All Night, He Was a New American, Part Three
That many of the New American Poets were gay (Ashbery, Robin Blaser, James Broughton, Duncan, Edward Field, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Peter Orlovsky, James Schuyler, Spicer, Wieners, Jonathan Williams) is not incidental to their quest to find new ways of saying and, by implication (stronger in some than in others) new ways of moving through the world. But those projects were not necessarily or even often conceived of in political terms.
Whatever the New Americans’ interest in social transformation, and whatever forms that interest took, it doesn’t seem to have extended to gender. Only four of the forty-four poets in The New American Poetry are women, and only two of those, Barbara Guest and Denise Levertov, are even heard of now, though Robert Duncan was quite fond of Helen Adam’s romantic ballads. I’m told that it was only at his insistence that she was included at all. That can be seen as commentary on the book's gender politics. But I also wonder what other women were writing and publishing in that mode at the time. The only one I can think of is Diane di Prima, whose first book was published in 1958. Joanne Kyger's first book wasn't published until 1965, and Anne Waldman's (who was only fifteen in 1960, when the anthology was published) not until 1968. I don't think that Allen deliberately excluded women poets. But the paucity of potential female contributors says much about the sexism of the “progressive”? or bohemian countercultures of the Nineteen-Fifties and Nineteen-Sixties, especially the Beats, though Gary Snyder does address gender and sexual equality. (The “conservative”? anthology against which The New American Poetry is often counterposed, Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson’s New Poets of England and America, published in 1957, does a bit better, with seven female contributors out of fifty-one total.)
LeRoi Jones, the one black poet in the Allen anthology (the omission of Bob Kaufman, a founding editor, along with Ginsberg and others, of the journal Beatitude, and credited with coining “Beat,” is curious, though it may be related to Kaufman’s aversion to writing his poems down, let alone publishing them), concerns himself in his artistic statement with “How You Sound??,” “our particular grasp on, say a. Melican speech, b. Poetries of the world, c. Our selves (which is attitudes, logics, theories, jumbles of our lives, & all that), d. And the final… The Totality Of Mind: Spiritual…God?? (or you name it): Social (zeitgeist): or Heideggerian umwelt” (424). Similarly, in his copious writings on jazz, Jones insisted on the importance of the musical experience itself, on the need to just listen.
Jones later broke with his Beat/New York School milieu and became Amiri Baraka because he felt that there was no room for the political work he came to decide that he needed to do on behalf of black people, especially poor black people. While his poetry suffered, as did his thinking (more anti-Semitism), Baraka did help establish and build black community institutions in Harlem and especially in his native Newark. But neither his poems nor his statement in The New American Poetry are politically oriented.
With all of its variety, most of the work included in The New American Poetry does not strike me as particularly radical, experimental, or avant-garde aesthetically, though it was definitely unconventional for the 1950s. There's little or nothing there that can't be found in the Modernists. But let us assume that it was indeed “avant-garde.”
Joshua Corey, echoing Ange Mlinko, insists “that to be avant-garde is a political position before it is an aesthetic one: that it assumes a negative, outsider's stance toward aesthetic establishments and institutions.” This is only true in such a general sense as to be meaningless: all new artistic movements begin outside established practices. The history of art is that of the incorporation of such schools and movements into established artistic practices and institutions. But there’s no reason to designate this aesthetic outsiderhood, which is usually both situational and chosen, as “political.” Such usage drains the word of content.
It’s a mistake to believe that “progressive” artistic practices equal progressive politics, or that Bohemian or avant-garde opposition to mainstream society need have any positive or even political content. To be anti-bourgeois, for example, is not to be anti-capitalist or pro-democracy. As Peter Gay points out in Modernism, “there is no automatic link between political views and artistic talent.” Certainly an artist’s aesthetics don’t derive in any direct way from his political opinions or social position. Marx recognized this when he acknowledged that Balzac’s reactionary, monarchist views did not impede his novels’ clear presentation and analysis of social relations in late nineteenth century France.
The notion that “progressive” art and progressive politics go hand in hand is belied by the examples of F. T. Marinetti and the Italian Futurists, whose appetite for destruction led them to call war “the world’s only hygiene,” redefined in a 1915 manifesto as “Futurism intensified”—most of those who survived World War I became Fascists; the Nobel Prize winning Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, author of Hunger, who published a eulogy for Hitler days after his death; the German expressionist writer Gottfried Benn and the German expressionist painter Emil Nolde, whose embrace of the Nazis was not reciprocated—they destroyed his paintings as degenerate art, and in 1941 forbade him to paint at all; the anti-Semitic novelist and Vichy collaborator Louis-Ferdinand Céline, author of Journey to the End of the Night; T.S. Eliot, who in After Strange Gods pronounced that “reasons of race and religion combine to make large numbers of free-thinking Jews undesirable” in the ideal society; and Ezra Pound, sacred cow and sacred monster, who broadcast on Radio Rome during World War II—during one of his broadcasts he said that it was a shame that the Axis bombers couldn’t see the black American soldiers at night.
Negation for its own sake leads to nothing (as Billy Preston sang, nothing from nothing leaves nothing), except, historically, to Fascism and Nazism (not the bogeywords people love to bandy about, but the real historical phenomena), or just to sheer nihilism. Beat poet Michael McClure, in his essay “Revolt” from which I have quoted earlier, writes on rebellion and negation for their own sake that “In society there is a revolt-of-revolt, a hysteria, often more visible (though perhaps not more present) than true revolt. It is nihilistic and dissipative. The man caught up by revolt-by-revolt is either weak in genetic spirit or dominated by circumstance. He makes a hysterical or passionate attempt to take ANY other path than the one laid for him by society” (432). This is as true today as it was then.
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...