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).

Originally Published: February 25th, 2008

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...

  1. February 25, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Reginald -- You seem to take everything these poets say about their societal roles at face value; but isn't it precisely in the denial of ideology that ideology bares its rear? It's understandable that Ginsberg, say, would want to explicitly reject the one-to-one relationship of poetry to political action that his less subtle readers wanted to foist upon him, but that doesn't tell us much about the ways in which his work did or did not intervene in the deformation of a comfortable notion of art as an autonomous form of life. And O'Hara's work strikes me as about almost nothing but "social roles." The very operation of discrimination and judgment, distinction and valuation -- "we don't like Lionel Trilling / we decide, we like Don Allen" -- is a clearing of social ground, a positioning within the realm of social and cultural production, no? I'm sympathetic to your larger point about the political efficacy of art, but I think you underdetermine the complexity of political figurations within poetical (representative) regimes.
    -- Michael Robbins

  2. February 25, 2008
     Ben Friedlander

    Reginald:
    When I was editing the new edition of Olson's prose with Donald Allen I sent a letter to Amiri Baraka asking about some pieces Baraka had published (one of them by the way a review of _The Contours of American History_ by William Appleton Williams, a forebear of the New Left, about whom Olson writes, "there is one attractive thing about Williams' mind and attention, that he is like they say 'Marxian'"). Among other things, Baraka wrote: "C. was political, as against the straight out backwardness politically of even his 'students' and poetic sycophants. While they wd say flatly politics and poets are mutually exclusive, C was always, in fact, using his political perception of his society (pejorocracy) intellectual digging to provide, I felt, an ongoing, overarching, undergirding thema for his work." Olson's comments about nature in "Projective Verse" ought to be understood in the context of such political perception. Here for instance is a memorable passage from "Human Universe," written about a year after "Projective Verse," that gives some sense of how the earlier essay fits into a broader social vision:
    "For the truth is, that the management of external nature so that none of its virtu is lost, in vegetables or in art, is as much a delicate juggling of her content as is the same juggling by any one of us of our own. And when men are not such jugglers, are not able to manage a means of expression the equal of their own or nature's intricacy, the flesh does choke. The notion of fun comes to displace work as what we are here for. Spectatorism crowds out participation as the condition of culture. And bonuses and prizes are the rewards of labor contrived by the monopolies of business and government to protect themselves.... All individual energy and ingenuity is bought off--at a suggestion box or the cinema. Passivity conquers all."
    This, I think, is the aspect of the "New American Poetry" Ange Mlinko had in mind in her response to one of your earlier posts; it's an aspect that goes in and out of focus in different representations of Olson's work--witness the sentences you cite from M. L. Rosenthal.
    Hope these observations are of use in thinking about the anthology.

  3. February 25, 2008
     Matt

    Michael Robbins: "O'Hara's work strikes me as about almost nothing but "social roles.""
    Well I suppose that conclusion is inevitable when you base your opinion of O'hara's work on one tiny example.
    You're judging a chef's entire repertoire based solely on his mozzarella sticks.

  4. February 25, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Matt --
    What a weird response to my post. The use of one exemplary quotation -- in a comment on a blog post, no less -- implies to you that that is the totality of evidence at my disposal, does it? Personal Poem, Second Avenue, In Memory of My Feelings, Having a Coke with You, The Day Lady Died, Why I Am Not a Painter: these are poems deeply invested in the project of social positioning. Even the "standard" line on O'Hara concedes that he is primarily a coterie poet: if this isn't definitionally social, what is? I could adduce about, oh, three or four dozen other poems in support of this uncontroversial thesis, but for the nonce I note that the six poems I named are hardly "mozzarella sticks," but are surely among his best work.
    Michael

