The question of what a tradition is and who is entitled to lay claim to it is quite alive these days. Many contemporary poets trace their literary ancestry back to what have come to be called the New American Poetries, after Donald M. Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poetry. Furthermore, those who claim this legacy often assert a) that the very diverse poets gathered under the rubric “New American Poetries” were political and/or social revolutionaries and b) that they shared a program of total or near-total negation.
I thought that it would be illuminating to go back to Donald M. Allen’s seminal anthology to see what was actually there. Looking through the poems and the author’s statements, though many of them manifest a strong will to transformation, the forms in which this transformation is imagined rarely correspond to political impulses, and often imagine politics as another shackle that must be broken or transcended. The rebellions which many (though hardly all) of these poets engaged or hoped for were often explicitly anti-political, as utopianism often is. In his essay “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” (reprinted in Donald Allen and Warren Tallman’s anthology The Poetics of the New American Poetry, an assemblage of prose statements published by Grove Press in 1973), Gary Snyder writes that “The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim, and repress—and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze ‘moralists’ and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers” (393).
While we talk about “New American Poetries” in the plural, for Allen the new American poetry was singular, though he did divide his assembled poets into five groupings, four semi-geographic and one a catchall of “younger writers who have been associated with and in some cases influenced by the leading writers of the preceding groups, but who have evolved their own original styles and new conceptions of poetry” (xiii). He admitted that his groupings were “occasionally arbitrary and for the most part more historical than actual” and that they were for the convenience of the reader as much as a reflection of any reality other than that of geographical milieu (ibid.).
Allen was not modest in his claims for the poets in his book: “Following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, [the new poetry] has built on their achievements and gone on to evolve new conceptions of the poem. These poets have already created their own tradition [an interesting feat], their own press, and their own public. They are our avant-garde, the true continuers of the modern movement in American poetry” (xi). All forty-four poets included constitute the new American poetry. If you’re not in it, you’re not in it. One the one hand, the Nineteen Fifties literary scene was rather exclusive and exclusionary, though it did find its way to giving Gwendolyn Brooks the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. On the other hand, avant-gardes traditionally define themselves by what they push away much more than by what they accept or include. (Many members of various artistic groupings hated one another and despised one another’s work. But together they all hated something else more.)
Peter Gay makes this point in Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: “Like the avant-garde clusters that came after [them]—much, in fact, like the Impressionists—the Pre-Raphaelites were united more by what they detested than what they valued” (83). But it’s important to remember that no one in this anthology called him or herself “a New American Poet,” just as no one (at the time) called himself an Impressionist or a Fauvist or a Cubist. That was a label imposed by their inclusion in this volume. To a large degree, the book produced the phenomenon it claimed to document.
Taken as a whole, the New Americans didn’t share a poetics, let alone a politics. Like most avant-gardes, they were united only by various personal affiliations (what Goethe called elective affinities) and by their opposition to what in the Nineteen Fifties could legitimately be called by Charles Bernstein’s pejorative phrase “official verse culture.” These days, the ostensible “inside” is much more diverse, open, and porous. It’s what they were against that brought them together, not what they were for: as Allen writes in his introduction, this poetry “has shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse” (xi). This was at a time when such a phrase as “academic verse” had some descriptive and not just pejorative content.
The phrase “New American Poetries” was at least in part a marketing strategy. All artistic groupings try to publicize themselves, including by means of oppositionality. That’s one of the reasons artists get together in groups. Certainly both the Dadaists and the Surrealists engaged in such artistic publicity, as did Ezra Pound on behalf of what we now call Anglo-American Modernism. Donald M. Allen assembled an anthology with an incredibly diverse array of writers who were by and large not being read by the wider poetry audience. He (and Grove Press, the publisher, who were taking a chance on such a book) needed some hook to draw in readers, to expose these writers to a wider audience. The New American Poetry (again, singular: if you want it, this is the place to get it) was that hook. There's nothing inherently cynical or sinister in that.
As Ann Lauterbach writes, “This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. ‘New York School’ or ‘Language Poetry’ are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group” (“Misquotations from Reality,” Diacritics, 26:3-4, Fall/Winter 1996). A group identity, however tenuous or even illusory, will always get more attention than the individual writer, though of course no group could exist without the individuals that constitute it, and ultimately we only care about literary groups because we care about the writers in them (phenomena like Dada or Italian Futurism may be exceptions, in which we care more about the ideas than about the individual practitioners). But group identities and affiliations can become limitations for writers, who frequently break away from them as they develop (and as they establish their individual reputations).
