Sunday, August 22, 2010

Contemporary American Poetry

The roots of American literature go back to the Maya and Inca Civilizations, but the beginnings of American Literature take place around the sixteenth century when America was discovered and the European world interacted with this New World. However, modern literature begins from the 20th century.

The 20th Century
By 1900 the United States was far different from the new nation it had been a hundred years earlier. Westward expansion, waves of immigration, and increasing urbanization all combined to create a physically larger, more populous, and far more diverse country than its founders could have imagined. These changes are tracked more visibly in America’s fiction than in its poetry, but the nation’s growing diversity is evident in the diverse voices of 20th-century American poets. American poetry in the opening decades of the century displayed far less unity than most anthologies and critical histories indicate. Shifting allegiances, evolving styles, and the sheer number of poets make it difficult to categorize 20th-century poetry.
Usually set amid the natural beauty of rural New England, the concise, direct poetry of American poet Robert Frost conveys a wide range of emotions. Frost won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry four times (1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943) and became known across the country when he recited his poem “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. Frost said poetry “makes you remember what you didn’t know you knew.” According to Frost, the poem “Fire and Ice,” “begins in delight, and ends in wisdom.”
In the last decades of the 19th century, American literature had entered a period of regionalism, exploring the stories, dialects, and idiosyncrasies of many regions of the United States. Dialect poetry—written in exaggerated accents and colorful idioms—became a sensation for a time though it produced little of lasting value. However, one major poet who rose to fame on the basis of his dialect poems was Paul Laurence Dunbar, a black writer from Ohio. Dunbar’s dialect poems, which romanticized the life of slaves in the pre-Civil War South, were extremely popular. His volumes Oak and Ivy (1893) and Majors and Minors (1895) brought attention to African American literature, although the dialect poems later embarrassed many black poets. Dunbar also wrote many nondialect poems and initiated through his work an important debate in African American literature about what voices and materials are appropriate for black writers.
Other regions and groups developed their own distinctive voices. Kansas-born Edgar Lee Masters achieved success with Spoon River Anthology (1915). His poetic epitaphs (commemorations) capture the hidden passions, deceits, and hopes of Midwesterners buried in the fictional Spoon River cemetery. Edwin Arlington Robinson explored the lives of New Englanders in his fictional Tilbury Town through dramatic monologues—poems written entirely in the voice of each of his characters. Many of the monologues employ the rhythm of everyday speech and reflect a Puritan sense of humankind’s moral corruption.
While Frost’s images and voice seem familiar and old, his observations of New England life have an edge of skepticism and irony.
Robert Frost further developed Robinson’s New England voice in poems that can be read both as regional and as some of the most accomplished modern poetry of the early 20th century. Restrained, humorous, and understated, Frost’s poetry gives voice to modern psychological constructions of identity without ever losing its focus on the local and the specific. He often wrote in the standard meter of blank verse (lines with five stresses) but ran sentences over several lines so that the poetic meter plays subtly under the rhythms of natural speech. The first lines of “Birches” (1916) illustrate this distinctive new approach to rhythm:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain…
And while Frost’s images and voice seem familiar and old, his observations of New England life have an edge of skepticism and irony that make his work, upon rereading, never as easy and carefree as it first appeared. Frost delivered American poetry into the 20th century.
A poet, novelist, and critic, American Gertrude Stein lived much of her life in Paris at the center of a thriving literary and artistic community. Stein coined the phrase “Lost Generation” to describe the disillusioned American expatriate writers living in Paris. Renowned as much for her stylistic innovations as for encouraging and nurturing various young talents, Stein helped such figures as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Henri Matisse gain recognition.
