20TH-CENTURY AMERICAN POETRY: SOME GUIDEPOSTS
As Burt Kimmelman emphasizes in his eloquent introduction to this volume, all of the poems, poets, and literary movements described in the pages that follow share a common "Americanness." Yet the very essence of "Americanness" is diversity, the many in the one and the one in the many, as Walt Whitman, grandfather of all American bards, insisted: "I hear America singing, / The varied carols I hear" (emphasis mine). Thus it may be useful to attempt a chart of the various kinds of "Americanness" at work in the poetry written in this country during the last 100 years. The chartings that I will here propose are chronological as well as regional and ideological, for the sense of what it means to be an American, and specifically an American poet, has shifted over time. At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States made its first tentative forays toward becoming an imperial power, but most Americans still thought of themselves as a people apart, purified by immersion in a New World Eden. With World War I the United States became a significant player on an international stage, but the interwar years saw a renewed sense of American uniqueness, often summed up in the label isolationism. Then World War II and the ensuing decades saw a full-blown efflorescence of a distinctively American variety of imperialism, as the nation set out to become the arbiter of the destiny of the planet. Our poets have sometimes enthusiastically participated in the dominant political mood of the moment, but more often, especially in the imperial epoch extending from World War II to the present, the poets have fiercely questioned beliefs and attitudes that most other Americans have apparently accepted as simply "common sense," so that the poetry community has seemed at times the most insistently skeptical and critical of the various American countercultures. (Robert Creeley, at the start of the 21st century one of the last surviving members of a generation of major poets that emerged in the 1950s, was recently heard to ask, "How is it that I don't know anyone who supports the policies of George W Bush?") Yet regional differences have often been no less important than the historical shifts that have occurred over the course of the 20th century, for New York is not California, and New England is not the Southwest. We must also recognize radically different aesthetic commitments that have sometimes united, sometimes separated poets across both historical epochs and cultural regions. And in the late decades of the 20th century, the very notion that we can define a single American identity has been challenged by poets seeking to speak for a range of previously marginalized communities defined by ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual preference.
"On or about December 1910, human nature changed," Virginia Woolf famously declared, and we may date the birth of 20th-century American poetry to the same pivotal moment. Among the tiny group of
American poets whose careers carried across from the 19th into the 20th centuries, only three poets survive to find a place in this encyclopedia: Edwin Arlington Robinson, Adelaide Crapsey, and Jeanne Robert Foster. Aging anthologies and histories of American literature preserve a few other names—William Vaughan Moody, Trumbull Stickney, George Santayana. However, in 1905 the young Ezra Pound, H. D., and William Carlos Williams—Pound and Williams were students at the University of Pennsylvania, and H. D was a friend of both—formed perhaps the first important literary fellowship of the new century. Although Pound and Williams did not come to know and admire Marianne Moore until later, Moore and H. D. were at least aware of one another during the year they spent as fellow students at Bryn Mawr, so we may add Moore to form a unique quartet of "Philadelphia modernists." Around this nexus of personal relationships a new poetic movement would crystallize, although each of the poets in question would arrive at a unique personal voice. In 1905 Pound and Williams were already writing poetry, but in a distinctly 19th-century idiom: They were, in a phrase from Pounds 1921 poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," in search of "the sublime in the old sense." But by 1910 Pound was in London, acutely aware of new poetic possibilities emerging on the continent. In a series of essays published in 1913 under the collective title The Approach to Paris, he directed American poets toward a serious reading of poets such as Jules Laforgue, Tristan Corbiere, and, above all, Arthur Rimbaud, whose work of the 1870s pointed the way toward a poetics of radical disjunction and indeterminacy. By 1913 H. D. had also moved to London, and in that year Pound presented her poetry as the model of imagisme, a literary movement consciously modeled on the various aesthetic "isms" emanating from Paris: symbolisme, unanisme, etc., with cubism a first cousin in the visual arts. Then a year or so later, T. S. Eliot, who had already written portions of "Portrait of a Lady" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" while a student at Harvard, arrived in London and quickly became a central figure in the Pound circle. (Williams detested Eliot's poetry, and Eliot was indifferent to Williams's, but they had Pound in common.)
