Roger Gilbert

The story of the first half of the twentieth century in American poetry is largely a story of individual poets: Frost, Stevens, Pound, Williams, H. D., Moore, Eliot, Crane. By comparison the second half of the century looks muddy and crowded. While a few postwar poets have achieved demi-canonical stature, there still seems to be little agreement about which individuals or groups have mattered most in the last fifty years. This means that doing justice to the richness and variety of the period requires something other than the major-poet paradigm that has governed most accounts of the first half of the century. No half-dozen or dozen figures can be taken as 'representative' of the full range of contemporary American poetry. I propose instead to use three complementary frames of reference, each of which provides a slightly different perspective on the period and its achievements. The frames I have in mind are decades, generations and poetic schools. All of these ways of dividing up the period contain an element of the arbitrary, but by looking at contemporary American poetry through each one in turn I hope to construct a more rounded picture than any of them can give by itself.


The 1950s began under the sway of the New Criticism and its criteria for poetic excellence; the early work of Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Karl Shapiro and Howard Nemerov all fell into the New Critical mode. This kind of tightly wrought poem continued to be written well into the fifties, but the dominant tendency of that decade was towards a loosening of the formal and stylistic criteria the New Criticism had established. That loosening took several forms. Poems began to open themselves to a broader, more miscellaneous range of detail; a certain randomness began to replace the controlled coherence of the New Critical style. Syntactically this shift manifested itself as a tendency towards parataxis, loose concatenations of words and clauses rather than the logically subordinated grammar of the New Critical poem. More broadly it showed itself in a preference for structures based on juxtaposition and accumulation like lists and narratives, rather than the more syllogistic organization typical of forties poems. Poems in the fifties no longer centred themselves on a single metaphor that rigorously determined all its details. Instead they often favoured metonymic associations between images and ideas, connections based on accidental features of proximity, contiguity or succession. Tidy containment gave way to unruly sprawl, most prominently in Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), with its long Whitmanesque lines and wildly associative inventories.

These stylistic changes reflected a more basic shift from a conception of the poem as a self-contained artefact to an idea of the poem as a rendering of experience in all its temporal flux and variety. This experiential aesthetic led to an increasing intimacy of tone and subject matter. Where New Critical poems tended to sound somewhat aloof and impersonal, poems in the fifties spoke in a variety of personal registers from conversational candour to urgent self-revelation. And where New Critical poems often focused on cultural and historical subjects with no direct connection to the speaker's life, poems in the fifties frequently dealt with personal circumstances and occasions in great detail. The fifties were of course when the so-called Confessional mode emerged in the openly autobiographical work of poets like W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell. But many poets in the fifties not directly associated with the Confessional style also wrote poems grounded in the particulars of their own private experience.

Much has been said about the supposed split between academic and avant-garde poets in this period — between the 'raw' and the 'cooked', to use the terms put forward by Lowell. But while it's true that distinct camps and coteries existed, as reflected most famously in the rival anthologies New Poets of England and America (1957) and The New American Poetry (1960), the dominant fifties style cut across those factional divisions. The most significant and influential works of the period from both academic and avant-garde circles shared a desire to accommodate a larger, more diverse range of fact and experience than had been possible under New Critical norms. Books like Theodore Roethke's Praise to the End (1951), Charles Olson's Maximus Poems / 1—10 (1953), Elizabeth Bishop's A Cold Spring (1955), Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959), W. D. Snodgrass's Heart's Needle (1959), Gwendolyn Brooks's The Bean Eaters (1960), Randall Jarrell's The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960), Kenneth Koch's Thank You (1962) and Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems (1964, but written mainly in the fifties), despite their manifest differences of style and subject, all reflect the general widening and loosening of manner that transformed American poetry in the fifties.

The 1960s saw a shift from this densely detailed, experiential style to a starker, more visionary mode that often seemed to leave the realm of experience behind in its push towards the ineffable. The expansive parataxis of the fifties gave way to a hushed and elliptical style; lines, sentences and poems all grew shorter, as though striving for a condition beyond language. The influence of modern European and Latin American poetry showed itself in a preference for isolated, dreamlike images that resisted narrative or thematic articulations. Robert Bly was the most influential spokesman for this new style; his 1963 essay 'A Wrong Turning in American Poetry' attacked the empirical cast of fifties poems and called for a freer, less rational kind of imagery. The work of Bly and his friends James Wright, Galway Kinnell and Louis Simpson exemplified what came to be called the Deep Image style, loosely grounded in Jungian psychology. The style might be characterized as a marriage of Poundian Imagism with European and Latin American Surrealism; the emphasis is at once on the presentation of sharply defined images and on the exploration of unconscious associations and resonances.

