The New American Poetry

From fifty to forty years ago America went through a widely publicized Poetic Renaissance. The writing of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, made hilarious copy for the newspapers. Scandal sheets ran succulent exposés of the wicked doings of the avant-garde in sinful Greenwich Village. Even more lurid stories were retailed of those lost souls, the “expatriates” — actually young writers off on their traditional wander year abroad — in popular mythology combinations of Benedict Arnold and the Marquis de Sade. What was really happening was that American poetry was moving from an isolated provincial innocence into the mainstream of world literature.

The writers of those days have long since become our still living classics and are taught in all well-appointed schools. In fact, they are, in the eyes of the present younger generation, taught just a little too much. For one high-school English major who has read Longfellow, hundreds have parsed The Waste Land. The living utterance of the major American poets of the first quarter of this century has been buried under a polar ice cap of commentary and exegesis. Nothing like it has been seen since ancient Alexandria or the Chinese Empire in its decadence.

Once again today the doings of poets are hot copy. A popular myth has been built of bearded savages who shoot themselves full of dope in public places — preferably on television — and take off their clothes at fashionable soirées. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, once a vulgar stereotype has been manufactured, plenty of people will appear, anxious to conform to it. What has been happening in American poetry is another thing altogether.

The young poets who have come into notice since the Second World War have certain common characteristics, and they are certainly wholesome ones. Primary is an emphasis on direct, personal communication. All of them have something to say and are anxious to have other people pay attention. In some this has taken the form of a poetry of explicit social protest. Sensationalists have discovered something they have named the Beat Generation and have played it up as an outrageous novelty. The source of all this furor is a small group of poets, rather atypical of the present younger generation, who write much like the Proletarians of the Thirties — only considerably better.

Practically all revolutions in poetry since time began have been nothing but reassertions, after a period of academic sterility, of the abiding principles of all poetry everywhere. There is little difference between the Preface to Lyrical Ballads and the Imagist Manifesto. So today, the poetry of the latest renaissance seeks always to be “simple, sensuous and passionate.” It is not the fault of the poets if scandal-mongers have chosen to play up the nasty, brutish and turgid.

As always, those who strive to reassert simplicity and personal directness are accused of being difficult, obscure, “avant-garde.” This is just the massive resistance of bad taste. The Jesuits call it “invincible ignorance.” It is a widespread response to any and all new poetry. However, we live in a time of widespread literacy. The most astonishing thing about the contemporary poetry renaissance is its popularity. Once poets started saying things people wanted to hear, a vast, unsuspected audience appeared. In comparison with the writers of a generation ago, the academic, self-styled Reactionary Generation, whose leaders were lucky if their books sold in editions of three hundred, the postwar writers are genuinely popular poets, whose books sell like novels, and who could live off the lecture platform if they so chose.

Just as this poetry is at once popular and “avant-garde,” so it is also intensely American, a powerful declaration of independence of the English tradition, recently so popular with the Reactionary Generation, and a return to the mainstream of modern verse as it has been practiced throughout the world — except in England — for the past half century. It is always that money which is most solidly based at home which functions as an international currency.

For most of the twentieth century there has existed a kind of pendulum swing, an alternation of style in American poetry. This might be called the periodic rise and fall of French and Populist and then English, Puritan and academic influences. The only trouble with such a simplification is that except for the brief period when W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Day Lewis were in their salad days, the Americans usually anticipated developments in Great Britain and sometimes in France. It has been forgotten that the first so-called abstract and cubist poetry was written by Gertrude Stein and Walter Conrad Arensburg. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, poems which attempt to translate into poetry the vision of the analytical cubist still life, first appeared several years before the analogous poems of André Salmon and Pierre Reverdy. American Imagism was French in inspiration. The dissociative techniques of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land were derived immediately from the work of a minor French (actually Belgian) poet, Jean de Bosschère, who was living in London and was part of their circle during the First World War.

Out of the work of Pound, Eliot and the French tradition from Guillaume Apollinaire to the Dadaists came a whole crop of American and British poets — Louis Zukofsky, Walter Lowenfels, Nancy Cunard, Samuel Beckett, J.G. Macleod, whose work appeared in transition and other avant-garde magazines of the Twenties. Contemporaneously with them Malcolm Cowley and Matthew Josephson and their friends on Broom had imported into America a rather collegiate version of Dadaism. At the same time Yvor Winters was writing a sparse, cubist, but intellectual rather than imagist, dissociated verse under the influence of, I suppose, Mallarmé, especially the metaphysical late poem “Un Coup de dés.” A couple of years later, at first under the inspiration of transition, a wave of Surrealism swept over a section of verse in English. The best poets of this period were probably the American leaders of the movement, Eugene Jolas, Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford.

