Guest Essayist: R.S. Gwynn
Copyright (c) 1995 by R.S. Gwynn
Reprinted by Special Permission of R.S. Gwynn, 1996
Not to be distributed in whole or in part for commercial purposes.
In the 1986 edition of the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Ronald Baughman's A Field Guide to Recent Schools of American Poetry appeared. Following the leads of poet and anthologist Donald Hall and critic Ralph J. Mills, Jr., Baughman noted that the Modernist orthodoxy that prevailed during the first half of the century met with serious challenges at the beginning of the second: "After World War II, most American poets rebelled against the requirements for poetry established by Eliot and the New Criticism and instead placed emphasis on the writer's personality, the writer's self. This reversal is perhaps the single most important occurrence in the poetry of the postwar decades" (114). Baughman's taxonomy divided American poets among several "schools" which shared little save that their members were contemporary with one another and were writing in the same language (though even that often seemed open to debate). Baughman identified eight key groups of contemporary American poets: the Academics, the Concretists, the Confessionalists, the Black Mountain School, the Deep Imagists, the New York School, the Beat Generation, and practitioners of the New Black Aesthetic. While readers are referred to the text of Baughman's essay for his comments on the most prominent individual members, a few general statements should perhaps be made about these groups, which seemed so vital only a couple of decades ago, indeed only seven years ago, but are quickly fading into the back pages of literary history.
First, most of the individual writers mentioned by Baughman are now in their twilight, having published collected editions that represent the summing up of their careers. They have won the important prizes and a few have even served as Poet Laureate, a position established in 1986 and filled since that time by Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky, and, most recently, Mona Van Duyn. Two of these senior poets, Warren and Nemerov, have died, and, while one still looks with expectations to the publication of books by poets like Wilbur or Strand or by other major older poets such as James Dickey, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, Adrienne Rich, or Allen Ginsberg, it is not likely that they will depart significantly from their established manners and matters in any new work. Throughout the 1980s one sensed that the torch was passing to a new generation, and as we move into the 1990s the transfer of power is more or less complete.
Second, and perhaps more important, the members of the younger generation of poets seem reluctant to identify themselves as members of the existing schools named by Baughman. It is unlikely that any contemporary poet under fifty would refer to himself or herself as a "confessionalist" or "deep imagist." Most of these poets, who were learning their craft when the schools were at their height, absorbed diverse influences in their early careers and have arrived at poetic styles that, with only a few exceptions, are not readily distinguishable from each other. Indeed, the stylistic position of the majority of these poets occupies the middle of the road. A relaxed, conversational idiom; a restrained rhetoric which employs local tropes only sparingly (the simile predominates); and fairly uniform free verse lines, more often than not neatly arranged in uniform stanzas, characterize the work of most contemporary poets. The poetic barricades of this generation have more often been raised along lines of gender, sexual preference, or ethnic identity than according to some aesthetic manifesto such as Ezra Pound's famous Imagist credo. To cite only one case, thirty years ago it was fairly safe to say that Beat poets held in common certain hostile attitudes toward middle-class American society and also put identifiable aesthetic principles (or non-principles) to work in their poetry. Today one would be reluctant to make any such generalizations beyond noting, say, that women poets tend to focus more on gender-related issues than male poets do; that Native American poets frequently share some of the same mystical, shamanistic approaches to the natural world; or that gay poets seem happy to reside squarely in the tradition of protest poetry. The contents of an anthology like St. Martin's Gay and Lesbian Poetry of Our Time (1988) reveals that the rhetoric of the streets, as witnessed nightly on CNN, is virtually indistinguishable from that of much of our increasingly politicized and fragmented poetry -- what has been labeled the "Balkanization" of the American tradition.
Still, certain younger poets show some affinities to the schools of the older generation, and it may be useful to discuss briefly these poetic lines of descent. The Academic poets of the 1950s -- Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander -- who produced a rhymed, metrical poetry of wit and linguistic precision, are often seen as the forebears of today's New Formalists -- Dana Gioia, Marilyn Hacker, Brad Leithauser, Charles Martin, Molly Peacock, Mary Beth Salter, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Timothy Steele. While there is still no canonical anthology representing this group, the activities and occasional polemics of its members have garnered quite a bit of critical attention and no small amount of controversy. Perhaps because they stand somewhat outside the mainstream of contemporary American poetry, the New Formalists seem to represent an orchestrated conspiracy in the eyes of some hostile critics, even though there is relatively little that connects them beyond a dedication -- itself anything but hidebound -- to writing metrical verse. While they have been accused, in the pages of the AWP Chronicle, the official organ of the Associated Writing Programs, of writing a reactionary type of "yuppie poetry," they actually represent diverse lifestyles and political points of view. They have little in common as far as subject matter is concerned, and critic Robert McPhillips has pointed out that they also do not share much, other than their commitment to rhyme and meter, with the older Academic poets. According to McPhillips, they break with their elders in their preference for popular, demotic forms of culture -- this is, after all, the Woodstock generation -- and, in general, their idiom and cultural frame of reference strike the reader as somewhat less rarified than those of the Academics, who more often than not specialized in what critic Robert Peters once called the "Guggenheim-year-abroad poem" (McPhillips 200-02).