Much work in the sixties shared in the general movement away from empirical fact and towards various modes of the unconscious and the ineffable. Sylvia Plath's Ariel (1965), perhaps the decade's most famous book of poems, clearly partakes of this visionary tendency despite its superficial link to Confessional poetics. Other volumes that typify the sixties style include Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), Wright's The Branch Will Not Break (1963), Simpson's At the End of the Open Road (1963), Denise Levertov's O Taste and See (1964), Adrienne Rich's Necessities of Life (1966), Kinnell's Body Rags (1967), W. S. Merwin's The Lice (1967), Gary Snyder's The Back Country

(1967), Robert Duncan's Bending the Bow (1968) and Mark Strand's Reasons for Moving

(1968). Many of these volumes also share the conjunction of anti-rational poetics and oppositional politics that the critic Paul Breslin has described under the rubric 'the psycho-political muse'. The Vietnam war in particular inspired an apocalyptic strain of vision quite distinct from earlier, more realistic modes of war poetry.

One of the effects of the general shift from empirical representation to ineffable vision was a marked change in the vocabulary of contemporary poetry. The proper names and concrete nouns that swelled the lines of fifties poems gave way to a more restricted set of words evoking dream rather than reality: light, dark, water, stone, field, sky, star, bone, and so on. Generic terms replaced particulars; poets tended to write of animals, birds and trees rather than squirrels, jays and sycamores. A kind of purifying of poetic language seemed to be at work, as though poets wished to cleanse their medium of the contaminating effects of history, culture, even nature. Such purification eventually runs up against hard limits; many critics began to complain of the monotony that resulted from the continual recycling of the same handful of elemental words. By the early seventies the stark, stripped-down style of much sixties poetry, which initially seemed daring and fresh, had come to seem mannered and artificial.

In the 1970s the reaction against the sixties style took the form of a return to what the critic and poet Robert Pinsky called 'prose virtues'. Pinsky's influential book The Situation of Poetry (1976) criticized what he took to be the extreme nominalism of sixties poetry, which led in his analysis to a thoroughgoing distrust of language as a medium for thought and representation. Rather than limiting itself to shadowy evocations of the silence beyond speech, Pinsky argued that contemporary poetry should avail itself of all the resources of language, including generalization, description and narrative. Pinsky's umbrella term for the qualities he felt needed to be readmitted to poetry was 'discursiveness', and the term is a useful one for characterizing the larger tendencies of seventies poetry. If poets in the sixties appeared to be pushing poetry as far from prose as possible, establishing a special vocabulary and syntax wholly distinct from ordinary usage, poets in the seventies seemed intent on reclaiming much of the idiom of prose as a legitimate part of poetry's domain.

The discursive style of the seventies had as one of its hallmarks a more elaborate syntax, devoted not to the proliferation of factual detail, as in the fifties, but to the complexities of abstract thought. The short declarative sentences favoured by poets in the sixties were replaced by longer sentences full of qualifications, parentheses, semi-colons and subordinate clauses. Lines became longer as well in order to accommodate this more expository, discursive syntax. Many poems in the seventies openly modelled themselves on prose forms like the letter, the essay and the journal. Perhaps the book that most fully established this new style was John Ashbery's much-honoured Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), whose title poem drew on the language of art history, philosophy and cultural criticism. Other books in the vein included A. R. Ammons's Sphere (1974), James Merrill's Divine Comedies (1976), Richard Hugo's 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977), C. K. Williams's With Ignorance (1977), Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language (1978), Robert Hass's Praise (1979), Pinsky's An Explanation of America (1979) and Douglas Case's The Revisionist (1981). Even the late work of older poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Robert Hayden reflected the influence of the discursive mode; Lowell's History (1973), Bishop's Geography III (1976) and Hayden's American Journal (1978) all contain a higher proportion of prose idiom and discursive elaboration than their previous books.