Some of the poets gathered by Allen did indeed seek to transform society. Some sought to transform consciousness. Some sought to transform writing as a practice. Most just sought to write poems that felt more genuine to them than the products of the poetic orthodoxies of the 1950s. Robert Creeley, for one example, was almost purely concerned with the lyric notation of the moment-to-moment movements of his mind, emotions, and sensibilities. As he wrote in the preface to For Love: Poems 1950-1960, “Not more, say, to live than what there is, to live. I want the poem as close to this fact as I can bring it; or it me” (cited in Rosenthal, The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, 147). This implies a notion of a life more authentic or at least more awake than the one most people live, but has no necessarily political valence: various mystical disciplines of attention have the same goal.
John Ashbery was, after all, a Yale Younger Poet (and Frank O’Hara almost was, in the same year), and the revolution which interested him was what Julia Kristeva calls a revolution in poetic language largely inherited from such forebears as Raymond Roussel and Gertrude Stein, what he calls in the title of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard “other traditions” (including Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Laura Riding, John Brooks Wheelwright, and David Schubert). It’s important to note that Ashbery has cited such canonical figures as W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens as among the poets who most shaped his poetic idiom.
The “Statements on Poetics” at the end of the anthology give a sense of the poets’ interests and motivations. Very few refer to politics, though several refer in rather large and general terms to society and the world at large, and many refer to consciousness in various ways. Ferlinghetti writes that “I am put down by Beat natives who say that I cannot be beat and ‘committed’ at the same time.” He’s scathing about the disengagement of his fellow Beats, with the exception of “that Abominable Snowman of modern poetry, Allen Ginsberg”: “the ‘non-commitment’ of the artist is itself a suicidal and deluded variation of…nihilism” (413). That Ferlinghetti found it necessary to say this indicates that social transformation or even social intervention was not an agenda item for many of his fellow “New American” poets. In his essay “The New Modernism,” Paul Hoover points out that “the style of [Ferlinghetti’s] poetry is virtually mainstream in its transparent use of language and narrative tendency” (Fables of Representation 142): another refutation of the commonly assumed conjunction between “progressive” aesthetics and “progressive” politics.
Michael McClure, for example, writes in “From a Journal” that “The prime purpose of my writing is liberation. (Self-liberation first & hopefully that of the reader.)” (423). In his 1961 essay “Revolt,” McClure clarifies this statement: “There is no political revolt. All revolt is person and is against interior attitudes and images or against exterior bindings of Society that constrict and cause pain.
“(A ‘political’ revolution is a revolt of men against a lovestructure that has gone bad. Men join in a common urge to free themselves.)” (Poetics of the New American Poetry 437).
Charles Olson’s project of transformation was to reconnect man with his primal being, to forge or reforge a truer relationship with nature: as he writes in “Projective Verse,” “the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence” (395). In The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, a crucial text in the academic legitimization of “the New American Poetry,” critic M.L. Rosenthal points out that “The activist Marxian perspective implicit in the [French-language] Mao quotations is somewhat modulated by Olson throughout ‘The Kingfisher’ toward a more purely qualitative notion of dialectical process and change [“What does not change / is the will to change”]. Yet he too is programmatic, though not politically so. His attempt is to isolate and resurrect primal values that have been driven out of sight by the alienating force of European civilization” (Rosenthal 164).
The project of bringing modern man back into congruence with his natural roots was Gary Snyder’s as well, on the most visceral and immediate level: “poets don’t sing about society, they sing about nature—even if the closest they ever get to nature is their lady’s queynt. Class-structured society is a kind of mass ego. To transcend the ego is to go beyond society as well” (“Poetry and the Primitive,” Poetics of the New American Poetry 399). As he wrote in his anthology artist’s statement, “the rhythms of my poems follow the rhythm of the physical work I’m doing and life I’m leading at any given time” (420). His poetry is deeply informed by Native American cultures and folklore, anthropology, his studies of Zen Buddhism, and his use of mind-altering drugs like peyote (a psychotropic specifically tied to Native American cultures). As Snyder writes, “At the root of where our civilization goes wrong, is the mistaken belief that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead.” Snyder’s Buddhist revolution is hardly one that Marx would have recognized.
Frank O’Hara explicitly rejects any social role for his work. “I don’t think about fame or posterity (as Keats so grandly and genuinely did), nor do I care about clarifying experiences for anyone or bettering (other than accidentally) anyone’s state or social relation, nor am I for any particular technical development in the American language simply because I find it necessary. What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them” (419).
John Wieners writes in “From a Journal” that “A poem does not have to be a major thing. Or a statement?...Poems…are my salvation alone. The reader can do with them what he likes” (425). He goes on to write that “poetry even tho it does deal with language is no more holy act than, say shitting. Discharge” (426). Though not holy, shitting is, of course, absolutely necessary, so while Wieners seeks to demystify poetry (arguing against the Romantic/romantic cult of art and of the artist), he doesn’t trivialize it either. It’s one of life’s necessities, just not a higher level than anything else.
