The story of American poetry in the twentieth century begins with the dominance of one region and the legacy of one tradition - New England, and English Romantic verse. But by the end of the century one of the major characteristics of American poetry is its geographical diversity, while the range of its traditions reflects the diverse cultural origins of its writers, and their differing or complementary sense of heritage. Such a development makes far more complex at the start of the twenty-first century the once simpler issue of trying to define the particular characteristics of American poetry and its origins. While a single volume covering twentieth-century American poetry can tell and illustrate this story, it can hope to do no more than sketch something of the range. The scope and richness of twentieth-century American poetry rise beyond any selection of authors, texts, or thematic essays that try to encompass it, and my hope in this volume is to indicate enough of that scope and richness that the reader will want to explore further.
But it was not only by the end of the century that American poetry became international and that some of its writers eluded national categories. Claude McKay arrived in the United States in 1912 from Jamaica and became an important early figure in the Harlem Renaissance. The London avant-garde poetry scene just before the First World War was virtually taken over by Americans, with Ezra Pound, H.D., and T. S. Eliot actively involved in publishing and editorial work, work that stretched across the Atlantic to find an audience in the pages of the little magazines that sprang up in Chicago and New York. Eliot remained in London, for most of his career the dominant poet of his own and arguably the next generation, and wielding an important influence as editor at the publishing house of Faber & Faber.
In later generations, W. H. Auden, Denise Levertov, and Thom Gunn began their careers in England and took up residence in the United States.
The American Sylvia Plath wrote much of her best-known work in England, and the international scope of the academic world in recent decades has meant that poets can sometimes live and work on different continents, problematizing cultural, if not national, identity, all the more.
One earlier response to such blurring of borders was to see Anglo-American poetry as a single entity, and thus avoid the question of how to treat such figures as British citizen Eliot, and American citizens Auden and Levertov - and also making room for the impact of writers such as Yeats and D.H. Lawrence upon American poetry as well as English. Such a category would recognize the impact of Eliot's criticism via the New Critics on the poetry of both countries, and Auden's work would be a convenient continuation of the story. But while such a focus might hold together for the years of Frost and Robinson, both influenced by the English Georgian poets, and the international modernism of 1912-30, and even for the neo-Romantic Hart Crane, it starts to be particularly problematic in the 1950s. In that decade a more open form of poetry began to be asserted through the work of the Black Mountain College poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, and to a lesser extent through the meditative poetry of New York poets John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, while Allen Ginsberg's long lines looked to the work of Walt Whitman for their foundation. All of these movements, reacting to various degrees against the New Critics and Anglo-American formalism, saw the major figures of twentieth-century American poetry in terms that suited their particular modes. Much of this view of history involved revising the story of modernism to bring to the fore poets seen as particularly emphasizing American themes, and forms that challenged the traditions of English verse.
The Anglo-American compromise becomes even more problematic when considering the impact of black poets on American poetry, a central issue of which is the history of slavery and racism in American culture. Even in the 1920s the question of which heritage - English or black - was an issue among the Harlem Renaissance poets. In the late 1950s an important figure in the Black Arts movement of the next decade, Amiri Baraka, was publishing his early poetry and formulating his own answer. In addition to the role of America's racial history, recent events, such as the influx of Asian immigrants into the United States following the Korean and Vietnam wars, the changes in the formerly Euro-centered immigration laws, and the growing influence of US neighbors Canada and Central and South America, have all left their mark. Such developments in American poetry, while international, are also directly related to the history and geographical position of the United States itself, and would be misrepresented by a predominantly Anglo-American focus.
Instead I have tried to take up the challenge posed by such issues to stay focused on American poetry, while also taking account of the increasingly international scope within which it has been written - and to draw attention to some of the issues and compromises involved in such a focus. One of the longer essays in this book, on nationality and continuity, introduces some of these issues. Meanwhile some practical, if arguably arbitrary, decisions needed to be made. I have treated Eliot as an American poet. I have not treated Auden as an American writer for the purposes of the author-centered essays, but his name and his work are very much a presence in the book. I have treated Levertov as an American poet because for the majority of her career she wrote and published in the United States. But her incorporation of European writers into her work in the later part of her career, along with her interest in religious poetry, point up again the arbitrariness of pinning a national category on some poets. Levertov herself, like McKay, was a very disaffected American citizen to some extent, but such disaffection is too in many ways a characteristic of American poets. The charge of treason leveled by the US government against Ezra Pound for his views and actions during the Second World War is perhaps only the most famous illustration.