The early 20th century was a time of huge industrial expansion in America, and many writers found the conditions for creating art unfavorable in a culture that was so focused on business and making money. Part of the struggle among modernist writers concerned the possibility or even desirability of continuing to develop a specifically American poetic tradition. Many writers exiled themselves in cultures that seemed more conducive to art, while others decided to stay and resist through their poetry the growing materialistic culture. One way to categorize the major modernist poets is to separate those who left the United States and wrote most of their poetry as expatriates in Europe from those who stayed in America. Among the expatriates are Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (who wrote under the pen name H. D.), T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. Those who stayed in the United States include William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Langston Hughes, and Robinson Jeffers. Most of the latter group visited Europe at some point and flirted with the idea of staying there to write.

The Whiteman Tradition

American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg initially gained recognition in the early 20th century, and he won Pulitzer Prizes for both his biographical writings (1940) and his poetry (1951). His unrhymed, impressionistic poetry, first published in 1914, often focused on industrialization and America’s future.
During the first half of the 20th century a number of poets carried on what we might call a Whitman tradition. They wrote in free verse—a rhythm that responds to the specific subject instead of adhering to a predetermined, set meter. And they strived for a poetry that would have a wide appeal and would help define and develop a democracy. Carl Sandburg devoted his poetic career to celebrating the power of a tough, free, democratic working class. In this way he shifted Whitman’s focus on individual identity to a new concern with social identity, an idea that culminated in his Depression-era book, The People, Yes (1936).
Hughes used the rhythmic structure of blues music and the improvisational rhythms of jazz.
Vachel Lindsay set out to tramp across America, trading poems for food. His goal was to build a kind of mass participatory poetry through what he called “the higher vaudeville,” performances in which he led large groups of people in chanting his poetry. Langston Hughes, who became one of the century’s most important black writers, wrote socially conscious poems that sought to capture the black experience. Hughes used the rhythmic structure of blues music and the improvisational rhythms of jazz in his innovative development of Whitman’s ideas, and he insisted on a more inclusive democracy than even Whitman had proposed. Michael Gold, born and raised in New York City slums, wrote impassioned chants to American workers, often invoking Whitman. Were Whitman alive—so Gold imagined—he would have joined the Communist struggle to liberate the working class.
American writer William Carlos Williams avoided artificiality and sentimentality in his work by producing clear, direct verse about common, everyday subjects. He is known for his innovative language and precise detail, as well as attention to line breaks. Initially acclaimed for his poetry, Williams eventually also won acceptance as a writer of prose. His poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” demonstrates Williams’s clear style and creative page layout.
William Carlos Williams, a physician from industrial New Jersey, looked to Whitman as the source of his own American rhythms, which he claimed to pick up from listening to Americans talk on the streets. Williams developed forms that broke Whitman’s long lines into brief lines that focused attention on the concrete reality in front of the poet: “No ideas but in things,” he said. Williams’s massive poem Paterson (1946-58), released in five volumes, is an epic about Paterson, New Jersey. Williams sought to make poetry out of material considered un-poetic by conventional standards: his focus was always on the local and immediate.
Imagism and After
American writer, editor, and critic Ezra Pound’s best-known work is the Cantos, a series of poems addressing a wide range of subjects, from the historical to the personal. Pound wrote the Cantos from 1915 to 1970.
Early in Williams’s career he belonged to a group led by Ezra Pound called the imagists. Pound, Williams, and Doolittle all met at the University of Pennsylvania and became part of Pound’s self-declared movement to remake poetry, or, as he said, to “make it new.” The imagist credo called for new rhythms, clear and stripped-down images, free choice of subject matter, concentrated or compressed poetic expression, and use of common speech. The poets who subscribed to this credo applied it differently: Williams found his new rhythms in everyday speech, while Pound sought his new rhythms in adaptations in English of Chinese, Greek, Provençal (southern France), and other poetic traditions. Pound’s Personae (1909) demonstrated his remarkable ability to write intense, beautiful experimental verse, echoing poems from other languages. Pound introduced the poetry of Hilda Doolittle as the model of imagism, and her chiseled and often erotic Sea Garden poems (1916) became for many the movement’s signature book. H. D., Pound, and Williams left imagism behind, but it continued to influence some poets for a number of years under the leadership of Amy Lowell, a descendent of James Russell Lowell.