  5. February 25, 2008
     Henry Gould

    It seems to me that unless you give some context to these snapshots - the context of a definition of "politics" and the role of literature & poetry in relation to that - they don't serve as evidence of much in particular.
    If we think of poetry in the didactic sense - as a part of a person's education for social life - which is how Chaucer, Dante, Spenser, Milton & many other poets thought of it - then it's possible to think of the stylistic and rhetorical choices which these poets made, as having political consequences and ramifications.
    What stands out as the main impression of the Allen NAP anthology is its rejection of traditional modes & techniques. You can describe this as a tendentious polemical move on the part of the anthologist, but the fact remains that such a move would have been impossible without the materials at hand (the unusual styles & approaches of the poets themselves).
    Poetry was political in olden times because it meshed with rhetoric and philosophy in the education of the young for civic activity. And I think in this sense the NAP represents something of a radical break from the educational milieu of the earlier generation. There are new audiences being addressed, and new forms of poetic address per se. This relates to the distinction A. Mlinko was making between the new literary-academic elites of today, and the political "outside" represented by NAP's rejection of New-Critical academic styles back in the 50s. (Today's academic poet is a lyric post-avant, who sees him or herself as a lonely beacon of critical intelligence and political progress, an island of light in the darkness of dumb America. And he or she is often blessed with tenure, too. As far as I'm concerned, you can keep that kind of politics.)
    Perhaps you could call this shift (in the 50s) "proto-political". The number of full-fledged, fully-achieved "political poems" which resulted from this shift are very few (as they are few in most times & places). Poets don't always want to write such poems anyway. But the shaking-up of the styles of the early 50s - by the New Americans and MANY others - made new kinds of political speech in poetry available.
    It seems to me that one big mistake poets make in this area is to accept strictly literary politics - the rivalry between stylistic schools & approaches - as their mode of political activity, displacing real politics with literary gamesmanship. Another big mistake however, is to smooth over political interest & differences on behalf of some supposed literary professionalism. This, actually, is just another form of the gamesmanship of writing replacing real political concerns.

  6. February 25, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Hi all,
    I was obviously emphasizing certain aspects to make a point, but I don't think that I was distorting or misrepresenting the NAPs, as one might fondly call them, who were a very diverse group, many of whom (Edward Field, for example, who is a fine poet) couldn't be even be considered particularly "experimental" or "avant-garde." My points were a) that the equation between experimental or avant-garde poetry and progressive politics simply doesn't hold up (the third post on this topic will address this directly) and b) that the politics, quasi-politics, and sometimes pseudo-politics of most of the NAPs didn't and don't really correspond to much that would be considered politics in the real world (and yes, Virginia, I do believe in a real world). Their visions of social transformation (those that had such visions, which I would say wasn't even the majority) had little to do with what most of the commenters on my previous post considered politics. But then, most of those comments had little to do with anything that would be called politics in the real world...
    With specific regard to Michael Robbins' comment on Frank O'Hara, I'm not sure what you mean when you write that his work is "about almost nothing but 'social roles'." It seems to me that you are confusing two senses of the word 'role.' I do think that much of O'Hara's work engages in a shifting speaker taking on various roles and assuming various poses and guises. But the idea of playing a role (as if one were an actor) is completely different from the idea that poetry has a social role (as in a function or an obligation), which I think that O'Hara thoroughly rejected.
    Take care, all, and thanks for commenting.
    Reginald

  7. February 25, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Hi Reginald -- Actually, I completely reject the reading of O'Hara as one more pomo role-player (and I don't know why you assume I don't know what I mean by the word "role"). I believe a careful reading of his work reveals not only a relatively stable speaker -- again, not one who takes on various guises, assuredly not playing roles, except insofar as those roles are different facets of one Frank O'Hara -- but a stable speaker engaged in the act of social differentiation. One of the (many) social roles poetry takes for O'Hara (whether he rejected it elsewhere or not, it's in the poems) is precisely to make distinctions, to venture judgments, to position himself in relation to other social beings. Take another look at "Personal Poem" (a double-edged title). All those distinctions he makes -- aren't they really about staking out a position within the field of cultural production? If this isn't a "social role," I don't know what is. I think that we're so used to reading O'Hara superficially -- repeating the mantra that his signifiers and personal pronouns are unstable -- using him as an example of some postmodernist thesis we've all heard four thousand times -- that we neglect the complexity of much of his work. It doesn't matter who rejected what where -- it just doesn't matter that O'Hara didn't think or said that he didn't believe that poetry has a social role. What matters is what the poems tell us, and to know that we have to read them, not statements their authors issued about them. Often there's no worse reader of poems than their author (cf. Stevens's reductive take on his own stuff).
    And the question of whether poetry has a social role (as a function or obligation) is trivially yes, right? Has anyone ever denied this? Poetry has no social role? At all? Its very existence is dependent upon the social, and the only role it could ever have is within a social sphere. This is very different from saying it has no direct, immediate, unmediated, unambiguous sociopolitical function, in some (if you will excuse the expression) vulgar Marxian sense.
    Michael

  8. February 26, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Henry Gould's comment above is excellent.
    And great to have that quote from Baraka in Ben Friedlander's.
    But I was struck by this passage in Ben's quote from Olson:
    "The notion of fun comes to displace work as what we are here for. Spectatorism crowds out participation as the condition of culture. And bonuses and prizes are the rewards of labor contrived by the monopolies of business and government to protect themselves.... All individual energy and ingenuity is bought off--at a suggestion box or the cinema. Passivity conquers all."
    Hm. I wonder what Olson would think of Flarf, for example... Though I suppose, too, his reference to the "suggestion box" could be imagined as applicable to the Blog comment box, too.
    Well, here we are.
    Kent