If to my list of the five poets grouped around Pound we add Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein, we have a galaxy of major poets who collectively define the most influential poetic movement of the 20th century, international modernism. Pound showed no interest in Stevens's poetry, but Williams came to know Stevens in New York City during the World War I years, when both were members of a group of artists and writers that met regularly at the home of Walter Arensberg, a wealthy art patron. Moore also moved on the fringes of the Arensberg group, and she, too, came to know and admire Stevens's work at this time. In his role as editor of Others magazine during the war years, Williams published Stevens's poetry, while in the 1920s Moore solicited some of his poems for publication in The Dial. And in the 1930s Stevens contributed a preface to Williams's first Collected Poems. Thus we can perhaps create a subgroup of New York-area modernists encompassing Williams, Moore, and Stevens. Stein was never a close friend of any of the poets mentioned thus far and an outspoken critic of some of them, although Williams visited her in Paris and admired her work. But while she was not part of the network of personal relationships that linked our other poets, she is a crucial figure in this story, as the most important mediator between Parisian modernism—cubism, fauvism, etc.— and American writers, artists, and composers. Conrad Aiken, a friend of Eliot's from Harvard, also perhaps belongs in this list of major modernists, but to most observers he has come to seem a lesser figure. Some critics would add to the list Mina Loy, a British expatriate who arrived in New York during the World War I years and there met Williams and possibly Stevens and Moore. Laura Riding (Jackson), E. E. Cummings, and Hart Crane also belong on any list of major American modernist poets, but they were somewhat younger than the poets mentioned thus far and began to write under the shadow of the first generation modernists.
The modernism of Pound, Eliot, H. D., Moore, Williams, Stevens, and Stein is "international" in a basic way: Four of these seven poets chose to live in and write from Europe. Eliot became a British citizen. After World War I, Pound returned to the United States only once willingly, for a short visit, and then for a second time under duress, after his arrest for treason during World
War II. Stein is forever linked to Paris in the popular imagination, although she made an extended celebrity tour of the United States in 1934-35, and H. D. made only two brief visits to the United States after she took up residence in Europe, the first shortly after World War I and the second in the late 1950s. But even Williams, Stevens, and Moore, all of whom chose to live in the United States, maintained a distinctly international perspective. All three lived in or near New York City, the main point of communication between America and Europe. Stevens, although he never went to Europe, read widely in French poetry and cultural commentary, while Williams, who spent a year in Europe during the 1920s, was powerfully influenced by such European literary/artistic movements as cubism and surrealism. And most significantly, all seven of my major international modernists shared with European modernist painters (Picasso, Matisse, Braque, et al.), composers (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, et al.), and writers (Joyce, Proust, Mann, Apollinaire, Valéry, Rilke, et al.) a determination to interrogate the most fundamental principles of their art forms. A range of formal vocabularies that had endured since the Renaissance all came into question during this period: in painting, the illusion of three-dimensional space, constructed through the application of the "laws" of perspective; in music, the diatonic scale with its attendant harmonies; in fiction, the linear narrative and the controlling authorial point of view; and in poetry, the metrical line and the unitary lyric voice. The seven American poets that I have identified as exemplars of international modernism are very different from each other in some important ways: Williams's insistence on the "American ground" contrasts with the condescension toward all things American that we sometimes see in Pound, Eliot, and H. D., while H. D.'s continuing loyalty to the romantic tradition contrasts with the ostensible antiromanticism of Pound and Eliot, et al. But these writers were bound together not only by (in most cases) a network of personal associations to which they were often deeply loyal but also by a desire to construct alternatives to the traditional formal vocabularies that had defined "poetry" for their predecessors, and they "made it new" ("it" here being poetry itself) in ways that continue to inspire poets of the 21st century.
