Harvard Professor to Delve into Poets’ Hostility for their Mothers in Lecture at UB

Release Date: September 21, 2000

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Barbara E. Johnson, Ph.D., Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society, Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University, will present a free lecture at 4 p.m. Oct. 26 in the Screening Room of the Center for the Arts on the University at Buffalo's North (Amherst) Campus.

Johnson, whose lecture will be entitled "The Poet's Mother: The Cases of Sylvia Plath and Charles Baudelaire," will speak as part of the "University and the World" lecture series sponsored by UB's College of Arts and Sciences.

The lecture series this year is exploring violence from a number of different perspectives and will feature major figures in the fields of anthropology, psychology, history, comparative literatures and law.

Besides an early death, poets Sylvia Plath and Charles Baudelaire shared a heightened sense of morbidity, an obsession with "the abyss," late poetry noted for dissonant harmonies and barely contained fury, and censorious mothers.

"What could be more antithetical to the notion of violence than the notion of motherhood?" Johnson asks. "That very antithesis may contain its own violence, however. In this paper, I will look at the work of two poets renowned for their hostility toward their own mothers and at the position of 'mother' which their rage presupposes."

James Bono, UB associate professor of history who helped coordinate the program, noted, "Clearly Johnson is dealing with the paradoxical position of the 'mother' in our culture and its relation to violence and to creativity.

"To my mind, this is an important topic to address, since it is all to easy to dismiss violence as a negative force and undesirable phenomenon in society, without realizing just how deeply implicated in, and dependent on, violence our culture is," he adds. "In addition, the description seems to suggest that the arbitrary (gendered) dichotomies-motherhood vs. violence--enshrined in our culture is itself perhaps a kind of violence."

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