  9. February 26, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    I don't know if this is too off-topic, but thought it might be of interest, and of suggestive relation to the poetic process. It was sent to me today by a great visual poet--apparently a piece in a UK science magazine. I'll see if I can track down the source:
    >Hey dude, Found today an article on how since peanut butter contains carbon one that
    with enough pressure and heat it is possible to turn peanut butter into a
    diamond!!
    Kent

  10. February 26, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Well, well. See here, apropos some matters discussed in other comment strings... A review in The Guardian on John Mullan's new book, Anonymity, a study of the rich, subversive history of anonymous and pseudonymous authorship:
    http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/history/0,,2246967,00.html
    "...(T)his book is a marvellous combination of thought-provoking information and entertaining detail. It also raises a large and unsettling question. Why do we need to attach authors' names to books at all? Doing so makes life easy for librarians of course: just imagine arranging all those novels ascribed to "A Lady". Having names on books also helps us recognise works which we're likely to enjoy ("the new Ian McEwan"). It also allows for the simple human pleasure of piecing together an author's interests through their oeuvre, and feeling that you know how they think.
    But looked at from a wider historical perspective these are quite recent pleasures, and they don't have entirely innocent origins. When Henry VIII proclaimed in 1546 that the names of printers and authors should appear on all published books, it was not because he was burning to read the latest heretical treatise. It was so he could catch and burn their authors and printers. And when present-day publishers put an author's name on a title-page they do so because an author is now something like a brand-name..."
    Kent

  11. February 26, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Hello Michael,
    I didn't mean to insult you. I was simply pointing out that social roles in O'Hara's poetry is a very topic from the social role of poetry, O'Hara's or anyone else's. If one is looking for a revolutionary (I'm not saying that you are), O'Hara's simply not your guy.
    Art obviously emerges from and is imbricated in the social field; it also speaks back to that social field. Adorno incisively and eloquently lays out some of the complexities and overdeterminations of this relationship in his famous essay "On Lyric Poetry and Society," and more comprehensively in Aesthetic Theory.
    I did mean social role, function, or obligation in the vulgar Marxist sense, because that is the way it tends to be used. Art's relationship to society is usually treated in very simplistic and reductive ways, as either ideological mystification or ideological critique. I think that the relationsip is more complicated than either, and that art has a more autonomous role (dare I use that word again?). That's one of the places its value lies.
    Take good care, and thanks for your very smart comments.
    all best,
    Reginald

  12. February 26, 2008
     Ian Keenan

    Reginald, if it’s your intention to make the case “that the equation between experimental or avant-garde poetry and progressive politics simply doesn't hold up,” you may want to expand your inquiry beyond poetry written in the United States during the McCarthy era.
    The Allen Anthology was published in 1960, the year that the Hollywood Blacklist ended; W.E.B. Du Bois was denied a US Passport in 1963. The end point of the McCarthy era is unclear as it varies in different subcultures: The University of Iowa, for instance, reneged an invitation for Pentti Saarikoski to teach poetry in the late 1970s because of his “progressive politics.”
    Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt should have been informed that Charles Olson was out of touch with the “politics in the real world” before he was appointed Assistant Division Chief of the Office of War Information, and the FBI agents that trailed him at Black Mountain could have been told that his dialectical process was deemed qualitative by a crucial text of academic legitimation, in order to save the taxpayers' money.
    I’m pleased you find Edward Field a fine poet; maybe the Foundation could give him his much-deserved poet page that includes his classic “Ode to Fidel Castro.”

  13. February 26, 2008
     Daisy

    Ian Keenan wrote: "maybe the Foundation could give [Edward Field]...his much-deserved poet page that includes his classic “Ode to Fidel Castro.”
    Hear hear!
    Daisy

  14. February 26, 2008
     Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

    What is it with this obsession with politics and poetry? This is a 20th century neo-Marxist concern that I think has done far more harm to poetry than good. This isn't to say that politics hasn't figured in the past -- one can point to the very origins of The Aeneid and to Dante's choice of people he put in Hell -- but these were all part of a complex of issues these poets were concerned with. And the fact that politics was never really their primary concern made their politics poetic. When we try to reduce poetry to politics or to subvert poetry to politics, all we do is make poetry a small, petty thing. Poetry is older and more important than politics. The poets can never be the unacknowledged legislators of the world until we subvert politics to poetry again.

  15. February 26, 2008
     Emily Warn

    We hear(!), hear(!) your request for Edward Field's classic “Ode to Fidel Castro.” I've forwarded it on to our archive editor James Sitar.
    Thanks for the recommendation, Emily