Today the standard classroom anthologies devote more space to the exponents of international modernism than to any other group of 20th-century American poets, and all of them receive maximum space in this encyclopedia. However, the esteem that these poets enjoy today is largely retrospective, as during their lifetimes other poets often had larger audiences and received more respect from critics. The most acclaimed American poet throughout much of the 20th century was Robert Frost, who also lived during the second decade of the century for a time in London, where he brushed up against Pound. But Frost returned to America and with Edwin Arlington Robinson defined a New England alternative to international modernism. Frost borrowed the title of his first book from Longfellow, and neither Frost nor Robinson saw any need to reject the traditional poetic forms or the lyric voice characteristic of the English poetic tradition. Despite the dark undercurrents in their vision of the world, both Frost and Robinson enjoyed during their lifetimes an audience markedly larger than the audiences of the modernists. No less popular was another native New Englander, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who also saw no need to reject either the metrical line or the lyric voice. Meanwhile, in the years during and after World War I, a group of Chicago poets sought to define a populist alternative both to the radical experimentalism of the international modernists and to the formal decorum of the New England poets. Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters both employed a loose free verse modeled primarily on Whitmans, while Vachel Lindsay sought to revive a tradition of performance poetry. Looking out to the Pacific from his home in Carmel, California, Robinson Jeffers also adapted the long, cadenced Whitman line in his search for a poetic idiom that could do justice to the vast and still largely empty expanses of the western landscape. His poetry has remained an important influence on later West Coast poets such as William Everson, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gary Snyder.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, a group of southern poets, often grouped under the self-chosen labels of Fugitives or Agrarians; also affirmed a self-consciously regional alternative to international modernism, and their example became an important force in American poetry. John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren all identified with Eliot's social and cultural conservatism and intermittently adopted his ironic, high-Mandarin tone, but they retreated from the radical formal experimentalism of Pound, Williams, and Moore—an experimental impulse also evident in the Eliot of The Waste Land, although this impulse fades in his later work. The southern Agrarians all taught in colleges or universities and wrote criticism as well as poetry. (Warren also wrote a series of successful novels.) In alliance with influential critics such as Cleanth Brooks and with other poet/critics, including Kenneth Burke and R. P. Blackmur, the Agrarians became the founders of a movement generally known as the New Criticism, which sought new ways of addressing a public that found poetry more and more opaque. Living in the West but in dialogue with the southern Agrarians, the poet/critics Yvor Winters and J. V Cunningham also rejected what they saw as a surrender to chaos in the poetry of the high modernists. Tate and Winters were both friends of Hart Crane, whose spectacular but ultimately disastrous career became for them an example of the dangers of modernist excess. As poets, Ransom, Tate, Warren, Blackmur, Winters, and Cunningham no longer command much attention: all six receive only short entries in this encyclopedia. However, they are historically significant insofar as they established a tradition of what has sometimes been called (usually derisively) "academic" poetry: a relatively decorous, often formally traditional poetry written by men and women who have spent significant time in the classroom. Such poetry tends to be relatively "closed" both in its forms and in its cultural attitudes, as it seeks to build in art a refuge from which the poet can contemplate the various disorders of modern life.