The international context of American poetry in the twentieth century is shown nowhere more than in that poetry's relationship with the visual arts. A number of critics have pointed to the impact of the famous 1913 Armory Show, which opened in New York, on American poetry - a show that was the first major introduction of modernist painting to the United States. Meanwhile, in London Pound found affinities for a while with such vorticist painters as Wyndham Lewis, while in Paris Gertrude Stein's famous salon was the forerunner of the interest that 1920s writers - and not just expatriates - would have in the work of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and others. In the 1930s and 1940s surrealism interested a number of American poets, while in the 1950s such writers as John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara were art critics as well as poets, although they were particularly associated with a home-grown avant-garde movement, abstract expressionism. Some later poets have been very concerned with the visual material that accompanies their poems, or the graphic design of a volume itself. Anthologists have recently grappled with the problem of how to represent this particular context, and some of the more ambitious have incorporated visual material into their selections. The role of other arts, including drama, the novel, and music, as well as the visual arts, is taken up in the extended essay on "Twentieth-Century American Poetry and the Other Arts," while the essay on anthologies includes a discussion of some of these attempts to incorporate visual material (along with a more historical summary of the role and impact of anthologies on the developing canon of modern American poetry).
The relationship of American poetry to other traditions and cultures, and the increasingly global reach of the United States economically and politically, are also issues that are part of two other extended essays, those on the long poem and on war poetry. American poets have been among the great innovators of the long poem in the century, such innovation often being foregrounded as a theme in the work. One only has to consider the long poems of, for example, Williams, Pound, H.D., Crane, Hughes, Olson, Ginsberg, Lowell, Merrill, and Rich to discover a remarkable range of inventiveness. With such experiment, challenges are raised about whatever principles might be holding such a poem together, and whether their role is to suggest an underlying unity that the more dispersive poem is acting to undermine, or a unity to which the poet and poem seek some kind of return - perhaps a cultural or historical loss, or one associated more specifically with identity. Other long poems, however, might stress the arbitrariness of any such unifying principles, fragmented or not. Such tensions are acted out in various ways in various texts, the net result by the end of the century being a challenge to the assumed characteristics of the whole genre itself. And this is not to forget the remarkable achievement, by such writers as Frost, Robinson, Stevens, and the later Eliot, of long poems that by comparison are closer to an earlier tradition.
The global reach of United States' foreign policy, and the global presence of its military, was a given by the end of the century, but earlier in the century the country went through the periods of isolationism that produced an initial reluctance to get involved in either of the century's two world wars. In addition, there has always been - inevitably, given its history as a onetime colony - an anti-imperialist streak in American thinking. But this characteristic clashes with another dominant strain, often evoked by the country's political leaders, that the American way is the best way, whether that way is defined in secular terms such as "democracy," or a more vaguely spiritual way that invokes "good" and "evil." Such varied characteristics surface in the war poetry of the century written by Americans: the doggedness of the poets of the two world wars fulfilling a distasteful but necessary duty (little of the shock and despair of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon), the broader cultural criticism of Pound and Eliot, and the protests of the poets of the Vietnam and later eras. The role of the media, and of the politicians and corporations who control it, is a particular issue in some of the later poetry, because of the international dominance of the American communications networks and their attempts, sometimes, to represent only a majority view - a danger of democracy particularly noted by de Tocqueville at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The opening essay in this volume summarizes some of the major developments in twentieth-century American poetry and puts them into the broad contexts of artistic, social, and political history. The writers who are the subjects of the individual essays that follow have been selected on the grounds of their importance to the history of twentieth-century American poetry, and their influence upon their contemporaries or upon future poets. These two criteria do not always go together. An account of the poetry of Frost, for example, is essential to a history of American poetry in the twentieth century, but Frost has had relatively little influence upon subsequent American writers. The work of the much lesser known George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky, on the other hand, is considered essential by a number of prominent contemporary poets. Critics and poets do not all agree on what the major currents of such a history are. Different anthologies that pick up the history of American poetry since the middle of the century, for example, might start with Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, or they might start with Charles Olson - the figures who lead off the selection probably signal a good deal about the names in the subsequent pages.
The same criteria that governed the selection of writers for individual essays has governed my selection of texts for individual notice - texts that have had prominence and influence, whether at a particular moment in time, with later recognition, or consistently since publication. I have imposed upon myself the arbitrary limitation of letting a particular poet only be represented by one text, although clearly a case could be made for two or more texts by a number of the poets: The Waste Land and Four Quartets, for Eliot, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and the Pisan Cantos, for Pound (or for that matter all of the Cantos), Spring and All and Paterson, for Williams, and The Dream of a Common Language and An Atlas of the Difficult World, for Rich. Such a list could go on. On the other hand, some poets produced only one obviously central text, for example, Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows. And some important poets have gained their importance more through the accumulated body of their work than a particular text, as in the cases, for example, of H.D. and of Langston Hughes. These latter poets are treated in individual author essays and inevitably feature in the essays treating broader topics. The one exception that I have permitted myself to the rule of one is to allow Ezra Pound another entry, as an editor, for his role in the publication of Des Imagistes, a text that had an important impact upon a number of significant poets. In addition, to limit the concept of an influential volume to works by an individual figure seemed to me to be too restrictive if it disallowed this volume, or the landmark volume edited by Donald Allen in 1960, The New American Poetry. Otherwise, collections - their purposes and polemics, and their impact - are discussed in the essay on anthologies in the final section of this book.
Some Historical and Cultural Contexts of Twentieth-Century
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