Concretism garnered some public exposure in the news magazines a decade or so ago, but it has remained, for the most part, a literary curiosity. An aesthetic that uses words as visual icons formed into interesting shapes on the page is not likely to elicit much serious critical response, and, indeed, many of the productions of concrete poets are perhaps more suitable for hanging (the poems, that is, not the poets) than reading. E. E. Cummings is the paterfamilias of the Concretists, but Cummings's admirers tend to forgive him his silliest typographical experiments and instead focus on the linguistic brilliance that characterizes his best poems. If the Concretists have any heirs in the present scene, they are the poets of the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group (named after a magazine in which the work of many of them first appeared). According to critic Marjorie Perloff, the avant garde poets of 1950s proclaimed that "'Form is never more than an extension of content.' For the Language poet, this aphorism becomes: 'Theory is never more than the extension of practice'" (Holden 46). Indeed, much of the work of these poets seems tailor-made for analysis by the deconstructionists, post-structuralists, and new historicists who have dominated American graduate programs for the last two decades.
The Confessional poets of the 1960s -- Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, W.D. Snodgrass -- remain one of the chief influences on the poets of this generation, though the effects of novelty, in an age of "trash-talk" television, have certainly worn off poets' attempts to shock with the explicitness of their personal revelations. When Robert Lowell, scion of Boston gentility and winner of American poetry's most coveted awards, revealed, in Life Studies (1959), that "my mind's not right" in poems detailing family dysfunction, marital woes, alcoholism, mental illness, and psychotherapy, the reading public, perhaps feeling that such candor from a major poet was long overdue, was fascinated. Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963 caused her posthumous collection Ariel (1965) to be valued all the more highly by women who heard, in its bitterest moments, a cry that could have issued from their own lips. Anne Sexton, the middle-class housewife who went, in less than a decade, from suburbia to the slopes of Parnassus, inspired a whole generation of women who came of age on the cusp of the feminist era. Some twenty years ago, in The Confessional Poets (1973), Robert Phillips described the typical confessional poem, stressing its therapeutic, personal, and alienated qualities. Most younger American poets have at one time or another written poems in this vein. Indeed, the autobiographical narrative/lyric -- sometimes naked, sometimes partially clad -- has become a staple of our poetic diet, especially when it deals with formerly taboo sexual topics. Bruce Weigl's "The Man Who Made Me Love Him" describes an incident of sexual abuse to a child, presumably the poet himself; "Kalaloch" by Carolyn Forché presents, without apology, a graphic first-person account of same-sex lovemaking; Pulitzer Prize-winner Rita Dove's "After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed" describes how the poet and her daughter compare their sexual organs. These are typical reflections of the extent to which contemporary poets of the mainstream feel free to use their most private moments (and parts) for subject matter. Other poets with ties to the Confessional tradition include Sharon Olds, Alfred Corn, T.R. Hummer, Ira Sadoff, and John Balaban, though it would be safe enough to add that almost every poet writing today has learned from and at times imitated the type of poem popularized by Lowell, Plath, and company.
On the other hand, the Black Mountain School and the Deep Imagists have retained little direct influence. The former, named after a group of poets who studied at Black Mountain College with Charles Olsen in the 1950s, rallied around the banners of "projective verse" and various arcane theories of open form and composition by "fields." As Reed Whittemore has sarcastically remarked in his study of William Carlos Williams, if the good doctor's followers, among whom the Black Mountain poets are the most prominent, had lived in the Middle Ages they would have been alchemists instead of poets. It is difficult to think of a single poet writing today who is so passionate about the metrical questions addressed by the Black Mountain poets, perhaps because open forms so completely dominate American poetry today that arguing about their validity is a moot point. Indeed, the New Formalists have come to prominence by attacking most of the positions of the Black Mountain school as those of an outmoded status quo.