The imagist credo called for new rhythms, clear and stripped-down images, compressed poetic expression, and use of common speech.
Pound took his modernist revolution in a surprising new direction, building his brief imagist poems into a jagged collage that eventually became a massive long poem, the Cantos. While the individual poems that went to make up the Cantos were published in various forms from 1917 until the 1960s, the first complete English language edition of the poem was published in 1970 as The Cantos of Ezra Pound. This lifelong work invites comparisons with Whitman’s lifelong project, Leaves of Grass. Pound distanced himself from Whitman, however, disliking what he saw as the 19th-century poet’s over-infatuation with America. Pound believed the poet should be a citizen of the world and a contemporary of all the ages, able to learn from excellence wherever and whenever it appeared. He and Williams debated this issue for years, Williams insisting that original poetry could emerge only from the local and the present and Pound insisting that fresh beauty could come only by encounters with the distant and the past, the lost and forgotten. Whereas Williams’s Paterson insists on staying in one place, Pound’s Cantos move through time, languages, and cultures—leading Pound eventually to a flirtation with fascism, which he embraced while in Italy during World War II (1939-1945). Yet both of their compilations share a collage style, built of sudden, unexpected juxtapositions of disparate materials. Doolittle also turned to long poems with her trilogy, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946). In these works she turned to Egyptian mythology, ancient history, and a reconfiguration of Christian tradition as a response to the violence of World
War II.
The Waste Land has been read in many different ways, its meaning as unstable and fluid as its diverse imagery.
An important result of Pound’s push to build long poems out of imagist fragments was his editing of The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot. For many readers this poem ranks as the great statement of despair in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918). Before its publication Pound condensed and reshaped this highly allusive, darkly suggestive work, which is built on fertility myths and the legend of the Holy Grail. The Waste Land has been read in many different ways, its meaning as unstable and fluid as its diverse imagery. Eliot, born in St. Louis, Missouri, eventually became a British citizen and joined the Church of England. Much of his later verse, including Ash-Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1943), relates to his spiritual concerns and suggests a religious pathway out of despair and toward a renewed sense of purpose.
Some American poets tried writing responses to The Waste Land. Williams was incensed by Eliot’s poem, because its erudition suggested that readers of poetry had to be scholars. Williams, meanwhile, championed a poetry more accessible to the general reader, a poetry written in the language of the common person. He saw his own Paterson as a kind of local and optimistic answer to Eliot’s cosmopolitan poem of pessimism. Hart Crane, too, viewed his epic-length The Bridge (1930) as an answer to Eliot. Crane sought a way to bridge the American past to a productive American future and reveal the wasteland of the present as a necessary stepping-stone to that future. The Bridge is a difficult poem, written in highly charged, symbolic language and suffused in dense imagery, much of it derived from American myth, legend, and history. Crane eventually came to believe it was a failure. Instead of answering Eliot, Robinson Jeffers wrote some of the bleakest poetry in all of American literature from his isolated home in California. His bitter vision, a kind of post-Waste Land, is of a cold natural world that would be better if cleansed of humanity. With no hint of redemption, Jeffers’s poetry anticipates the dark tones of the kind of science fiction that imagines the world after ecological or nuclear holocaust.
Other modernist poets focused even more intently on experimentation with language and form. Some of their work was quite playful and some of it showed the influence of dada and surrealism—European movements that undermined and mocked the value and traditions of art. E. E. Cummings wrote highly experimental poetry that parodied the platitudes of what he called the unworld, a sterile modern world that seemed to him to strip human beings of their humanity. Using puns, unorthodox typography—words, all lower-case, divided and sometimes spread out letter by letter across a page—and other fracturing of traditional poetic forms, he created a playful yet serious, highly individual poetic voice. One of the most radical innovators of modern poetry was Gertrude Stein, although most of her poetry was not published until after her death. Her work probed the ways that language ultimately refers only to itself, not to things of the world, and she experimented with multiple, shifting speaking voices.
