Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes

Critical Inquiry 13 (3):624-647 (1987)

What is the significance of that loose collective enterprise, sprung up in the aftermath of the sixties, known as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing? To answer this question I will be taking, initially, a somewhat oblique route. And I shall assume an agreement on several important social and political matters: first, that the United States, following the Second World War, assumed definitive leadership of a capitalist empire; second, that its position of leadership generated a network of internal social contradictions which persist to this day ; third, that this postwar period has been characterized, at the international level, by an extended cold war shadowed by the threat of a global catastrophe, whether deliberate or accidental. Whatever one’s political allegiances, these truths, surely, we hold as self-evident.Postwar American poetry is deployed within that general arena, and to the degree that it is “political” at all, it reflects and responds to that set of overriding circumstances.1 In my view the period ought to be seen as falling into two phases. The first phase stretches from about 1946 to 1973 . This period is dominated by a conflict between various lines of traditional poetry, on one hand, and the countering urgencies of the “New American Poetry” on the other. In the diversity of this last group Donald Allen argued for a unifying “characteristic”: “a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse.”2Of course, this representation of the conflict between “tradition” and “innovation” obscures nearly as much as it clarifies. The New American poets were, in general, must moe inclined to experimentalism than were writers like Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, or Donald Justice. But Allen’s declaration can easily conceal the academic and literary characteristics of the innovators. Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, for example, key figures in the New American Poetry, can hardly not be called “literary” or even “academic” poets. If they opened certain new areas in the field of poetic style, no less could and has been said of Lowell, even in his early work. And if Frank O’Hara seems the antithesis of academic work, John Ashbery is, in his own way, its epitome. Yet both appear in Allen’s New American Poetry anthology. Moreover, who can say, between O’Hara and Ashbery, which is the more innovative of the two—so different are their styles of experimentation? 1. Black and feminist writing in the United States often confines the focus of the political engagement to a more restricted national theater. Nevertheless, even in these cases engagement is necessarily carried out within the global framework I have sketched above.2. The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, ed. Donald M. Allen , p. xi. Jerome J. McGann is Commonwealth Professor of English, University of Virginia. His most recent critical work, Buildings of Loss: The Knowledge of Imaginative Texts, will appear in 1987. “Some Forms of Critics Discourse” and “The Religious Poetry of Christina Rosetti” are among his previous contributions to Critical Inquiry
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DOI 10.1086/448411
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