The 1980s saw a turn from the rational continuity of the discursive style to a more splintered, disjunctive idiom that emphasized the mind's inability to make satisfactory connections and generalizations. Like the fifties, the eighties were characterized by highly visible rifts between different poetic factions: those working in traditional forms, those in the revitalized avant-garde, and those writing in the autobiographical free verse codified by creative-writing workshops. Again, however, the period style cut across these lines. Formalists, experimentalists and workshop poets alike began producing poems heavy with information, fragments of cultural, social, political and physical data without obvious interconnections. While this style shared the paratac-tic looseness of the fifties style, it lacked the experiential ground that unified most fifties poems, the sense that however random a poem's particulars might seem they all originated in the poet's own experience. Instead this style reflected the precipitous growth of computer and media technologies, which triggered an enormous increase in the availability of raw information without providing ways of sorting and assembling it into coherent wholes. One analogy sometimes invoked for this style was channel-surfing, the restless wandering among unrelated images and narratives made possible by the proliferation of cable TV channels.

Many eighties poems laid special emphasis on the ironic dissonance between political and ethical questions on the one hand and aesthetic and sensual pleasures on the other. Images of suffering and exploitation were often set beside images of consumption and enjoyment with little or no commentary, as though the mere contrast spoke for itself. The result was a poetry of troubled yet vague conscience, passively reflecting the contradictions and disjunctions of its time. Some books in this mode include Albert Goldbarth's Arts and Sciences (1986), Alice Fulton's Palladium (1986), Jane Miller's American Odalisque (1987), Leslie Scalapino's Way (1988), Ron Silliman's What (1988), Donald Hall's The One Day (1988), Bob Perelman's Face Value (1988), Robert Hass's Human Wishes (1989), Frederick Seidel's These Days (1989), Paul Hoover's The Novel (1990) and Robert Pinsky's The Want Bone (1990). For all their formal differences, these books share a densely informational texture in which clauses, lines and sentences become atomized 'bits' crowded together without apparent logical or narrative design. Vikram Seth's surprisingly successful verse-novel The Golden Gate (1986), written in Pushkin's rhymed sonnet stanzas, displays a similarly high density of information and a comparable irony about the clashing values of American culture, albeit with a light patina of plot and character to hold the work together.

In the 1990s the flattened, fragmented, quintessentially 'postmodern' poetics of the eighties modulated towards a new lyricism that brought with it a return to spiritual and even religious themes. Words that had become nearly taboo in the ironic eighties began to reappear in poems and even book titles: soul, God, sky, angel, saint, spirit. The religious beliefs betokened by this vocabulary were hardly orthodox, and while they may have shared something with the various spiritual practices known under the rubric 'the New Age', they tended to be darker and more uncertain in their sense of cosmic authority. In fact a number of nineties poets could be described as Gnostic in their evocation of a hostile universe ruled by an alien God. Others offered glimpses of a more benevolent divinity, but with little faith in its accessibility through human institutions.

Stylistically this turn to religious or transcendental concerns showed itself in a variety of ways. The relentless contemporaneity of reference that marked much eighties poetry did not recede completely, but was balanced by more archaic elements. Poems in the nineties became more allusive, evoking or expounding older texts and voices as though to authorize their own spiritual exploration. Augustine, Dante, Tra-herne, Dickinson, Emily Bronte and Wittgenstein were only a few of the tutelary figures summoned up by poets in the nineties. Classical myth, once scorned by contemporary poets as a throwback to the dusty erudition of Pound and Eliot, now reappeared, albeit in sleekly updated forms. Syntax became more porous and elliptical than it had been in the eighties, less freighted with information and more open to the ineffable. Yet the disjunctiveness of the eighties mode persisted; few nineties poets wrote with the kind of discursive clarity and coherence prevalent in the seventies. Nor did the nineties witness a return to the elemental, 'pure' diction of sixties poetry; vocabulary in the nineties remained diverse, with heterogeneous words and idioms often placed in sharp counterpoint. Examples of this style include Li-Young Lee's The City in Which I Love You (1990), Jorie Graham's Region of Unlikeness (1991), Allen Grossman's The Ether Dome (1991), Thylias Moss's Rainbow Remnants in a Rock Bottom

Ghetto Sky (1991), Sandra McPherson's The God of Indeterminacy (1993), Brenda Hillman's Bright Existence (1993), Ann Lauterbach's And For Example (1994), Carolyn Forche's The Angel of History (1994), Rita Dove's Mother Love (1995), Anne Carson's Glass, Irony and God (1995), Susan Stewart's The Forest (1995), Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters (1995), Michael Palmer's At Passages (1995), Reginald Shepherd's Angel, Interrupted (1996), Larissa Szporluk's Dark Sky Question (1998) and Kathleen Peirce's The Oval Hour (1999). Once again these books differ in many ways, but they share a longing for the sublime, whether conceived as light or dark, that pulls them away from the thick realm of information inhabited by much eighties poetry.