The tradition defined by Ransom, Tate, and Warren passes directly to Robert Lowell, who went to Kenyon College to study with Tate and Ransom. While there, Lowell became friends with Randall Jarrell, and together Lowell and Jarrell became the center of another crucial group of young poets who were, like the Pound circle in an earlier generation, bound together by bonds of personal friendship as well as a common aesthetic that they seem to have arrived at through exchanges among themselves. Eventually this new grouping reached out to include Delmore Schwartz, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Berryman, along with Lowell and Jarrell. The members of this circle, in addition to certain other poets who shared many of their aspirations (for example, Theodore Roethke, Richard Wilbur, and W. D. Snodgrass), were, during the 1950s and 1960s, widely regarded as the most significant poets of the period. Many of these poets followed the example of poets such as Frost, Ransom, and the enormously influential British expatriate W. H. Auden in cultivating an expertise in traditional poetic forms and meters; and the metrical subtleties of Bishop, Berryman, Wilbur, Snodgrass, and Lowell (at least in his earlier work) are often dazzling. Lowell, Berryman, and Snodgrass share a self-lacerating irony that is sometimes taken to be characteristic of the whole group, but once again differences are as important as similarities. Neither Jarrell nor Bishop is primarily an ironic poet. Rather, Jarrell's poetry displays a remarkable capacity for empa-thetic identification with other people, while Bishop's geographic imagination is unique. Most of these poets were, like Ransom and Warren before them, at least intermittently academics, although again Bishop is an exception. As academic appointments carried these poets about the country, regional affiliations here became less significant. However, Lowell and Bishop were distinctly New England poets, while Roethke stood within an identifiable lineage of midwestern poets (his successors have included, for example, James Wright and Robert Bly), and Jarrell and Berryman both had southern roots. Many influential critics (Helen Vendler, for example) continue to regard the lineage defined by these poets as the "mainstream" of American poetry, a judgment also reflected in such widely used anthologies as J. D. McClatchy's Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. At the start of the 21st century, furthermore, many still-active poets continue to write within a poetic mode that passes from Eliot (with the qualifications noted above) and Ransom through Lowell, Jarrell, and their associates: for example, Frank Bidart, Alfred Corn, Mark Doty, Stephen Dobyns, Edward Hirsch, and many others.
The southern Fugitive poet/critics and their heirs recognized that universities were becoming positions of power in American society, offering poets the possibility of both a secure livelihood and a new kind of public visibility, based not on the volume of their book sales (in the postwar period, Frost and Ginsberg were probably the only significant American poets to earn enough to live on from the sale of their books) but on a charismatic classroom style and triumphant reading tours. However, the dominance of the academic poets from the 1930s to the 1950s was challenged from the beginning by other writers who rejected the tacit con-servatism—whether political or aesthetic or both—of the mainstream academic poets. In the 1930s a group of left-wing poets grouped loosely around the Communist Party, including Tom McGrath, Kenneth Fearing, Muriel Rukeyser, and Walter Lowenfels, offered an alternative to the social conservatism of Eliot and his various followers, southern Agrarian or otherwise, while Trotskyites such as John Wheelwright and anarchists such as Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen sought to define the possibility of an antiStalinist left. While the specific aura of doctrinaire political commitment becomes rarer after World War II, some later poets—for example, Philip Levine and C. K. Williams—have sought to preserve the engagement with working-class experience represented by poets like McGrath and Fearing. In the 1930s, most of the left-wing poets listed above (Wheelwright was an exception) were content to write within a Whitman-esque poetic mode, a readily accessible and often assertively colloquial free verse idiom. But another group of poets emerged in the 1930s who combined political radicalism with formal experimentation in the tradition of the modernists. These were the so-called objectivist poets: Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, Carl Rakosi, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, and the British poet Basil Bunting. In much the same way as Pound was at the center of the modernists, Zukofsky was the nodal point of the objectivists: All were linked to him by personal friendship, even though Oppen and Niedecker, for example, apparently never met, and Rakosi and Oppen did not meet until late in their lives. All the objectivists were sympathetic to the political left, and Rakosi and Oppen both joined the Communist Party for a time. But at the same time, the objectivist poets—inspired by the example of the modernists, especially Pound and Williams—also stimulated one another to pursue a rigorous testing of language and its relationship to the perceived world. Reznikoff remained throughout his life loyal to Pound's imagist aesthetic, while Zukofsky became a close friend of both Pound and Williams and initiated a strenuous polemic on behalf of their work as well as the work of Moore and (later in his life) Stevens. Oppen owed a manifest and freely acknowledged debt to both Pound and Williams; Niedecker, too, distilled her aesthetic from the modernists via her close friend Zukofsky; while Stevens and Eliot exercised a palpable influence on Rakosi. The anticommunist hysteria of the postwar years pushed all of the left poets into the shadows, but starting in the 1960s, poets such as Rukeyser, Zukofsky, and Oppen have been increasingly recognized as major American poets.