Throughout its entire history American avant-garde verse has compared very favorably with the work of its presumed masters across the Atlantic. As the years go by Philippe Soupault and Tristan Tzara seem pretty thin stuff. Unfortunately little of this work is available, but samples can be found in anthologies in public libraries: Others edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Louis Zukofsky’s Objectivist Anthology, Parker Tyler’s Modern Things, William Carlos Williams’s Contact Collection, the five numbers of the annual American Caravan, and a number of anthologies edited by Jolas. These by no manner of means cover the field. Certain poets like Walter Lowenfels do not appear at all. Yvor Winters forbids all publication of his early work. Hardly a man is left alive who remembers that Matthew Josephson started out as a poet. For almost twenty years it was as though these people had never been.

What obliterated them from memory was a world economic crisis. They were overwhelmed by the Proletarian Thirties. No sooner had the literary soviets collapsed in ignominy than, to mix a metaphor, another wave of the future swept over American verse. Revolution was followed by counterrevolution — both of them about equally real politically. Up until the end of the Second World War the dominant tendency in American poetry was politically reactionary and stylistically conservative. Its politics was derived from the novels of Walter Scott and those American imitations Red Rock and The Clansman, and the rasher political excursions of Mr. Eliot. Its literary models were the poets of the English Baroque and the Chaucerian Decadence. For a number of years the people in this group, rather like the man in Orwell’s 1984, rewrote the past on their own terms, and their immediate predecessors were forgotten.

Postwar years are characteristically periods of wholesale literary revaluation. Everybody knows that this is what happened after the First World War. It is only now becoming apparent that the same thing occurred after the Second World War. Looking back over fifteen years of fiction we can see now that we are in the midst of a period of impassioned social criticism in the novel, far more intense and far more mature than the stereotyped documents of the Thirties. No one has come up to the major writers of those days — John Dos Passos or James Farrell, for instance — but on the other hand we have been spared the badly written empty formulas of the old-time “strike novel.”

The years immediately after the Second World War witnessed a sudden efflorescence of avant-garde “little magazines,” a type of publication that it had been assumed had gone out of existence for good a literary generation before. In the course of time a whole school of poets was developed in these magazines. For several years they could publish nowhere else. The editors were young men of high principle and great devotion. One of them managed to pay his printers with his savings from the G.I. Bill. Another used most of a Guggenheim fellowship to print other writers. Another lived in poverty in Majorca and spent practically all of his income on a magazine and a series of handsomely produced books. Cid Corman, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, Richard Emerson and their magazines Origin, Black Mountain Review, Jargon, Golden Goose, laid the foundations for a new minor renaissance in American verse.

One of the most interesting things about these young postwar poets is their decentralization (it has never been noticed that this is also true of the contemporary novelists). They grew up not only in independence of the capital — the literary marketplace — but far away from it and in deliberate antagonism to it. They couldn’t very well do anything else. To this day few of them have been published in the respectable literary quarterlies. The only geographical focus was San Francisco, where a literary world with stronger connections with London or Paris had been maturing for many years. San Francisco had its own magazines, its own presses, its own literary reputations, but the rest of the country was unaware of this faraway ferment.

In San Francisco also began the now fabulously successful oral presentation of poetry. For years, in fact from long before the war, there have been more poetry readings every week in San Francisco than I for one have ever been able to keep track of. At the present time American poets run the danger of being assimilated to the condition of Les Brown’s band, Mort Sahl or Singer’s Midgets. I suppose this feverish activity — extremely well paid by the way — has its dangers, but as far as I can see it is all to the good. Poetry is an art of speech, and it can only be helped by its restoration to immediate contact with a living audience. The major factor in the building of a nationwide poetry circuit has been the onerous, self-sacrificing work of Elizabeth Kray at the New York YMHA Poetry Center, and on the West Coast of Ruth Witt-Diamant at the San Francisco Poetry Center, both of whom have received help from the Rockefeller Foundation. As the audience for poetry has grown smaller and smaller in England and France, it has become a genuinely popular art in America.

Now for the poets. Their books are still not any too easy to come by, most of them. Few have been published by the more conventional publishers. They have had to rely on their own presses or the limited opportunities offered by the two houses which specialize in the avant-garde, Grove Press and New Directions.

Unquestionably the best of the lot is Denise Levertov. She first appeared, a young Land Girl, working on a farm in Essex, who sent her poems to Poetry London and Poetry Quarterly. In no time at all Herbert Read, Tambimuttu, Charles Wrey Gardener, Alex Comfort, and incidentally myself, were in excited correspondence about her. In those days she was the baby of the New Romanticism. Her poetry had about it a wistful Schwärmerei unlike anything in English except perhaps Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It could be compared to the earliest poetry of Rilke or some of the more melancholy songs of Brahms. At the end of the war she published a small book in England, lived in France for a while, married a literary G.I. and came to America. Almost immediately she changed her style completely. At first it looked as though she was going to be just another of the accomplished disciples of William Carlos Williams. But in a short time she had evolved a style of her own — clear, sparse, immediate and vibrant with a very special sensibility and completely feminine insight. She is not only the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, she is far and away the most profound, and what may be more important, the most modest and the most moving. She can communicate the same vertiginous rapture as the great imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) but without the need of her rather theatrical stage settings.