The generation of poets born between 1905 and 1920 is the first that can legitimately be regarded as 'contemporary', though most of its key figures are long dead, many of them prematurely: Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop. (The most prominent survivors are Stanley Kunitz, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ruth Stone, all of whom have remained remarkably active well into their seventies and eighties.) These are poets who struggled in the shadow of the senior modernists, most of whom were alive and productive for much of the younger poets' own careers. Their primary innovation was to adapt the techniques of modernism, with its aesthetic of impersonality, to a more directly autobiographical kind of poetry. As the first generation of American poets to grow up in the age of Freud, they returned obsessively in their poetry to familial and especially parental themes and conflicts, often refracted through childhood memory. Indeed their most visible legacy may simply be the claiming of family life in all its ambivalence as a subject for poetry.

With a few exceptions the careers of these poets seemed to share a general trajectory from early success to later disappointment, a movement that was often exacerbated by various forms of self-destructive behaviour. While individual temperament certainly played a part in these tendencies, it must be noted that this generation occupied a difficult transitional phase in the cultural status of the American poet. Older modernists like Frost, Sandburg and Eliot had revived the image of the public poet, a figure lauded in print and lionized at lectures and readings. Like most of their generation they remained largely outside the academy, supporting themselves primarily through extra- or para-literary endeavours. Lowell's generation, by contrast, lived within yet often on the fringes of the university, not holding tenured jobs for the most part but moving nomadically from one post to another. At the same time the spectacle of the modernist titans seems to have bred in many of these younger poets an urgent sense of competitiveness. Olson, Berryman, Roethke and Lowell in particular all apparently felt themselves to be vying for the title of 'top bard', and this aggressive drive for pre-eminence both fuelled and in certain respects disfigured their work. Lacking both the amateur status of the modernists and the professional security of younger poets fully ensconced in the academy, many of these poets found themselves assuming the role of literary celebrities, rewarded not for their expertise in the classroom but for their enactment of various public ideas of poethood. The career of Dylan Thomas, who spent much of his later life in America, established the pattern for this generation, both in its achievements and its disasters.

The next generation of poets, those born between 1920 and 1935, is an extraordinarily rich one. For the most part these poets did not suffer from the personal and professional tribulations that afflicted the previous generation. Perhaps because they came of age when the great modernists were already fading from the scene, they also seem to have felt less burdened by their legacy. Under the influence of New Critical doctrines many of these poets began their careers writing tightly controlled formal verse, but then abruptly shifted to a more 'open' or 'naked' style in the sixties; these included James Wright, W. S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and to a lesser degree John Ashbery and James Merrill. Others, like Allen Ginsberg, A. R. Ammons, Frank O'Hara, Robert Creeley and Amiri Baraka, worked in open form more or less continuously. By and large this was a privileged and well-educated cohort; many of them attended Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, and several made their debuts in the pages of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series, then judged by W. H. Auden, who along with William Carlos Williams served as the group's unofficial mentor. Today this generation continues to be a dominant presence in American poetry, producing important works, receiving major awards, and occupying the country's most prestigious academic positions.

Perhaps one reason the poets of this generation have exhibited such remarkable staying power is that they did not all emerge at once. A few, like Ginsberg and Snod-grass, made their greatest impressions in the fifties; others, like Plath, Wright, Creeley, Merwin and Bly, received more attention in the sixties; while still others, like Ammons, Ashbery, Merrill and Rich, did not have their full impact until the seventies. This staggering of recognition allowed more members to find an audience for themselves, thus mitigating the kind of competitive jockeying the previous generation had seen. There seems to have been a tacit agreement among these poets to share the shrinking amount of cultural capital granted American poetry in the period, rather than fighting over who would receive the greatest rewards. This freed them to explore a wide variety of styles and modes, from traditional form to radical experiment, from aesthetic meditation to political address, from personal narrative to nebulous myth. As a result many of these poets were able to forge highly original and distinctive voices. Indeed not since the first-generation modernists had a group of American poets sounded so different from one another and so like themselves; one need only read a line or two by Ammons, Ginsberg, Merrill, Rich, Ashbery, Merwin, Plath or Creeley to recognize its authorship.

