All Night, He Was a New American, Part Two
This is the second of three posts devoted to the seminal Donald M. Allen anthology The New American Poetry. This post deals with the question of the "New American Poets"'s political commitments, or lack of same.
Some of the poets gathered by Allen did indeed seek to transform society. Some sought to transform consciousness. Some sought to transform writing as a practice. Most just sought to write poems that felt more genuine to them than the products of the poetic orthodoxies of the 1950s. Robert Creeley, for one example, was almost purely concerned with the lyric notation of the moment-to-moment movements of his mind, emotions, and sensibilities. As he wrote in the preface to For Love: Poems 1950-1960, “Not more, say, to live than what there is, to live. I want the poem as close to this fact as I can bring it; or it me”? (cited in M. L. Rosenthal, The New Poets 147). This implies a notion of a life more authentic or at least more awake than the one most people live, but has no necessarily political valence: various religious disciplines of attention have the same goal.
John Ashbery was a Yale Younger Poet (and Frank O’Hara almost was, in the same year), and the revolution which interested him was what Julia Kristeva calls a revolution in poetic language, largely inherited from such forebears as Raymond Roussel and Gertrude Stein, what he calls in the title of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard “other traditions”? (including Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Laura Riding, John Brooks Wheelwright, and David Schubert). It’s important to note that Ashbery has cited such canonical figures as W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens as among the poets who most shaped his poetic idiom.
The “Statements on Poetics” at the end of the anthology give a sense of the poets’ interests and motivations. Very few refer to politics, though several refer in rather large and general terms to society and the world at large, and many refer to consciousness in various ways. Ferlinghetti writes that “I am put down by Beat natives who say that I cannot be beat and ‘committed’ at the same time.” He’s scathing about the disengagement of his fellow Beats, with the exception of “that Abominable Snowman of modern poetry, Allen Ginsberg": “the ‘non-commitment’ of the artist is itself a suicidal and deluded variation of…nihilism” (413). That Ferlinghetti found it necessary to say this indicates that social transformation or even social intervention was not an agenda item for many of his fellow “New American” poets.
Michael McClure, for example, writes in “From a Journal” that “The prime purpose of my writing is liberation. (Self-liberation first & hopefully that of the reader.)” (423). In his 1961 essay “Revolt,” McClure clarifies this statement: “There is no political revolt. All revolt is person and is against interior attitudes and images or against exterior bindings of Society that constrict and cause pain.
“(A ‘political’ revolution is a revolt of men against a lovestructure that has gone bad. Men join in a common urge to free themselves.)” (Poetics of the New American Poetry 437).
Charles Olson’s project of transformation was to reconnect man with his primal being, to forge or reforge a truer relationship with nature: as he writes in “Projective Verse,” “the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence” (395). In The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, a crucial text in the academic legitimization of “the New American Poetry,” critic M.L. Rosenthal points out that “The activist Marxian perspective implicit in the [French-language] Mao quotations is somewhat modulated by Olson throughout ‘The Kingfisher’ toward a more purely qualitative notion of dialectical process and change [“What does not change / is the will to change”]. Yet he too is programmatic, though not politically so. His attempt is to isolate and resurrect primal values that have been driven out of sight by the alienating force of European civilization” (Rosenthal 164).
The project of bringing modern man back into congruence with his natural roots was Gary Snyder’s as well, on the most visceral and immediate level: “poets don’t sing about society, they sing about nature—even if the closest they ever get to nature is their lady’s queynt. Class-structured society is a kind of mass ego. To transcend the ego is to go beyond society as well” (“Poetry and the Primitive,” Poetics of the New American Poetry 399). As he wrote in his anthology artist’s statement, “the rhythms of my poems follow the rhythm of the physical work I’m doing and life I’m leading at any given time” (420). His poetry is deeply informed by Native American cultures and folklore, anthropology, his studies of Zen Buddhism, and his use of mind-altering drugs like peyote (a psychotropic specifically tied to Native American cultures). As Snyder writes, “At the root of where our civilization goes wrong, is the mistaken belief that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead.” Snyder’s Buddhist revolution is hardly one that Marx would have recognized.
