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All Night, He Was a New American, Part One
It’s taken me a while to post this piece, as I’ve been beset by chemotherapy side effects of my colon cancer treatment, especially a debilitating bout of chemo fatigue, and a nasty cold on top of this, which just seems unfair. But when has my life ever been fair?
Much of what poet and critic Joshua Corey understatedly calls the “remarkable storm of controversy”? occasioned (but not caused) by my attempt to describe a phenomenon, “post-avant garde poetry,”? much mentioned but little defined, was aroused by my linking of current “post-avant”? poetry with what has been called “the New American Poetries,”? after the famous Donald M. Allen anthology The New American Poetry, published by Grove Press in 1960. This observation was purely descriptive, not evaluative. The poets often referred to as “post-avants”? have clearly been influenced by the New American Poetries. But there is much disagreement about who has the right to claim the New Americans as their inheritance, as if their work and its legacy were something to be owned. But no one can lay exclusive claim to an artistic heritage or tradition. Such things are available to all, which is one of the many ways in which literature improves on life.
In turn, this debate derives from how one interprets that work and that legacy. The two main claims that have been made are a) that the very diverse poets gathered under the rubric “New American Poetry”? were political and/or social revolutionaries and b) that they shared a program of total or near-total negation. I will investigate both these claims.
I hope that this series of posts will prompt debate, but I also hope that the debate will maintain a reasoned and reasonable tone. Shouting matches do nothing but make one hoarse, and personal attacks do nothing but make one mean.
This first post discusses the anthology as a whole and its work in producing the grouping we now call “the New American Poetries” out of a number of poets whose work often had very little in common. The second post will focus on the artistic statements of individual contributors. The first post will address broader issues of the relationship between “progressive” art and “progressive” politics. I won’t spoil the ending.
Regarding the question of influence, one can be influenced by something one dislikes or disagrees with, or even by something one doesn’t understand. As Harold Bloom points out in The Anxiety of Influence, misreading, what he calls misprision, can be the one of the most productive forms of influence. This seems to have been the case with Stéphane Mallarmé’s misreading of Edgar Allen Poe. One can be influenced by only a single portion or aspect of another’s work. And to say that someone is influenced by someone else is to say nothing about the product of that influence: good work can come out of bad work, and clearly bad work can (and all too often does) come out of good work.
No one is required to take account of every significant aspect of the work they’ve been influenced by, and most writers don’t. As W.H. Auden notes, “One sign that a book has literary value is that it can be read in a number of different ways” (“Reading,” The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays 10). One takes what one wants, what one needs, what is useful, or just what strikes one. That’s how influence works, unless one sets out to be a slavish copy of one’s source.
I thought that it would be illuminating to go back to Donald M. Allen’s seminal anthology to see what was actually there. Looking through the poems and the author’s statements, though many of them manifest a strong will to transformation, the forms in which this transformation is imagined rarely correspond to political impulses, and often imagine politics as another shackle that must be broken or transcended. The rebellions which many (though hardly all) of these poets engaged or hoped for were often explicitly anti-political, as utopianism often is. In his essay “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” (reprinted in Donald Allen and Warren Tallman’s The Poetics of the New American Poetry, an assemblage of prose statements published by Grove Press in 1973), Gary Snyder writes that “The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim, and repress—and points to the way to a kind of community which would amaze ‘moralists’ and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers” (393).
While we talk about “New American Poetries” in the plural, for Allen, writing in 1960, the new American poetry was singular, though he did divide his assembled poets into five groupings, four semi-geographic and one a catchall of “younger writers who have been associated with and in some cases influenced by the leading writers of the preceding groups, but who have evolved their own original styles and new conceptions of poetry.” (xiii). He admitted that his groupings were “occasionally arbitrary and for the most part more historical than actual” and that they were for the convenience of the reader as much as a reflection of any reality other than that of geographical milieu (ibid.).
Allen was not modest in his claims for the poets in his book: “Following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, [the new poetry] has built on their achievements and gone on to evolve new conceptions of the poem. These poets have already created their own tradition [an interesting feat], their own press, and their own public. They are our avant-garde, the true continuers of the modern movement in American poetry” (xi). All forty-four poets included constitute the new American poetry. If you’re not in it, you’re not in it. One the one hand, the Nineteen Fifties literary scene was rather exclusive and exclusionary, though it did find its way to giving Gwendolyn Brooks the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. On the other hand, avant-gardes traditionally define themselves by what they push away much more than by what they accept or include.
Peter Gay makes this point in Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: “Like the avant-garde clusters that came after [them]—much, in fact, like the Impressionists—the Pre-Raphaelites were united more by what they detested than what they valued” (83). But it’s important to remember that no one in this anthology called him or herself “a New American Poet,” just as no one (at the time) called himself an Impressionist or a Fauvist or a Cubist. That was a label imposed by their inclusion in this volume. To a large degree, the book produced the phenomenon it claimed to document: this is the New American Poetry (again, singular). If you want it, this is the place to get it.
The phrase “The New American Poetry” was at least in part a marketing strategy. All artistic groupings try to publicize themselves, including by means of oppositionality. Certainly both the Dadaists and the Surrealists engaged in such artistic publicity, as did Ezra Pound on behalf of what we now call Anglo-American Modernism.
As Ann Lauterbach writes, “This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. ‘New York School’ or ‘Language Poetry’ are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group” (“Misquotations from Reality,” Diacritics, 26:3-4, Fall/Winter 1996). A group identity, however tenuous or even illusory, will always get more attention than will an individual writer, though of course no group could exist without the individuals that constitute it, and ultimately we only care about literary groups because we care about the writers in them (phenomena like Dada or Italian Futurism may be exceptions, in which we care more about the ideas than about the individual practitioners). But group identities and affiliations can become limitations for writers, who frequently break away from them as they develop (and as they establish their individual reputations).
Taken as a whole, the New Americans didn’t share a poetics, let alone a politics. Like most avant-gardes, they were united only by various personal affiliations (what Goethe called elective affinities) and by their opposition to what in the Nineteen Fifties could legitimately be called by Charles Bernstein’s pejorative phrase “official verse culture.” These days, the ostensible “inside” is much more diverse, open, and porous. It’s what they were against that brought them together, not what they were for: as Allen writes in his introduction, this poetry “has shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse” (xi). This was at a time when such a phrase as “academic verse” had some descriptive and not just denigratory content.