C.K.Williams’s piece [“Solitary Caverns: On Globalization and Poetry,” March 2009] was thoughtful and terribly sincere, but was founded on some very strange ideas about American poetry. In particular, I found his take on the past to be almost bizarre:
This is what happened to me and to many other poets during the late fifties and early sixties, when much of the poetry being written in America seemed to have become overly formalized, self-referential, stale, and, if I dare use the word, spiritually lifeless.
Williams goes on to make a vague quasi-retraction that although there were a few American poets doing
serious, significant work at the time . . . each of them seemed to have something about them that for many of us kept them from becoming the inspiration and examples they were later to be.
Much of Williams’s argument here relies on an old cliché, the one about how awful and boring American poetry was during the Eisenhower administration. This is simply not true. Yes, as Williams notes, Ginsberg’s Howl was greeted with ridicule and contempt by certain establishment types, but it sold and sold and sold. Even if you take the Beats out of the picture, though, the “spiritually lifeless” American poetry of the late fifties and early sixties was quite possibly the best American poetry ever written: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, Berryman’s Dream Songs, Randall Jarrell, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath. I happen to have a copy of the March 1962 Poetry—Plath fills six pages of it; William Stafford, Robert Creeley, Muriel Rukeyser, and George Oppen are featured in that issue as well, which makes one wonder how such an artifact was produced during a decadent era in American poetry.
To be sure, as Williams notes, American poets did start to seek out foreign poets more actively in the sixties, but what good did it do us? The drift of Williams’s argument seems to indicate (although he never quite comes out and says it) that what followed the benighted late fifties and early sixties was an era of American poetry vastly improved and enriched by literary “globalization.” Really? So just when exactly did American poetry get better than it was around 1960? 1968? The seventies? The eighties? The nineties? Now?
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