In the postwar years, the imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union and the manifestly repressive nature of Soviet society made communism an increasingly unattractive alternative, but a large group of American poets continued to question the inherent perfection both of commodity capitalism as a form of social organization and of the lyric ego as a mode of poetic expression. Beginning in 1951, one important such group came together around Cid Corman's Origin magazine, which gave an initial airing to the work of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, William Bronk, Larry Eigner, Theodore Enslin, and others. Olson and Creeley quickly established themselves at the center of an overlapping poetic network, the so-called Black Mountain group, another one of those affinity groups, bound together both by personal friendship and aesthetic commitments, which have so often set the direction of American poetry. The Black Mountain group numbered among its members Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Joel Oppenheimer, Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and Robert Duncan, all of whom either taught or studied at Black Mountain College, where Olson served as rector in the early 1950s, or were linked to the Black Mountain Review, edited by Creeley in the mid-1950s. Duncan served as a link between Black Mountain and an already established San Francisco nexus that included Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, and Helen Adam; and this link was solidified when Creeley moved to San Francisco after Black Mountain College closed in 1957. In the mid-1950s, San Francisco also become the home base of the Beat poets, notably
Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, Michael McClure, John Wieners, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published the early work of many of these poets through his City Lights Press. Kenneth Rexroth briefly served as the impresario of this San Francisco poetry scene, which also included some natives of the West Coast, such as Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Joanne Kyger, all of whom looked to the Buddhist traditions of India and Japan for spiritual and aesthetic guidance. Relationships among the various San Francisco groups were not always harmonious, but among them they created an extraordinarily vital poetic world in the 1950s, with reverberations down to the end of the century.
If Duncan and Creeley served as liaisons between Black Mountain and the San Francisco Renaissance, Paul Blackburn played a similar role with an emerging New York School of poets that included Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, and, for a time, Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones). The New York School (and once again most of these poets were personal friends as well as literary allies) shared a distinctive aesthetic, grounded in a witty subversion of all romantic posturing, an empathy with abstract expressionism in the visual arts (O'Hara and Ashbery were both art critics as well as poets), a delight in the vagaries of American pop culture, and a forthright affirmation of alternative sexual identities. In 1960 an intrepid editor, Donald Allen, ventured to link the East and West Coasts into a movement that he saw as dedicated to the creation of a "New American Poetry," and the publication of his anthology under that title represents a decisive moment in our literary history. The 1960s challenged all the certainties of American life: The Civil Rights movement called into question the degree to which America offered equal justice to its own citizens; the movement against the Vietnam War challenged the assumption that our nation self-evidently embodied "freedom" to all the peoples of the world; and the women's movement questioned power relationships within not only the workplace but even the home. At the threshold of the decade of what has sometimes been called the Third American Revolution (the Second was the Civil War), the Allen anthology defined a clear alternative to the social and aesthetic conservatism of the academic poets: a free-wheeling, process-based poetics that saw the poem not as articulation of already-established truths but as an exploration into untracked territories. ("I write poetry," Duncan said memorably, "to find out what I am going to say.") During the 1960s other new movements sympathetic to the aesthetic of the New American poetry also emerged, including the ethnopoetics of Jerome Rothenberg and Armand Schwerner and the talk-poetry of David Antin; all these poets were initially based in the New York area.