Frank O’Hara explicitly rejects any social role for his work. “I don’t think about fame or posterity (as Keats so grandly and genuinely did), nor do I care about clarifying experiences for anyone or bettering (other than accidentally) anyone’s state or social relation, nor am I for any particular technical development in the American language simply because I find it necessary. What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them” (419).
John Wieners writes in “From a Journal” that “A poem does not have to be a major thing. Or a statement?...Poems…are my salvation alone. The reader can do with them what he likes” (425). He goes on to write that “poetry even tho it does deal with language is no more holy act than, say shitting. Discharge” (426). Though not holy, shitting is, of course, absolutely necessary, so while Wieners seeks to demystify poetry (arguing against the Romantic/romantic cult of art and of the artist), he doesn’t trivialize it either. It’s one of life’s necessities, just not a higher level than anything else.
Robert Duncan, like the Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich (who, though a supporter of the Russian Revolution, was eventually forced by the Soviet authorities to abandon abstraction in favor of Socialist Realism), was not a negationist but a visionary, seeking higher spiritual truths in and through his work, the hermetic/Gnostic knowledge. The transformations Duncan sought were first of all spiritual and intellectual and only incidentally social. As he wrote late in his life, only the imagination knows. Though he wrote poems against the Vietnam War, in which he took up the role of a Biblical prophet, revealing the eternal laws of virtue “against the works of unworthy men, unfeeling judgments, and cruel deeds,” his was a spiritual, not a political, denunciation. Duncan’s friendship with Denise Levertov was destroyed by what he saw as her sullying of her exalted poet’s role with political involvement: “Years of our rapport [were wrecked by] War and the Scars upon the land.”
But even Levertov writes in her artist’s statement that “I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our time is the concern of poetry. Horrors are taken for granted. Disorder is ordinary. People in general take more and more ‘in their stride’—hides grow thicker. I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock” (412).
Levertov later changed her position, seeking to be a poet of witness, and writing in her essay “Poetry, Prophecy, and Survival” that the poet’s role was to make the horrors of her time graspable by the human mind: “The intellect by itself may point out the source of suffering; but the imagination illuminates it; by that light it becomes more comprehensible” (New & Selected Essays 145). As Anne Day Dewey writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Whereas Levertov moved toward a romantic voice and a commonly understood language as the vehicles of protest poetry, Creeley and Duncan continued to maintain that political critiques and poetic originality emerged only from experimental poetry that challenged the norms of syntax and poetic form.” But Day Dewey also points out that Levertov never lost her focus on the individual imagination as the source of political change. In this regard, she was not so far from Duncan as their rather bitter break might indicate.
Allen Ginsberg, who is practically identified with the Nineteen-Sixties counter-culture(s), writes in “A Word for the Politicians” in his “Notes for Howl and Other Poems” that “my poetry is Angelical Ravings, & has nothing to do with dull materialistic vagaries about who should shoot who. The secrets of individual imagination—which are transconceptual & nonverbal—I mean unconditioned Spirit—are not for sale to this consciousness, are of no use to this world, except perhaps to make it shut its trap & listen to the music of the Spheres” (417). Not much use to political or social revolutionaries.
In the Vancouver Lectures, Jack Spicer explicitly dismisses the idea of a political poetry, in similar terms to those used by George Oppen some years later: “you can start out with an idea that you want to write about how terrible it is that President Johnson is an asshole and you can come up with a good poem. But it will just be by chance and will undoubtedly not just say that President Johnson is an asshole and will really have a different meaning than you started with. I mean, if you want to write a letter to the editor then it seems to me the thing to do is write a letter to the editor. It doesn’t seem to me that poetry is for that” (The Poetics of the New American Poetry 231).
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...