American poet Wallace Stevens viewed the poet as a person who found harmony in the world’s chaos. His first published work, Harmonium (1923), contains some of his best-known poems, including “Sunday Morning” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
Marianne Moore also wrote experimental poems, but her experiments led not to the shattering of form so much as the invention of strict new forms. She imposed on herself a discipline of precise syllable counts and elaborate structures, all in the service of precise, witty, and distanced observation of animals and other objects rendered in surprising metaphors. Her poetry scrutinizes the world and scrutinizes itself, always revealing a strong ethical regard for the things described. An incessant reviser of her poetry, Moore produced a small but intricately complex body of work.
Wallace Stevens created a cerebral, philosophical poetry that nonetheless shimmers with lush and often playful sounds. Abstract and often difficult, Stevens’s poetry seems almost the opposite of that of his friend William Carlos Williams. Whereas Williams believed ideas could emerge only from things, and that the poet must therefore attach words to solid reality, Stevens believed things emerged from ideas, and that without thought, there are no things or at least no things that language can embrace. Stevens began publishing his poetry late in life, and his work forms a mature reflection on the mind’s relation to the world and one way that the imagination can encounter the world. This encounter happens through the creation of what Stevens calls the supreme fiction—the belief that poetry or any art creates a meaningful order and pattern in life, an order we accept even while recognizing that it is artificially imposed by humankind.
New Criticism ... tended to value work that was difficult, ambiguous, and that transcended its ... surroundings.
One influential group of modernist poets from the South was dedicated initially to poetry that had a regional basis. But the main commitment of these poets—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—was to a well-wrought, ironic, and often indirect or obscure poetry. Their work led to what came to be called the New Criticism, a way of reading poems and other literature that tended to value work that was difficult, ambiguous, and that transcended its personal, historical, and cultural surroundings. The goal was a poem that could survive on its own as a perfected work of art. Their work built upon that of other modernists, such as Eliot, and encouraged a new formalism—that is, a return to careful craftsmanship and tradition as the primary virtues of poetry.
After Modernism
Twentieth-century American poet Sylvia Plath wrote poems that often focused on the painful plight of women, young people, rebels, and misfits. Plath’s attempts to exorcise the oppressive male figures that haunted her life served as one of the fundamental themes in her poetry. The opening stanza of “Daddy” demonstrates this theme.
As noted earlier a period of inaction in American poetry followed the death of the great 19th-century poets and lasted until the modernist poets arose a decade or so into the 20th century. A similar lull came after the great poems by the modernists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. American poetry paused as many poets imitated what had been innovative a few decades before and produced the new formal poems that New Critics called for. By the 1950s most of the major modernists were still alive but they seldom produced innovative work and no longer had any interest in continuing to lead a poetic revolution.
A middle generation of 20th-century American poets emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them born in the second decade of the century. Many achieved fame, including Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, and Delmore Schwartz. Several came to be known as confessional poets because of their use of modernist techniques to explore their own psychology and their lives. These techniques included irony, collage, verbal finish (careful attention to word choice for the effects of sound or rhythm as well as for meaning), and wide-ranging allusion. Berryman undertook such explorations in his Dream Songs (1964-1968), Lowell in Life Studies (1959), and Roethke in Words for the Wind (1958). Confessional poetry broke away from modernism’s dedication to impersonality and reopened poetry to intense self-exploration and frank revelation of personal experiences. Although the early confessional poets rarely used their poetry to explore political issues, their investigations of how personal identity is constructed laid the ground for a more openly political poetry that emerged in America in the late 1950s and was still written at the century’s close.
The confessional poets also became the first generation to teach the writing of poetry in America.