The Deep Imagists -- Robert Bly and James Wright are the most prominent -- have also passed from influence. They had a great influence on young poets writing in the early 1970s, when it seemed as though a new poetic genre, an exotic hybrid of South American surrealism and Midwestern alienation amidst the not-so-alien corn, had emerged. Critic Lewis Turco dubbed it "Blymagism" after its founder, but satirical comments did not keep it from sweeping the graduate poetry workshops and spawning hundreds of poems that seemed to have been translated, under the duress of a deadline, from an unidentified foreign tongue. It should be noted for the record that this sort of hallucinatory poem followed hard on the heels of the psychedelic late 1960s and was fueled by the rage of the era of Vietnam War protests and Watergate; one of Bly's typical poems of the period, "Johnson's Cabinet Watched by Ants" (1967), describes the President's military advisors as "dressed as gamboling lambs" (56). Such self-consciously bizarre images (though in light of Anthony Summers's biography one wonders if Bly was describing J. Edgar Hoover), like black-light posters advising the young to "tune in, turn on, drop out," seem dated today, just as Bly, with his recent notoriety as the chief guru of the contemporary men's movement, has largely abrogated his position as a poet worthy of serious consideration for the dubious rewards of media celebrity. Nevertheless, several contemporaries still occasionally employ surrealistic dislocations as part of their larger strategy; of them Reginald Gibbons, Albert Goldbarth, C.D. Wright, and the recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize, James Tate, seem the most successful, though many others have used these techniques.
The New York School, led by the late Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery, flowered in the late 1950s and early 1960s among writers who had close affinities with abstract impressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Like the Deep Imagists, the New York poets stressed subjectivity and the unconscious, but they infused their own surrealism with a comic spirit much more akin to the Dadaist experiments of Paris in the 1920s than to the Bly/Wright brand of high seriousness. While Ashbery, mainly on the strength of his reputation among influential critics like Helen Vendler, Marjorie Perloff, and Harold Bloom, remains the most fashionable poet on the contemporary scene, relatively few contemporary poets betray his influence, unless we count the garrulous, free-associating monologues of poets like T.R. Hummer, Albert Goldbarth, Lisa Zeidner, and Rodney Jones as being in his debt. Most of the poets represented in The New York Poets (1970), an anthology edited by David Shapiro and Ron Padgett, have not advanced beyond the time and place that inspired their early prominence.
Similarly, the poets of the Beat Generation -- Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder -- seem so much the products of period and ambience (San Francisco in the mid 1950s) that their style of "hydrogen jukebox" protest poetry, to borrow a phrase from Ginsberg, is distinctly dated now. With Ginsberg, smiling in suit and tie from the pages of Time, having been transformed into an eminence grise of sexual and other forms of liberation and Snyder becoming one of the chief spokespersons for ecological concerns, the Beats, like so many other figures that thirty-five years ago seemed outrageous, have passed into respectability. One contemporary poet has given the Beats a sly left-handed compliment; Dana Gioia, who was growing up in California when they were most prominent, has written, "Their unfailing verbosity and heroic self-absorption proved a constant inspiration -- showing me everything I didn't want to do. One cannot overestimate the importance of negative examples at certain points in literary history when sensibilities shift" (89). Today, it is hard to imagine, given the explicit content of the heavy metal or rap lyrics that bombard one almost anywhere, in an age when Madonna's Sex graces the middle-class coffee tables of Gopher Prairie, that Allen Ginsberg's Howl was the focus of a censorship trial when it was first published. More than any of the other groups, the Beats' program has been co-opted by franchised popular culture; ten minutes of MTV, with nuclear bombs exploding to the pulse of screaming guitars and wails of post-adolescent angst, far surpasses in degree anything that might have caused the Beat poets of the 1950s to be considered dangerous sociopaths.
The last of Baughman's schools, which he labels the New Black Aesthetic, must today be expanded to include members of other minority groups -- Hispanics, Orientals, Native Americans. Multiculturalism has become one of the most vital and controversial academic issues of the era, and the spirit of Affirmative Action has clearly begun to influence the tables of contents of anthologies and textbooks -- often so nakedly cynical a corporate attempt at political correctness for financial gain that one conservative critic has labeled their tables of contents "canon to the left of them." Even the latest edition of a well established literature text like the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Edition contains no white male poet born since 1930. Other than Sylvia Plath, the other recent poets included -- Audre Lorde, Immamu Amiri Baraka, Michael Harper, Simon J. Ortiz, Rita Dove, Alberto Ríos, Cathy Song -- seem to have been chosen primarily , in the spirit of affirmative action, as representatives of different ethnic groups. As the population of the United States (and thus of the college classrooms) reflects the increasing diversity of ethnic backgrounds, it seems likely that future overviews of American poetry will be forced to include mention of more representatives of minority cultures.