In some respects the next generation of poets, those born between 1935 and 1950, are in a position analogous to the Lowell generation, working in the shadow of the high modernists. But while the continued prominence of their elders has certainly slowed their own reception, this younger generation has also benefited enormously from the increasing professionalization of American poetry. The first generation of poets largely shaped by graduate creative-writing programmes, almost all of them have moved into teaching positions in such programmes. In addition to paying respectable salaries, these creative-writing programmes also support a vast network of journals, readings, prizes, grants and fellowships, a system sometimes cynically referred to as 'Po Biz'. But while this institutional system has provided them with greater cultural and financial stability than earlier generations had enjoyed, it has also fostered higher degrees of conformity and factionalism. Perhaps inspired by their critical colleagues, poets of this generation have tended to align themselves with particular ideologies or styles and then proselytized on their behalf to their students. The result has been a general decline in originality, and a tendency for popular styles to reproduce themselves with little variation. It may also be, as Donald Hall has suggested, that this generation suffers from a diminishment of poetic ambition, and that a desire for professional advancement has replaced the hunger for immortality that once drove poets, reducing the overall amount of risk-taking, genuine innovation and thematic scope in their work. It's possible, of course, that a few members of this generation will yet emerge as major figures. Certainly many of them are tremendously gifted, but so far there is no Seamus Heaney among them.

It's too early to make any firm assessment of the next and for all practical purposes last generation of twentieth-century American poets, those born between 1950 and 1965. But there are hopeful signs of a new catholicity and adventurousness in many of them. This spirit shows itself partly in a willingness to combine or synthesize styles and techniques that had been considered incompatible by their predecessors. Thus traditional lyricism and avant-garde disjunctiveness have begun to mingle in interesting ways in the work of some younger poets. A desire to address broader political and metaphysical themes has also begun to make itself felt. For the most part these poets are as much products of the workshop system as their immediate predecessors, subject to the same pressures and disincentives. Yet they may well prove more successful at resisting the lure of professionalism. This generation will only be coming into full maturity during the first years of the new millennium, and if history is a guide major literary innovations tend to occur at such times. Whether the American poets now in their thirties and forties will manage, as Yeats did, to remake themselves as poets of a new century or will simply preserve the language of the century they were born in remains to be seen, but there is cause for optimism.


Finally, it's worth paying some attention to the various 'schools' and other affiliations of poets that have flourished in contemporary American poetry. These need to be treated with a certain scepticism; often they prove to be critical artefacts rather than strongly grounded movements promoted by the poets themselves. Nonetheless they have exerted considerable influence in the presentation and reception of contemporary poetry. I shall only briefly mention those schools most dominant from 1950 to 1970, several of which are treated separately in this volume. The Confessional poets were never particularly receptive to the label bestowed on them by the critic M. L. Rosenthal; their relations with one another were more social than polemical. The Black Mountain school, by contrast, were active correspondents and pedagogues who spent much time and energy articulating and defending their poetic principles. The Beat poets also developed some fairly programmatic ideas about their work, though their statements are generally less weighty and theoretical than those of the Black Mountain group. The New York school, led by Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, tended to be much more playful in their poetics, often mocking the manifesto-like rhetoric of other schools. These last three groups were largely established and codified by Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry, which organized its contributors into sections based on aesthetic affiliation and included a thick appendix of poetic statements. In the 1960s the Deep Image group emerged under the leadership of Robert Bly, whose influential journal The Sixties provided a vehicle for the dissemination of their poems and poetics. In the same decade a group of politically outspoken African-American poets associated with the Black Arts movement formed, whose members included Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Don L. Lee. Finally we can identify a de facto school that might be dubbed the 'university wits'; this company included Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Daryl Hine, John Hollander and Richard Howard, all poets of exceptional elegance, erudition and urbanity.

As these older groups have gone into various stages of ossification, new poetic schools and consortiums have continued to spring up in the last thirty years. The most polemically focused and organized of these newer groups are undoubtedly the Language school and the New Formalists, representing extremes of avant-gardism and traditionalism respectively. Despite their radical differences in aesthetic orientation, there are some surprising symmetries between these groups. Both consider themselves marginal in relation to what they regard as the hegemony of mainstream poetry (which the Language poets like to call 'official verse culture'). Both have produced copious treatises on behalf of their poetics, with the Language poets arguing that conventional syntax, traditional verse form, and linear narrative all transmit conservative ideologies, and the New Formalists claiming that the dominance of free verse represents an elitist withdrawal from poetry's potentially vast popular audience. Both movements are led by a small group of vocal propagandists: the Language school by Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and Bob Perelman, the New Formalists by Timothy Steele, Frederick Turner and Dana Gioia. Despite their claims to marginality, both these groups are well-represented in magazines and anthologies, and their members hold tenured positions at a number of major universities. Indeed it's clear that the considerable attention their work has received owes a great deal to its group packaging and the polemics that accompany it.