The confessional poets also became the first generation to teach the writing of poetry in America. As instructors at some of the earliest poetry workshops, they developed poetry as a subject at a number of American colleges and universities. Some of Lowell’s poetry students used his confessional techniques for even more intense and unsettling self-examinations—especially Anne Sexton in All My Pretty Ones (1962) and Sylvia Plath in Ariel (1966). Steeped in Freudian analysis and imagery, these poems tracked psychological breakdowns; and a number of confessional poets, including Sexton and Plath, took their own lives. Their poetry explored tortured family relationships and examined the female psyche, the female body, and the dynamics of mother-daughter interactions. Sexton’s and Plath’s poetry influenced the development of feminist poetry—poetry by women that questioned the traditional roles society assigned to females. Confessional poetry in general served as a counterforce to the prevailing mood of the country in the 1950s and 1960s, when the family was presented in the mass media as the source of stability and happiness.
Also important to the development of feminist poetry and a key poet in the tradition of political investigation is Muriel Rukeyser, whose poetry looks at labor problems and larger class issues. A contemporary of the confessional poets, Rukeyser’s work stands apart in its commitment to social justice. Another important female poet who is equally hard to categorize is Elizabeth Bishop. Influenced by Marianne Moore, Bishop was an intense observer of exotic and common things, always rendered in a most uncommon language, and many of her observations suggest a psychological dimension not unrelated to the confessional poets.
Rich’s poetry ... explored increasingly radical political positions and interrogated America’s assumptions about gender.
Rukeyser and Bishop served as disparate but equally important sources for the poetry of Adrienne Rich, who ranks as one of the most important poets of the second half of the 20th century. Like Plath and Sexton, Rich offers a probing examination of motherhood and of what it means to be a woman in America in a remarkable series of books starting with her first collection, A Change of World, in 1951. However, she moved beyond Plath and Sexton in discovering ways to apply her anger not to self-destruction but to pointed critiques and reenvisionings of society. Beginning with a formal and very finished modernist style, Rich’s poetry over the years took on a much more experimental form as she explored increasingly radical political positions and interrogated America’s assumptions about gender and the ways gender structures our social experience.
New Directions
Many poets who had begun writing formal poetry in the 1950s and 1960s underwent changes similar to Rich’s, making striking alterations in their verse forms and opening their poetry up to more experimental rhythms and more radical social thoughts. Some poets, including Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, and Anthony Hecht, have devoted their entire careers to writing elegantly structured poems, becoming among the most accomplished formal poets in American history. Others who started out as formalists gave up allegiance to traditional forms to explore and respond to radical political change by opening up their own work to new forms and structures. W. S. Merwin, an admirer of Pound’s early work, wrote remarkable poetry in traditional forms in the 1950s. However, in The Moving Target (1963) he suddenly abandoned punctuation and created a haunting, new prophetic voice, free of conventional techniques. In later books such as The Lice (1967), he addressed societal ills, including the prospect of ecological disaster as a result of human irresponsibility. American poetry became less formal and more political, more engaged in the immediate moment during the 1960s, as America faced the social turbulence of the Civil Rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War (1959-1975).
This break from new formalism traces back to Black Mountain College, an experimental school in North Carolina, where Charles Olson taught, and where poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, and others studied in the early 1950s (see Black Mountain Poets). Olson owed much to Pound but had less interest in Pound’s love of tradition than in his attempt to construct a kind of poetic compendium of history and myth, as in the Cantos. Olson’s great work was The Maximus Poems (1953-1975), which focused on his hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and owed much to Williams’s epic based on the city of Paterson. Olson developed a theory of poetry called projective verse, which called for poets to return to an organic basis for their form, to a poetic line controlled by the physiology of the poet’s breathing instead of by pre-set meter. He urged an open form that would allow for poetry to be a process of discovery, where form emerged from the needs of the particular poem. Olson’s student Duncan later described the experience of reading and writing the new poetry as an “opening of the field,” the entering of a poetic space where one could wander and explore instead of being led along predetermined pathways. Olson’s call influenced many writers, who formed a variety of dissident groups from coast to coast—all dedicated to undermining the orthodox insistence on predetermined, closed form.