Second only to Denise Levertov is Robert Creeley. Superficially his poems look like the cameos of Mallarmé — such still lifes as “Autre Éventail” or “Petit Air” — or the intense little epigrams of William Carlos Williams — the plums in the icebox, the wheelbarrow glazed by the rain or the cat stepping over the window sill. On close inspection Creeley’s poems turn out to be anything but Imagism. They are erotic poems, but what gives them their terrific impact is neither love nor lust. Each is an excruciating spasm of guilt. It is obvious that so limited a subject matter hardly provides the scope for major poetry. But there is no question of Creeley’s effectiveness within his self-imposed or perhaps inescapable limitations. In the last couple of years he seems to have become more at ease in the world and less haunted by his relations with others, and his poetry is, however slowly, gaining in humanity and breadth. What distinguishes it is the same thing that keeps Mallarmé important — remarkable skill and special sensitivity to the inflections of speech — however special a speech either Creeley’s or Mallarmé’s may be.

A slightly older man, one who has had great influence on the entire group as a teacher and theorist, is Charles Olson. Like Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley, in fact like all these people, he owes a great deal to William Carlos Williams. He owes even more to Ezra Pound’s Cantos. For several years he has been writing a long spiritual epic, a tighter, drier, less gaudy descendant of the Cantos — the Maximus Poems. This work is in the same tradition as the “interior epics,” actually philosophical reveries, of the Twenties — Zukofsky’s A or Lowenfels’s Some Deaths. Olson lacks the passion and trouble and concern of his predecessors and he lacks the intensity of Creeley and Levertov. No one could quarrel with his scope. His canvas is as broad as Pound’s, but his material makes more sense in terms of actual life. I suppose the best comparison is William Carlos Williams’s own “epic,” Paterson. Olson’s shorter poems have a ruminative complexity a little like the later long poems of Wallace Stevens.

Associated with Olson and Creeley are a number of poets, once students at the college or contributors to the magazine — the “Black Mountain group.” The best of them are probably Paul Blackburn, author of some of the best translations ever made from the Provençal, and Jonathan Williams, the editor of the Jargon Press.

For many years poets in San Francisco had been satisfied with their own, very satisfying world. Local fame brought considerable general prestige and standing in the community. The rewards at home were so much greater than the results of a frantic pursuit of national reputation that nobody bothered. In the course of time at least three poets began to be heard of around the country — Philip Lamantia, once editor with Tyler and Ford of the Surrealist magazine View, Brother Antoninus (William Everson), a Dominican oblate, and Robert Duncan.

Brother Antoninus is a rough, urgent startlingly honest poet, with a passionate identification with the Californian landscape. His verse has the same kind of integrity as that of Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, the early Sandburg, or the best of Robinson Jeffers. In certain, what are called enduring moral qualities, he is one of the very best poets we have. In style he has achieved a sort of sublimation of the native Populist tradition.

Philip Lamantia has more of a reputation abroad than he has ever acquired in the States. He belongs to that small group of second-generation Surrealists who dedicated themselves to an actual quest for madness — Artaud, René Crevel — the literature of Black Magic and destruction. Although Lamantia is little more than thirty, he already seems to belong to another age. By this I do not mean that his poetry is dated or unimpressive, quite the contrary.

One of the characteristics of the recently powerful Reactionary Generation was a willful provincialism, a deliberate cutting off of American verse from the main stream of world poetry of the twentieth century. Sidney Lanier was far more important to the Southern Agrarians than was Goethe . . . let alone Baudelaire or Apollinaire. Robert Duncan has that special quality of temper which he shares with Edmund Wilson or Pandit Nehru, he is a Good European. Although Duncan has been singularly open to all the influences of all times and places, and has learned from all the Old Masters of Modernism, from Reubén Darío to Yves Bonnefoy, his distinguishing characteristic is not the breadth of his influences, but the depth and humanness of his heart. Now that he is approaching early middle age he has begun to take on something of the forgotten grandeur of the great nineteenth-century “men of the world” of letters — Monckton Milnes or Walter Bagehot. I can think of no other poet of my time of which anything like this could be said — with most, the very idea is ridiculous. As mentor and example, Duncan’s influence on the younger men of the new New Poetry has been incalculable.