Robert Duncan, like the Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich (who, though a supporter of the Russian Revolution, was eventually forced by the Soviet authorities to abandon abstraction in favor of Socialist Realism), was not a negationist but a visionary, seeking higher spiritual truths in and through his work, the hermetic/Gnostic knowledge. Though he wrote poems against the Vietnam War, in which he took up the role of a Biblical prophet, revealing the eternal laws of virtue “against the works of unworthy men, unfeeling judgments, and cruel deeds,” his was a spiritual, not a political, denunciation. Duncan’s friendship with Denise Levertov was destroyed by what he saw as her sullying of her exalted poet’s role with political involvement: “Years of our rapport [were wrecked by] War and the Scars upon the land.” In a review of The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (Stanford University Press, 2003), David Shaddock writes that “Duncan’s argument with [Levertov] was that the poet can’t serve two masters—a poetry of political commitment yokes the imagination to a priori truths and concerns, thus limiting the power of the imagination” (“Opening the Gates of the Imagination: The Duncan/Levertov Letters,” Poetry Flash, 296/297, Winter/Spring 2006, 25)
But even Levertov writes in her artist’s statement that “I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our time is the concern of poetry. Horrors are taken for granted. Disorder is ordinary. People in general take more and more ‘in their stride’—hides grow thicker. I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock” (412).
Levertov changed her position later, seeking to become a poet of witness, and writing in her essay “Poetry, Prophecy, and Survival” that the poet’s role was to make the horrors of her time graspable by the human mind: “The intellect by itself may point out the source of suffering; but the imagination illuminates it; by that light it becomes more comprehensible” (New & Selected Essays 145). As Anne Day Dewey writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Whereas Levertov moved toward a romantic voice and a commonly understood language as the vehicles of protest poetry, Creeley and Duncan continued to maintain that political critiques and poetic originality emerged only from experimental poetry that challenged the norms of syntax and poetic form.” But Day Dewey also points out that Levertov never lost her focus on the individual imagination as the source of political change. In this regard, she was not so far from Duncan as their rather bitter break might indicate.
The transformations that Duncan sought were first of all spiritual and intellectual and only incidentally social. As he wrote late in his life, only the imagination knows. Aaron Shurin, a protégé of both Duncan and Levertov, with a background in both the 1960s anti-war movement and the 1970s gay liberation movement, has tried to merge the two, along with sexual and linguistic transformation.
Allen Ginsberg, who is practically identified with the Nineteen-Sixties counter-culture(s), writes in “A Word for the Politicians” in his “Notes for Howl and Other Poems” that “my poetry is Angelical Ravings, & has nothing to do with dull materialistic vagaries about who should shoot who. The secrets of individual imagination—which are transconceptual & nonverbal—I mean unconditioned Spirit—are not for sale to this consciousness, are of no use to this world, except perhaps to make it shut its trap & listen to the music of the Spheres” (417). Not much use to political or social revolutionaries.
In the Vancouver Lectures, Jack Spicer explicitly dismisses the idea of a political poetry, in similar terms to those used by George Oppen some years later: “you can start out with an idea that you want to write about how terrible it is that President Johnson is an asshole [RS: ah, those were the days] and you can come up with a good poem. But it will just be by chance and will undoubtedly not just say that President Johnson is an asshole and will really have a different meaning than you started with. I mean, if you want to write a letter to the editor then it seems to me the thing to do is write a letter to the editor. It doesn’t seem to me that poetry is for that” (The Poetics of the New American Poetry 231).
That many of the New Americans were gay (Ashbery, Robin Blaser, James Broughton, Duncan, Edward Field, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Peter Orlovsky, James Schuyler, Spicer, Wieners, Jonathan Williams) is not incidental to their quest to find new ways of saying and, by implication (stronger in some than in others) new ways of moving through the world. But those projects were not necessarily or even often conceived of in political or even social terms.
Whatever the New Americans’ interest in social transformation, and whatever forms that interest took, it doesn’t seem to have extended to gender, at least not when it came to poetry. Only four of the forty-four poets in The New American Poetry are women, and only two of those, Barbara Guest and Denise Levertov, are even heard of now, though Robert Duncan was quite fond of Helen Adam’s romantic ballads. I’m told that it was only at his insistence that she was included at all. That can be seen as commentary on the book's gender politics. But I also wonder what other women were writing and publishing in that mode at the time. The only one I can think of is Diane di Prima, whose first book was published in 1958. Joanne Kyger's first book wasn't published until 1965, and Anne Waldman's (who was only fifteen in 1960, when the anthology came out) not until 1968.
I don't think that Allen deliberately excluded women poets. The paucity of potential female contributors says much about the sexism of the “progressive” or bohemian countercultures, especially the Beats. Interestingly, the “conservative” anthology against which The New American Poetry is often counterposed, Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson’s New Poets of England and America, published in 1957, does a bit better, with seven female contributors out of fifty-one total.