Once the schools have been discussed and their descendants identified, what remains for the poets, and there are many of them, who demonstrate no discernible links to their elders? If there is a main current in contemporary American poetry, it is probably indebted chiefly to the most remarkable phenomenon of all those that have helped to shape the current state of the art -- the rise of the university creative writing programs. In the mid 1960s there was only a handful of graduate programs specializing in creative writing; today, virtually every poet writing in America has had some connection with one, as student or teacher or as both, and that is simply a reflection of the current economics of American poetry. Most books published today contain poems that have borne the scrutiny of a creative writing class; indeed, most first books are merely revised versions of theses or "creative dissertations" submitted for graduate degrees. In any given year the largest portion of new books is published by university presses, and the chief means of the dissemination of those books, in the absence of any real attempt to sell poetry by the chain bookstores, is the university-sponsored poetry reading, which is usually followed by a book sale and autograph session by the visiting poet. We are about to enter an era in which almost every new book of poems will be produced by a poet with, at the least, an M.F.A., who will be employed in a writing program issuing degrees to more new poets. That creative writing programs should have become such an entrenched establishment, with a complex structure of hierarchies, career strategies, and perks, in so short a time is without precedent in the history of poetry. Dana Gioia, in "Can Poetry Matter?", a widely discussed article in the Atlantic, lamented this situation, but it is not likely to change in the immediate future.
Still, it is not hard to imagine what the effects of these market realities have been and will continue to be. For one thing, the workshop approach to poetry, with so many different hands whittling away at the original version of a poem, tends to remove vitality along with rough edges. If a poet reacts to the verdict of his peers by removing anything that gives offense to any member of the workshop, he or she may end with a bland product, like a processed, pre-packaged food, pitched to the widest possible taste but satisfying no one in particular -- what Donald Hall, in "Poetry and Ambition," labels the "McPoem." If a poet's advanced degree and future livelihood are riding on successful completion of a workshop, it stands to reason that he or she will not risk offending anyone. Instead of nurturing excellence, the workshops all too often foster blandness and mediocrity.
Likewise, the university poetry reading, where the poet must entertain a crowd largely composed of undergraduates in search of extra-credit points, has a dangerous allure. Does the poet, consciously or not, water down his poems to suit a crowd that does not have a printed text to follow? Robert Lowell reported such an effect in his own work when he toured California in the late 1950s; luckily for him the result was Life Studies. Will she drop the vatic mantle and instead put on the baggy pants of the stand-up comic in hopes of winning over the crowd? Nothing is easier than charming an audience full expecting to be bored to death. Will the easy sentiment, the pious platitude, and the politically correct sentiment of the moment prevail? If ever there were an audience tailor-made for an hour of preaching to the choir it exists in the universities. No wonder Maya Angelou is the best-known poet in America today and the highest-paid on campus ($10,000 per diem is her current rate).
It is, of course, impossible to say what the future holds, but the situation today is analogous to that of a century ago, when there was no consensus in either America or Great Britain about which poets, if any, were deserving of major status. The great voices of the Romantic and Victorian eras had grown silent, and the founders of modernism were still in knee pants. In his portentously titled critical work The Fate of American Poetry (1991) Jonathan Holden, who is the most eloquent apologist for the present generation, argues that the "mainstream of American poetry . . . has continued to be, whether narrative or meditative, in a realist mode that is essentially egalitarian, university-based, and middle class, and to be written in a free verse that has, by and large, vastly improved since the sixties, evolved into a flexible medley of older prosodies so rich in echoes that it bears out Eliot's famous dictum that 'No verse is ever really free'" (47-48). Whether this modest aesthetic has produced or will produce poems that will stand the test of time remains open to question. It may be that the rise to prominence of the creative writing programs will be eventually be viewed as American poetry's quattrocento. On the other hand, the Pounds and Eliots of the first decades of the next century may see our current situation as merely a stultifying orthodoxy that can only be revitalized by open revolt. Still, if the past is any guide, of the thousands of poems produced by the members of this generation a few will survive for the delight and instruction of gentle readers in distant places and times. Ars longa, vita brevis. And, if one believes in the mysterious continuity of literary culture, that is all that really matters.
Works Cited Baughman, Ronald. "A Field Guide to Recent Schools of American Poetry." Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook. 1986 ed. Columbia: Bruccoli, 1987: 114-26. Bly, Robert. The Light Around the Body. New York: Harper, 1967. Gioia, Dana. "Can Poetry Matter?" Atlantic May 1991: 94-106. Hall, Donald. Poetry and Ambition. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1988. Holden, Jonathan. The Fate of American Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991. McPhillips, Robert. "What's New About the New Formalism?" Expansive Poetry. Ed. Frederick Fierstein. Santa Cruz: Story Line, 1989. 195-208. Perloff, Marjorie. "The Word As Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties." American Poetry Review 13.3 (1984): 16. See also The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981. Peters, Robert. Hunting the Snark: A Compendium of New Poetic Terminology. New York: Paragon, 1989. Phillips, Robert. The Confessional Poets. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1973. Padgett, Ron, and David Shapiro, eds. An Anthology of New York Poets. New York: Vintage, 1970. Turco, Lewis. Visions and Revisions of American Poetry. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1986.
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