Significant figure in the development of women’s and African American literature in the United States, Gwendolyn Brooks has received numerous honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. Her poems display a quality of bold and direct social observation that often foreshadows the work of younger contemporary African American poets.
The most famous of the dissident groups came to be known as the Beats, so named for their weariness with American materialism after World War II and their faith in a coming beatification, a new spiritual America. The movement attracted poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. It began with a reading in San Francisco in 1955, when the greatest poet of the movement, Allen Ginsberg, read his free-flowing, surrealistic Howl, the poem that became the hallmark of the movement. Initially dismissed as unpoetical by most established and academic writers, the Beat Generation writers eventually became some of the best-known and most widely read American poets. Whitman had displaced Eliot and Pound as the poetic source for the Beats, and Williams had an increasingly important influence. Ginsberg throughout his career celebrated Whitman and Williams as his poetic progenitors and followed in their tradition as an essentially urban poet. Snyder took the Beat sensibility in a different direction, turning to the wilderness tradition in American literature and combining Zen Buddhism, Native American mythology, and deep ecological awareness in poetry that speaks eloquently of the human responsibility to nature.
From about 1960 on, an explosive new plurality prospered in American poetry.
Following many different trajectories, dissident poets began to explore the ways poetry could combine politics, sexuality, autobiography, and spirituality in an improvisational, jazzy mode. From about 1960 on, an explosive new plurality prospered in American poetry—a sense of multiple directions with no controlling authority. One direction was a black arts movement during the 1960s. This flourishing of African American poetry that resulted was reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Arna Bontemps, Melvin Tolson, and Jessie Fauset were all active writers.
In the 1960s black poetry underwent redefinition and turned to a more confrontational style. Rejecting the old gradualist and integrationist model that saw blacks merging into white society, it became a poetry written in support of social revolution and sought to be a distinctive voice of the black community. Gwendolyn Brooks had written poems about the Chicago slums since 1945, and in 1950 she became the first black to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But with the black arts movement of the 1960s, she redefined her poetic mission, writing more directly for a black audience and becoming, as she said, more “non-compromising.” LeRoi Jones, who later took the name Amiri Baraka, was a central figure in the movement. He specifically rejected Eliot and the modernists and embraced the chanting, rebellious voices of Whitman, Williams, and the Beats. The new black poetry turned to the streets of the black communities for its language and to the powerful tradition of African American jazz, blues, and rock music for its rhythms. It also aligned itself with the poetry of oppressed people in other countries, particularly developing countries around the world.
A prominent 20th-century writer and political activist, Amiri Baraka has dedicated himself to the advancement of black culture. Distancing himself from white culture, especially after the assassination of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka turned to black themes in his writings and advocated increased political power for blacks. His poems, plays, novels, and essays have helped move African American literature toward a focus on the black experience.
A number of black poets developed the poetic possibilities of black urban speech in politically aware, performance-based writing, which sometimes involved chanting or rapping. These poets included Don Lee (who took the name Haki R. Madhubuti), Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and June Jordan. Other black poets, such as Michael Harper and Pulitzer-Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa, examined the deep ironies of African American history in a more formal voice, yet retained associations with jazz and blues. And still others, including Rita Dove, the first black poet laureate in the United States, produced striking, lyrical composites of autobiography, confession, black dialect, and African American history in a language of precise observation reminiscent of Moore or Bishop.
Another direction away from formal modernism led to deep image poetry, a name given to the work of Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, and others who were born in the 1920s. These poets rejected what they saw as capitalism’s sterile public facade and turned to what Bly called a “deep inwardness,” looking to internal spiritual sources that lie deep within the self and taking leaps into the unconscious to retrieve mysterious, disturbing, and often healing images.