Then the last years of the 1960s saw the emergence of a younger group of poets who continued to identify with the Pound/Williams/Olson/Creeley lineage (or sometimes with a Stein/Pound/Williams/Creeley/ Ashbery lineage), but who contended that their predecessors had not gone far enough in the interrogation of language as a self-perpetuating ideological system. Thus the self-labeled "Language poets" set about a deconstruction of "meaning" itself. Once again San Francisco and New York served as the twin centers of this new avant garde: Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, Kathleen Fraser, Rae Armantrout, and others were all, at least initially, based on the West Coast, while Charles Bernstein, Fanny and Susan Howe, Bruce Andrews, Bernadette Mayer, Joan Retallack, and others have represented the East Coast wing of the Language poetry movement. Silliman's 1986 anthology In the American Tree sought to bring together the East and West Coasts of the Language poetry movement, in much the same way that Allen's The New American Poetry brought together the two coasts a generation earlier. The latest bicoastal vision of American poetry, like Allen's, might be faulted for leaving out everything between the coasts. Further, the poets that anthologists have sought to constrain within such categories as "the New American poetry" or "Language poetry" repeatedly insist on going their own ways. That John Ashbery was once part of the "New York School" seems, for example, less and less germane as a key to the understanding of his work, while classifying Susan Howe as a "Language poet" doesn't tell us much about the vision of American history that her work unfolds. Still, to the end of the century, the poets of a lineage defined by the Allen and Silliman anthologies have continued to offer themselves as an avant-garde, united by an adversarial cultural stance and questioning all a priori assumptions about what a poem should be and do. Meanwhile, and perhaps partly in response to the increasingly uncompromising tone of the manifestos issued by the Language poets, a counter-avant-garde often labeled New Formalism has produced a body of poetry and theory that returns to traditional forms and strives to rebalance poetry in favor of meter and rhyme. Representative New Formalists include Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, and Robert McDowell.
Much academic discussion of 20th-century American poetry has centered on the clash between, on the one hand, the "mainstream" poets, who have tended to receive most of the prestigious literary prizes and, until recently at least, to dominate the anthologies and, on the other hand, the insurgent poets of what we might now think of, with a full recognition that the specific names here are a bit arbitrary, as the Pound/ Zukofsky/Olson/Hejinian/Bernstein lineage. Each of these lineages has also found forceful critical spokespersons, notably Helen Vendler for the "mainstream" poets and Marjorie Perloff for the tradition that extends from Pound to the Language poets. However, the years since World War II have also seen a broad challenge to both of these lineages. Both the mainstream and the avantgarde traditions have defined themselves primarily through their contrasting approaches to poetic form, but a third group of poets has placed primary emphasis on content rather than form, as they have sought to give poetic expression to the experiences of social groups that had previously been effectively silenced. As so often in American life, African Americans, the nation's largest and most brutally dispossessed minority, have been in the forefront of this effort to give voice to the voiceless. African-American poetry has often borrowed forms and modes from the poetic possibilities afloat in the culture as a whole. Thus the early 20th-century African-American poets Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Countee Cullen generally worked within traditional poetic forms. But with Melvin Tolson and Langston Hughes, African-American poetry also began to explore the new poetic possibilities opened up by the modernists, and in the last half of the century, African-American writing opened into a broad range of poetic modes, from Baraka's "projectivist" early verse, written in dialogue with Olson and O'Hara, through the Beat idiom of Bob Kaufman and the beautifully modulated lyric voices of Robert Hayden and Rita Dove, to the epic aspirations of Derek Walcott, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Jay Wright. The names listed here represent but a small sample of the rich heritage of African-American poetry. This body of poetry has made an active contribution to the ongoing project of African-American self-definition, while at the same time the imaginative scope of this poetry has demanded a fundamental reconception of the American poetic heritage itself.
