and dwells on the theme of grief, pain, and loss in the wake of death. Although she did not write the poems with an eye towards publishing them, when her editors asked for new material, these works were, at that time, all she had to show them. Their success surprised her, as she told Newsweek: What does it mean, they ”loved the poem”? I was talking about wanting to kill myself. What made these poems acceptable? T. S. Eliot taught us you can write about your nervous breakdown, but call it ”The Waste Land” and make it big and crazy enough to hide behind. I’m not hiding behind much here.
Works in Literary Context
Bang’s poetry is characterized by a light, playful rhythm and tone that is simultaneously subtle and intellectual. Her themes tend to be ambitiously philosophical. As an example of her depth, Bang makes frequent use of irony in her poetry, using language to imply the opposite of an apparent literal meaning. She often uses her irony to tease the reader as much as her subject, challenging expectations and interpretations.
Bang has demonstrated a repeated interest in a poetic technique known as ekphrasis, a term used to refer to poetry that expresses visual elements, particularly as expressed through paintings. Bang’s entire collection The Eye like a Strange Balloon is based on ekphrasis —each poem takes a different work of art as its subject. Bang’s use of ekphrasis is typically not merely concerned with analyzing a work of art, such as the 1820 poem ”Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, but rather uses the work of art as a jumping-off point to explore deeper, tangential themes.
Works in Critical Context
Bang first gained widespread, largely positive critical attention after the publication of Apology for Want in 1997. Since then, she has continued to enjoy support and praise from the critical community, with each of her collections receiving positive reviews.
Apology for Want
In Ploughshares, Susan Conley wrote of Apology for Want that ”[t]here is a quiet anarchy in the spare poems” about modern American culture, ”one of shopping malls and consumption. . . . But the voice is subversive and unsettling, the syntax wholly unique and invented for the dark ephemeral region of longing this book inhabits.” Frank Allen, writing in the American Book Review, said that Bang’s poems ”are a route to a new way of looking at what we’ve grown into, ‘the longing’ that restores us to what we once ‘hoped’ to be.” Publishers Weekly picked out for special praise the ”nice tension between the clarity of form and the open-endedness of Bang’s articulated emotion.”
Writing in Library Journal, Ellen Kaufman found the poems ”difficult, [and] allusive” but ”interesting, with occasional flashes of brilliance.” Conley agreed with this sentiment, saying that the effect of the poems is to leave one ”slightly stunned each time by their impact and exactitude—daring to ask the very largest of questions.”
- “Allegory.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Anne Marie Hacht. Vol. 23. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
- Keaton, Rebekah. ”Bang, Mary Jo.” Contemporary Poets. Ed. Thomas Riggs. 7th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2001.
- Adler, Jerry. ”The Poetry Of Pain.” Newsweek 151.22 (June 2, 2008): 49.
- ”Mary Jo Bang (1946-).” Poetry Foundation. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.poetry foundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=81903.
- ”Mary Jo Bang.” Poets.org. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/548.
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