Donald Allen's 1960 anthology had a far-reaching impact upon the careers of some of the poets that it included, upon later anthologies, and upon the categories in which the poets were often subsequently discussed. Among the poets whose work gained greater recognition and status through this volume were Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, John Ashbery, Denise Levertov, and Gary Snyder, while the poetry of the "New York school", the Beat poets, and the Black Mountain College poets were all introduced to a wider audience through Allen's selection.
Allen became an editor at Grove Press, in New York, in the mid-1950s. In 1957 he edited an issue of the journal published by the press, The Evergreen Review, devoted to the San Francisco Renaissance, which included a reprinting of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" then being charged with indecency by the US Customs Service. He began work on The New American Poetry in 1958, motivated in part by the anthology New Poets of England and America which had appeared in 1957 edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson. The 1957 volume, carrying an introduction by Robert Frost, only included poets under 40, but foregrounded formalist poetry. The inclusion of English as well as American poets acknowledged a common heritage within contemporary work that Allen's anthology implicitly denied. The appearance of The New American Poetry in 1960 inaugurated what came to be called the "anthology wars," both collections being supplemented by further editions containing the work of additional poets. In the first editions of the two anthologies no poet appeared in both volumes, although in Hall and Pack's "Second Selection" in 1962 Denise Levertov made an appearance.
Allen's original plan was to illustrate the historical antecedents of the contemporary poets with selections of recent work from such modernist writers as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore, followed by a few poems from "second-generation" poets
Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Louis Zukofsky, before a larger selection from 24 "new" poets. But Charles Olson convinced Allen that the new poets had their "own character," and that their work represented a "change of discourse" whose qualities and characteristics could be misinterpreted if historical precedents were included. Olson's own poetics endorsed immediacy and an active presentation of history, and he was an important advisor to Allen in the final selection (in 1997 Allen co-edited Olson's Collected Prose). In the event, Allen found room for 44 poets, the selection leading off with Olson's "The Kingfishers."
In his introduction Allen claimed that the first generation of modernists had produced some of its "finest achievements" since 1945, a judgment that allowed him to present Pound, Williams, H.D., Moore, Stevens, and Cummings as relatively contemporary figures, and by implication to argue for a literary history that foregrounded the achievement of these poets at the expense of the New Critical formalists.
Allen divided his selections into five groups, corresponding, as he saw it, to the major movements in contemporary poetry, although his introduction recognized some inevitable overlap. For Allen, the poets had "shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse." The first section included poets associated with Black Mountain College, its journal Black Mountain Review, and Cid Corman's journal Origin. This group included Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov. The San Francisco Renaissance poets formed the second group. Allen separated this group, which included Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Spicer, from the Beat poets, who were originally associated with New York, even though the four representative figures of the Beat group, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, came to prominence through public readings in San Francisco. Allen's fourth group comprised the "New York poets," centered around the trio of Harvard-educated John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara, a group closely associated with the city's abstract expressionist painters. The fifth group was a catch-all for poets "who have evolved their own original styles and new conceptions of poetry," and who included Gary Snyder on the west coast and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) on the east.
The biographical notes at the end of the volume offered the poets what for many of them was their first opportunity for a national hearing. Ashbery, Creeley, Olson, and O'Hara dutifully recorded their education and writing careers. Some biographical entries were short and cryptic, while others noted the poets who had most influenced the particular writer. Gregory Corso, in two pages, told the harrowing tale of his childhood in foster homes and prisons, and of the impact of his subsequently meeting Allen Ginsberg. In four pages Robert Duncan carefully laid out his developing sense of poetry and the important figures who helped him to shape it. Jack Spicer recorded the year and place of his birth, observed that he "does not like his life written down," and gave an address to write to for anyone curious for more information. Such diverse entries were themselves a challenge to the standard practices usually governing such biographical notes.
As "aids to a more exact understanding of literary history," as Allen's introduction puts it, 15 of the poets are represented in a "Statements on Poetics" section just before the biographical notes. The section leads off with Olson's essay "Projective Verse," and, in keeping with Olson's insistence upon open form and lack of closure, Allen presents these statements as "interim reports by the poets." A final section provides a short bibliography of books, anthologies, recordings, periodicals, "mimeographs and irregular" publications, and a listing of the addresses of the small presses where readers might be able to obtain the materials listed. A measure of the volume's prescience, and the subsequent careers of many of the poets included, is the necessarily limited bibliography in the 1999 reissue of the book (carrying an Afterword by Allen), cataloging the selected and collected volumes of 32 of the poets.
In large part the response to Allen's volume divided along the lines represented by this and the Hall/Pack/Simpson anthologies. William Carlos Williams wrote to congratulate Allen. But X. J. Kennedy, who would appear in Hall and Pack's second selection in 1962, in a review in Poetry (July 1961) noted the impact of Allen's book, grudgingly conceded the value of the New York poets, but lamented "the stodginess of most of the rest of the book - so much of it in a language like instant mashed potatoes." In much discussion since, Allen's book has served as a useful touchstone for literary historians of mid-twentieth-century poetry. Allen's five categories provided labels within which the poets are often discussed, sometimes to the irritation of the poets themselves. For some critics, too, the groupings are restrictive, going against the resistance to categorization that is the spirit behind much of the poetry - although Allen in his introduction recognized their fluidity.
Allen originally planned to issue updated selections every two or three years, an idea that he abandoned, but in 1982 he edited with George F. Butterick The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised. Allen and Butterick argue in their introduction that "our purpose was to consolidate the gains of the previous anthology and confirm its predictions." The five categories were dropped, on the grounds that the poets had moved beyond these starting points, and they are all grouped under the term "postmodern." The poets appear in chronological order, with Olson still the first poet. Fifteen of the poets from the original volume are omitted as not having "endured"
(including more than half of the original 13 in the San Francisco Renaissance group), but still in the selection are six of the volume's poets who had died since 1960, including three of the best-known figures: Frank O'Hara, Jack Kerouac, and Olson. Nine poets were added, including Jackson Mac Low, Jerome Rothenberg, and Anne Waldman. Quite aside from their historical importance, both volumes still provide a useful introduction to the early work of the poets who fill their pages.
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