The formal, crafted style endorsed by the New Criticism continued to shape the poetry of some important poets into the 1950s, including Allen Tate, Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, and Melvin Tolson. The early poetry of John Berryman, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Lowell was also in this style, but they, along with a number of other poets, began to regard it as too constricting and artificial and their later work moved in different directions.
The divisions emerging in American poetry in the 1950s were captured by the appearance towards the end of the decade by two anthologies of current poetry that each offered quite a different emphasis: Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson's New Poets of England and America (1957) and Donald Allen's The New American Poetry (1960). The multiple directions that American poetry took in the 1950s, and the rising student marketplace, made the kind of sorting process offered by an anthology attractive, although each of these volumes had its particular perspective to defend, and simplifications of similarities and differences were inevitable.
The Hall, Simpson, and Pack anthology carried a short introduction by Robert Frost, who had never forsaken the formal qualities of verse. Frost was a household name in the 1950s, and more popular than ever with the general poetry-reading public. The anthology included the work of English and American poets, because, in terms of the style that the anthology represented, the poetry of the two countries was similar. These poets had abandoned the extreme fragmentation and discontinuity of the modernist style, but had retained an emphasis upon economy, wit, impersonality, and craft. English poetry had arrived at a similar point in its reaction against a new Romantic revival (a revival represented, for example, in the poetry of Dylan Thomas). Poets receiving their first anthology appearance in the volume included Robert Bly, John Hollander, Donald Justice, Reed Whittemore, and Adrienne Rich. Also included were James Merrill and Robert Lowell.
The poets in the Allen anthology, by contrast, had returned to many of the high modernist qualities rejected by the writers in the 1957 collection. The 1950s saw a new interest by some contemporary poets in the work of Williams, Stevens, Pound, and H.D., who were looked to as providing possible alternative models to the qualities of formalist verse, including a more spontaneous speaking voice that in a general way could be traced back to Whitman. This speaking voice was not, as New Criticism insisted, a persona invented by the poet, but was understood to be the poet speaking directly. Such a style, along with an emphasis upon process rather than craft, and an occasional return to myth and archetype, seemed to such contemporary poets more American, more democratic, more contemporary, and less academic.
Allen's anthology divided its new American poets into five categories, and although the division was inevitably reductive and somewhat arbitrary, it provided a useful map of one set of contemporary trends in American poetry and proved very influential in later criticism and histories. In addition, it gave the first national exposure to a number of emerging writers. Allen was assisted in his selection and planning, as he acknowledged, by Charles Olson. Olson was a tireless theorizer of open, organic form, and for a time principal of the radical Black Mountain College. The poets associated with the school and/or its journal, including Olson himself, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov, formed one of Allen's groupings. Olson's essay "Projective Verse" was an important statement of their principles (in a gesture that recognized some of the continuities, William Carlos Williams had quoted from it and discussed it in his 1951 Autobiography). Another of Allen's groups was the Beat writers, most notably Allen Ginsberg, whose reading and subsequent publication of "Howl" made him first a local then a national celebrity almost overnight. The San Francisco poets, most of whose work as individuals was not sustained in future years but who represented an important center for contemporary writing that had arisen in the early 1950s, formed another group. Writers associated with New York, including John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, writing verse that was urban, sophisticated, and concerned with the moment, formed another. In a miscellaneous group for which Allen claimed no common characteristic he included LeRoi Jones, later, as Amiri Baraka, to be a central figure in the protest voice of the Black Arts movement.
To varying degrees Allen's poets set themselves against the prevailing political conservatism of the United States in the 1950s, arguing overtly or implicitly for a different set of values to those associated with the suburban, materialistic lifestyle produced by America's post-war wealth, and foregrounded in the growing medium of television and by the popular magazines of the day. The rebellion against the impersonality of the New Critical mode also combined with a rejection of the highly specific gender roles of popular post-war culture and helped to produce the sexual frankness and open homosexual themes of a poet like Ginsberg. Sexual frankness and the questioning of gender roles would become even more central to the work of the Confessional poets, some of the most important of whom were women. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are most associated with the style, and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and the later work of Adrienne Rich have affinities with it. These poets rejected many of the attitudes associated with the claims of male authority, as well as, in various ways, the conventions of literary decorum and romance. Male poets who adopted characteristics of the style were Robert Lowell, whose Life Studies in 1959 marked a major change of direction in his writing, and John Berryman in his Dream Songs. As a measure of the shifting allegiances, and the qualifications that need to be attached to categories, Lowell and Rich, as noted above, had appeared in the 1957 formalist anthology, while Berryman had appeared in neither.
In the decades that followed, the personal lyric, and the assertion of identity and political rights against the homogenizing pressures of a dominant Euro-American culture - along with changes in the immigration laws that scrapped quotas favoring northern Europeans - would lead to the beginnings of a rich poetry of cultural and ethnic diversity, including poetry in English by Native American writers. These trends would find full expression in the last two decades of the century.
Was this article helpful?