Yet another direction led to the New York School, a group of artists, writers, and musicians in which John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara represented poetry. Ashbery and O’Hara wrote wildly experimental poetry that derived from dada and from an embrace of Whitman’s open-road aesthetic—namely a desire to keep moving and to celebrate change, instability, and chance. The resulting poems provide verbal trips through landscapes of shifting discourse with no center and no fixed voice: modes of speech alternate rapidly, high diction is mixed with street slang, and moments from different realms of experience are juxtaposed. This work influenced Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, and others who are known as Language poets. This group attacks the idea of a unified voice and, through collaborative work, disguises or erases the distinctions between individual poets. In doing so, the Language poets work to undermine all the institutions that are built on America’s infatuation with individualism, including much of American poetry itself.
Vigorous and unbridled variety marked the poetic scene.
It is impossible to name the myriad schools and movements in American poetry that flourished near the turn of the century, when vigorous and unbridled variety marked the poetic scene more than ever. Philip Levine, Frank Bidart, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and many other poets were developing the confessional poem in surprising ways, focusing autobiographical examination in more intense lyric forms than earlier confessional poets had. C. K. Williams added to the confessional poem a sometimes brutal narrative edge as he extended the possibilities (and the length) of the long line favored by Whitman and Ginsberg. Jorie Graham extended the poetic line as well, developing Stevens’s philosophical poetry through fascinating labyrinths of speculation and imagery that cross and juxtapose the multiple cultures of her experience.

Multi-Cultural Voices

Poet, novelist, and short story writer Sherman Alexie became part of a late-20th-century resurgence of Native American writing in America. His work explores the impoverishment and hopelessness of reservation life and other issues facing Native Americans today. His volumes of poetry include Water Flowing Home (1995) and The Summer of Black Widows (1996).
In the last decades of the 20th century American poetry gained much of its energy from a melding of America’s many distinct cultural traditions. For example, Asian American writers—themselves part of a diverse and multicultured community—turned increasingly to poetry as a means of exploring both their integration into American culture and their growing sense of distinctive ethnic identity within that culture. Garrett Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, John Yau, and Cathy Song are just a few of the recent and remarkable poets whose work expands the definition of Asian American poetry.
Chicano and Chicana poetry also has a long history in America, much of it centered in New Mexico, where Victor Bernal published intricate lyrics in the early 20th century. But the amount of poetry increased dramatically after 1967, when Quinto Sol Publications was founded to publish Chicano and Chicana work. José Montoya, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cherrie Moraga, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Gary Soto are among the innovative Chicano and Chicana writers. Much of their work blends poetry and prose, Spanish and English, and oral and written traditions.
Native Americans, of course, have the longest sustained tradition of poetry in North America, and many of the powerful Native American writers at work today ground their work in the long-standing traditions and oral cultures of their peoples. As with Chicano and Chicana writers, some Native American poets wrote in English early in the nation’s history. But most Native American poetry in English is of relatively recent origin. The highly original group of writers at work at the close of the 20th century included N. Scott Momaday (of the Kiowa people), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), Simon Ortiz (Acoma), Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), Carroll Arnett (Cherokee), Roberta Hill (Oneida), Wendy Rose (Hopi), James Welch (Blackfeet), Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna), Linda Hogan (Chicasaw), Joy Harjo (Creek), and Ray Young Bear (Mesquakie).
The history of American poetry is usually told as the story of a handful of great poets, from Anne Bradstreet through William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Robert Frost. But these poets form a small part of America’s vast poetic production, much of which is by people whose names are forgotten. Journals and newspapers preserve much of their work, and scholars have just begun to rediscover 18th- and 19th-century American poetry in those archives. Similarly, much of the most popular, politically astute, and radical 20th-century poetry appeared in workers’ newspapers and journals and popular songbooks—and a great deal of this work still awaits rediscovery.
With the vast amount of culturally diverse poetry being written today and with the growth and reach of the Internet, American poetry may well be approaching its most prolific stage. The Internet dwarfs the archives of the past in its ability to make thousands of new poetic voices available to everyone who cares to read them. “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too,” wrote Whitman in 1855. His challenge remains valid today: The poets are out there, thousands of them, waiting for the audience that will be worthy of them.

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