The New American Poetry and the postmodern avantgarde

American poetry in the late 1950s and early 1960s was divided between two distinct poetic communities and two very different conceptions ofwhat poetry should be. On the one hand, American poetry was still dominated by the mainstream lyric as represented by the work of poets like James Merrill, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, and other members of the established literary culture. On the other hand, there was a growing body of work by poets who defined themselves as a new poetic counterculture. Where the poetic mainstream still regarded Eliot and Auden as their primary poetic models, the new avant-garde modeled itself on an experimental tradition of poets whose work could hardly be read by the methods of the New Critics: Pound, Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Louis Zukofsky. By the end of the 1950s, this postwar avant-garde was just beginning to be recognized by readers and publishers.

The decisive literary event of 1960 was the publication of an anthology entitled The New American Poetry. Published by Grove Press and edited by Donald Allen, the anthology would for the first time bring together many of the innovative young writers who were to constitute the next significant generation of avant-garde poetry. The New American Poetry was the most important anthology ofAmerican poetry to be published in the second half of the twentieth century. The poets included varied considerably in their backgrounds, styles, and attitudes, but they were alike in their experimental focus and in their rejection of the kind of academic verse represented by the New Criticism. Allen's collection was highly unusual among mid-century anthologies: the poets whom he identified as "our avant-garde, the true con-tinuers ofthe modern movement in American poetry" were not only young (few ofthem were over forty and several were still in their twenties) but also relatively unpublished by the standards of the day. Allen was extremely prescient about the importance these poets would have over the next three to four decades. A number of them - including Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) -were to play a central role in the development of late-twentieth-century poetry.

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