LeRoi Jones, the one black poet in the Allen anthology (the omission of Bob Kaufman, a founding editor, along with Ginsberg and others, of the journal Beatitude, and credited with coining “Beat,” is curious, though it may be related to Kaufman’s aversion to writing his poems down, let alone publishing them), concerns himself in his artistic statement with “How You Sound??,” “our particular grasp on, say a. Melican speech, b. Poetries of the world, c. Our selves (which is attitudes, logics, theories, jumbles of our lives, & all that), d. And the final… The Totality Of Mind: Spiritual…God?? (or you name it): Social (zeitgeist): or Heideggerian umwelt” (424). Similarly, in his copious writings on jazz, Jones insisted on the importance of the musical experience itself, on the need to just listen. Jones later broke with his Beat/New York School milieu and became Amiri Baraka because he felt that there was no room for the political work he came to decide that he needed to do on behalf of black people, especially poor black people. While his poetry suffered, as did his thinking (more anti-Semitism), Baraka did help establish and build black community institutions in Harlem and especially in his native Newark. But neither his poems nor his statement in The New American Poetry are politically oriented.
With all of its variety, most of the work included in The New American Poetry does not strike me as particularly radical, experimental, or avant-garde aesthetically, though it was definitely unconventional for the 1950s. Fine poet though he is, there is nothing even particularly challenging about, say, Edward Field’s work. But let us assume that it was indeed “avant-garde.”
Joshua Corey insists “that to be avant-garde is a political position before it is an aesthetic one: that it assumes a negative, outsider's stance toward aesthetic establishments and institutions.” This is only true in such a general sense as to be meaningless: all new artistic movements begin outside established practices. That does not mean that, like Peter Bürger’s historical avant-garde (a project he defines as having failed), almost none have sought to destroy or undermine art as an institution. The history of art is that of the incorporation of such schools and movements into established artistic practices and institutions. But there’s no reason to designate this aesthetic outsiderhood, which is usually both situational and chosen, as “political.” Such usage drains the word of content.
It’s a mistake to believe that “progressive” artistic practices equal progressive politics, or that Bohemian or avant-garde opposition to mainstream society need have any positive or even political content. In Modern Places, Modern Times, Peter Conrad notes that “The left has no monopoly of change; there are right-wing revolutionaries as well" (383). To be anti-bourgeois is not to be anti-capitalist or pro-democracy. And as Peter Gay points out in Modernism, “there is no automatic link between political views and artistic talent.” Certainly an artist’s aesthetics don’t derive in any direct way from his political opinions or social position. Marx recognized this when he acknowledged that Balzac’s reactionary, monarchist views did not impede his novels’ clear presentation and analysis of social relations in late nineteenth century France.
The notion that “progressive” art and progressive politics go hand in hand is belied by the examples of F. T. Marinetti and the Italian futurists, whose appetite for destruction led them to call war “the world’s only hygiene,” redefined in a 1915 manifesto as “Futurism intensified”—most of those who survived World War I became Fascists; the Nobel Prize winning Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, author of Hunger, who published a eulogy for Hitler days after his death; the German expressionist writers Gottfried Benn and Ernst Jünger and the German expressionist painter Emil Nolde, whose embrace of the Nazis was not reciprocated—they destroyed his paintings as degenerate art, and in 1941 forbade him to paint at all; Cubist (and Jewish) writer Gertrude Stein, who quite publicly and in print supported Marshall Pétain and the Vichy regime; the anti-Semitic novelist and Vichy collaborator Louis-Ferdinand Céline, author of Journey to the End of the Night; T.S. Eliot, who in After Strange Gods pronounced that “reasons of race and religion combine to make large numbers of free-thinking Jews undesirable” in the ideal society; and Ezra Pound, sacred cow and sacred monster of the self-appointed avant-garde, who broadcast on Radio Rome during World War II—during one of his broadcasts he said that it was a shame that the Axis bombers couldn’t see the black American soldiers at night. If we were to judge works of art by their creators’ political positions, much would be ruled out of bounds.
Negation for its own sake leads to nothing (as Billy Preston sang, nothing from nothing leaves nothing), except, historically, to Fascism and Nazism (not the bogeywords people love to bandy about, but the real historical phenomena), or just to sheer nihilism. Self-proclaimed leftists, for example, often forget that critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s relentless negativity was in the service of a positive goal, a freer and more just society, the antithesis of the world in which we now live. Beat poet Michael McClure, in his essay “Revolt” from which I have quoted earlier, writes on rebellion and negation for their own sake that “In society there is a revolt-of-revolt, a hysteria, often more visible (though perhaps not more present) than true revolt. It is nihilistic and dissipative. The man caught up by revolt-by-revolt is either weak in genetic spirit or dominated by circumstance. He makes a hysterical or passionate attempt to take ANY other path than the one laid for him by society” (432). This is as true today as it was then.