The corpus of African-American poetry had become, by the end of the century, sufficiently large and various to qualify as a distinct poetic tradition, within an American literature increasingly defined not by its presumed unity but by its diversity. In this respect, African-American poetry has become the prototype of other ethnically defined poetries. Perhaps African-American literature moved ahead of other ethnic literatures in part because English early became the common language of black Americans. Slave owners deliberately broke up African-language communities because they feared the slaves would use their African languages to plot rebellion. Remnants of African languages did, however, linger on in Black English and have thence found their way into much African-American poetry. In contrast, many Native American languages survived as active means of communication into the 20th century, and only relatively late in the century did a body of Native American poetry in English crystallize to define an alternative poetic tradition. By the end of the century, however, such writers as Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo, and Sherman Alexie had begun to chart the lineaments of a Native American poetic tradition. This tradition overlaps at times with a Hispanic-American poetic lineage. The situation of the Hispanic-American poet, who may choose to reject English itself in favor of the rich heritage of Spanish and Latin American literature, is perhaps even more ambiguous than that of the Native American poet. However, a significant group of poets has written out of this position as members of an Hispanic linguistic community (and there are in fact several different such communities in the
United States, from the Chicano/Chicana world of the Southwest to the "Nuyorican" world of New York City) surrounded and often overwhelmed by an English-speaking world: for example, Rafael Campo, Alberto Rios, Martin Espada, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Jimmy Santiago Baca.
The emergence of an explicit ethnic consciousness among African-American, Native American, and Hispanic-American writers has also encouraged a renewed ethnic self-consciousness among other groups. In particular, the last decades of the century saw a widespread recognition of a distinctively Jewish-American tradition within our literature. It has come to seem no accident, for example, that almost all of the objectivist poets of the 1930s generation shared a Jewish heritage. The political radicalism of these poets was in part a function of their ethnicity, as immigrant Jews brought a tradition of socialist and communist theory and practice to the United States. And when George Oppen passionately insists that "The self is no mystery, the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on," his vision of the relationship between the perceiving subject and a larger mystery may owe something to the Jewish heritage. Furthermore, the objectivists' combination of a deep skepticism about language and an impassioned commitment to Truth has been carried forward by a group of younger poets who are also largely Jewish: This Neo-objectivist group might include, for example, Hugh Seidman, Michael Heller, Armand Schwerner, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and even the editor of this encyclopedia, Burt Kimmelman, who has modestly omitted any entry on his own poetry. A recognition of the role that ethnicity played in the work of the objectivist and neo-objectivist poets also allows us to bring these poets into dialogue with Jewish American poets writing in more rhetorical and incantatory poetic idioms, such as Muriel Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg, Allen Grossman, or even Adrienne Rich.
However, in many ways the most dynamic literary movement of the late 20th century—a movement that has now carried forward into the 21st century—has been a newly self-conscious and self-assertive tradition of women's writing. Throughout the 20th century, women made up the primary audience for poetry, and beginning in the 1960s women readers increasingly demanded a poetry that would speak out of and to their own distinctive experiences as women. By century's end, the women's movement that erupted in the 1960s had permanently transformed the politics not only of the workplace and of the household but also of the poetry community. The voices of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (both too early silenced by suicide) became models (in part cautionary) for a generation of young women writers, while Adrienne Rich offered a more positive, even heroic model: The voices of women, she and her followers and admirers insisted, were different, and they would be heard. The new women's writing that found its way into print beginning in the 1960s covers an immense formal range, from the Language poetries of Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Beverly Dahlen, Kathleen Fraser, or Joan Retallack, through the neo-objectivism of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, to the more traditional poetic modes of Sandra Gilbert, Marilyn Hacker, or Carolyn Kizer. At the same time as these new poetic voices found their way into print, scholars and poet/critics began to recover a whole galaxy of women poets who had been more or less buried by a male-dominated literary establishment: If writers like H. D., Mina Loy, and Lorine Niedecker have finally assumed their rightful places within the literary canon, we must thank primarily the work of a remarkable generation of women scholars. Further, poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Rita Dove, and Audre Lorde have been increasingly recognized not only as black poets but also as women poets, sharing a broad range of experiences and concerns with all women poets among their contemporaries. At the same time, the work of feminist critics has allowed us to read in new ways already canonical writers such as Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop. This quiet revolution effected by women poets and scholar since the 1960s might remind us that both American poetry itself and the ways we conceptualize our poetic tradition remain, as we enter the 21st century, still dynamic, fluid, in process—open to new possibilities, as our society as a whole must be, too, if we are to survive the new century.
—Burton Hatlen, Director National Poetry Foundation University of Maine
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