The now widely publicized San Francisco Renaissance owes more to Duncan than to any other one person. Since writing poetry seems to have become one of the three favorite indoor sports of the city, it would take pages merely to list the teeming poets and poetasters. Among the better ones (and by no means a complete list) are: Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, Michael McClure, James Broughton, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, Thomas Parkinson, Kirby Doyle, Ebbe Borregaard, William Margolis, Ron Loewinsohn, David Meltzer, Eve and Dan Langton — just a selection from the poets who have found some publication nationally. A large number of people perhaps as good have been content with local recognition and have never bothered to seek anything else.

This regional activity had been going full swing for many years when suddenly it received a number of spectacular recruits. First was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He is a successful book dealer, secretly the possessor of three degrees, one from the Sorbonne, a most imaginative editor and publisher, whose “Pocket Poets” series has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and a genuinely popular poet. His own A Coney Island of the Mind nudges Howl for first place as the most popular poetry book of the decade, and without the latter’s somewhat dubious publicity. Resident for many years in France, he “thinks in French”; his verse bears strong resemblance to that of Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert and Paul Éluard. Its nearest American analogues are the work of e.e. cummings and James Laughlin.

In my opinion the most promising of the new additions to the San Francisco group are Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, both from the Northwest. Both write poetry which has learned much from the Far East, and which is saturated with a feeling for the new, human significance of the landscape and the primitive peoples of the mountains and forests of the Pacific Coast.

About four years ago a young man in violent revolt against the polite literary world of Columbia University, where he had been the student “most likely to succeed” in literature, showed up in San Francisco and stayed for a brief visit. The permissive atmosphere seems to have exploded him. His name, of course, is Allen Ginsberg. I am not prepared to defend Ginsberg’s fantastic public image, one of the most unfortunate hallucinations publicitaires of our time. Once he throws away the worn-out Davy Crockett cap of the Beat Generation, it will be apparent that he is a typical American popular poet, in the tradition of Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg. Certainly the youth now gaining headlines in the journalistically fashionable “new revolt of Youth” accept him as a spokesman, and well they might. This does not mean that his poetry is not thoroughly traditional — in one of the oldest traditions, that of Hosea or the other, angry Minor Prophets of the Bible. The picture magazines to the contrary notwithstanding, his connection with San Francisco is of the most tenuous.

Ginsberg’s associate, Gregory Corso, is a genuine naïf. A real wildman, with all the charm of a hoodlum Le Douanier Rousseau, a wholesome Antonin Artaud, or a “sincere” Tristan Tzara. At his worst he is an amusing literary curiosity; at his best, his poems are metaphysical hotfoots and poetic cannon crackers.

Recently there has grown up, in the very heart of the literary marketplace, a New York group of young poets, loosely identified with the people I have been discussing. They are more urbane, literally more citified, than the outlanders, and their poetry is pitched in a lower key, quieter, more modest, more sophisticated. (Of course, several of the people I have mentioned live in New York, but they are not part of this group.) The best, I think, is Barbara Guest (who now lives in Washington, D.C.), very like Denise Levertov, but less intense and skillful. Others are Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara (both associated with the Tenth Street Club of abstract painters), James Schuyler, Joel Oppenheimer, LeRoi Jones, Edward Field — again, the list could be prolonged indefinitely.

To sum up. If I were asked to characterize all these poets as succinctly as possible, and to distinguish them from the literary generation immediately before them, I would say that they are at once more European and more American, more modernist and more popular, more conscious of the social role of the poet and more ready to, as they say, sacrifice all for Art. Young as they are, they have been around more than their sheltered academic colleagues. They are all, in their way, men and women of the world. Most of them are familiar with the literature of at least one other language. Most of them make a living in ways as little connected with writing as is possible. One thing they are not. They are not compromised.

Critics, and some poets, especially in times when they feel like writing manifestoes, like to think of poetry as fulfilling some sort of program or other. Of course, poetry does nothing of the sort; the programs are all post-mortem. At last in fact there are just the poems, experiences that must compete with all the other poems ever written — Sappho or Horace or Dante or James Whitcomb Riley. I may have been able to deduce a sort of program from the poems written by the poets who have come to public notice since the war and so I suppose it could be said that their poems do exhibit a high degree of success in fulfilling the demands of such a program. What counts are the poems. By and large they are successful. They are fresh, direct, concerned and truly humane in a way in which the poetry of the preceding period was not. I am not at all sure that anyone has come up who is sheerly as good as the classic modernists of American verse — Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Moore and the rest — although Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov certainly approach their standards.

Someone once said of one of the older leaders of this new renaissance that he made poetry a social force in San Francisco. This is about as complimentary a remark as could be made about a poet. Whatever else they have done, our young poets have returned poetry to society. Today in America, more than anywhere else in the world, large numbers of people find poetry interesting. It says something to them, something meaningful in their dilemmas and exultations. This is no small accomplishment.



This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (12 February 1961) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1961. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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