The hegemonic mainstream targeted by both the Language and New Formalist poets is most often identified with graduate creative-writing programmes, which many accuse of breeding dull uniformity and joyless professionalism. In fact American creative-writing programmes are by no means homogeneous; many have distinct characters of their own. But it's also true that their proliferation has helped create a kind of insider culture modelled on other academic fields; this can be seen in the proliferation of acronyms like MFA (Master of Fine Arts), AWP (Associated Writing Programs) and APR (American Poetry Review, the most visible outlet for mainstream poetry), which constitute a kind of professional code. The process of 'workshopping' poems can indeed have the effect of eradicating eccentricities and imposing a kind of shared decorum; poems produced in or influenced by writing workshops tend to favour first-person narrative and meditation in a relatively subdued style. But again it should be noted that not all programmes are equivalent. To mention only two, poets trained at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, under the guidance of faculty like Donald Justice, Marvin Bell and Gerald Stern, generally practise varying blends of the Confessional and Deep Image styles (though recently there are signs of change under the influence of the younger and more experimental poet Jorie Graham); while Stanford, thanks to the enduring influence of the poet—critic Yvor Winters, has produced a number of poets working in a more discursive and intellectual vein, like Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, James McMichael and John Matthias.

When we look beyond academia, the most significant development in American poetry of the last two decades has been the emergence of a vibrant performance culture. The most popular manifestations of this culture are the events known as 'poetry slams', which combine poetry reading and sports contest. Selected audience members typically rate a series of poets on a scale of one to ten, based on the quality of their poems and the skill with which they perform them. Obviously such a procedure tends to reward crowd-pleasers, and a group of poets has grown up who specialize in this kind of work, with a heavy emphasis on humour, rhythm and theatrics. The influence of rap lyrics is plainly audible in much of this poetry, as is that of stand-up comedy. But the true begetters of this mode are the Beats, who gave raucous readings in coffeehouses and bars during the 1950s, often with jazz accompaniment. In the eighties and nineties the atmosphere of those events was recreated in new venues like the Nuy-orican Poets' Cafe, the unofficial centre of performance-poetry culture in New York.

This performance culture has tended to be quite ethnically diverse; Latino and African-American poets in particular have been drawn to the performance scene, perhaps because of their rich vernacular traditions. In the mainstream poetry world there has also been a dramatic upsurge in the number of minority poets publishing and teaching. While they are sometimes gathered into ethnically specific anthologies — African American, Asian American, Latino, Native American, etc. — they also form a broader coalition, too diverse to be called a school, that usually goes under the banner of multicultural poetry. Such poetry tends to be autobiographical and often explores personal and family history as it intersects with broader ethnic narratives; Rita Dove's Thomas andBeulah (1986) is a particularly celebrated example of this mode. Many gay and lesbian poets also focus on the relation between individual experience and group identity, and they too are sometimes treated as a distinct poetic community, whose significant voices include Frank Bidart, Mark Doty, Marilyn Hacker, Paul Monette and Minnie Bruce Pratt. Region is another category that distinguishes particular groups of poets, most notably those from the South, many of whom retain a distinct vision and style linked to the long tradition of Southern literature; notable members of this group include Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey in the older generations, Dave Smith, Robert Morgan, Andrew Hudgins and Rodney Jones in the younger. Finally we can identify a loose conglomeration of committed or activist poets, mainly on the left, who define their work primarily in terms of its political engagement and efficacy. This is by no means a small or specialized group, embracing as it does the work of mainstream poets like Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Carolyn Forche and Philip Levine, as well as important minority poets like Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks. The last two decades have seen renewed interest in the openly political poetry of the 1930s and 1960s; many young poets in particular seem eager to revive aspects of that tradition.

Ultimately, of course, our sense of the significant patterns and tendencies of late twentieth-century American poetry will depend on the shape and direction of twenty-first-century American poetry. Whether this period will be known for its plethora of competing schools and styles or as the crucible of a new poetic synthesis must for now remain uncertain. The story of contemporary poetry cannot be fully told while it is contemporary.


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