Thursday, December 2, 2010

American Poetry

The Anti-Tradition since 1945

A shift away from an assumption that traditional forms, ideas, and history can provide meaning and continuity to human life has occurred in the contemporary literary imagination throughout many parts of the world, including the United States. Events since World War II have produced a sense of history as discontinuous: Each act, emotion, and moment is seen as unique. Style and form now seem provisional, makeshift, reflexive of the process of composition and the writer's self-awareness. Familiar categories of expression are suspect; originality is becoming a new tradition.

It is not hard to find historical causes for this disassociated sensibility in the United States. World War II itself, the rise of anonymity and consumerism in a mass urban society, the protest movements of the 1960s, the decade-long Vietnam conflict, the Cold War, environmental threats -- the catalog of shocks to American culture is long and varied. The change that has most transformed American society, however, has been the rise of the mass media and mass culture. First radio, then movies, and now an all-powerful, ubiquitous television presence have changed American life at its roots. From a private, literate, elite culture based on the book, the eye, and reading, the United States has become a media culture attuned to the voice on the radio, the music of compact discs and cassettes, film, and the images on the television screen.

American poetry has been directly influenced by mass media and electronic technology. Films, videotapes, and tape recordings of poetry readings and interviews with poets have become available, and new inexpensive photographic methods of printing have encouraged young poets to self-publish and young editors to begin literary magazines -- of which there are now well over 2,000. From the late 1950s to the present, Americans have been increasingly aware that technology, so useful in itself, presents dangers through the wrong kinds of striking images. To Americans seeking alternatives, poetry seems more relevant than before: It offers people a way to express subjective life and articulate the impact of technology and mass society on the individual.

A host of styles, some regional, some associated with famous schools or poets, vie for attention; contemporary American poetry is decentralized, richly varied, and impossible to summarize. For the sake of discussion, however, it can be arranged along a spectrum, producing three overlapping camps -- the traditional on one end, the idiosyncratic in the middle, and the experimental on the other end. Traditional poets have maintained or revitalized poetic traditions. Idiosyncratic poets have used both traditional and innovative techniques in creating unique voices. Experimental poets have courted new cultural styles.


T raditional writers include acknowledged masters of traditional forms and diction who write with a readily recognizable craft, often using rhyme or a set metrical pattern. Often they are from the U.S. Eastern seaboard or from the southern part of the country, and teach in colleges and universities. Richard Eberhart and Richard Wilbur; the older Fugitive poets John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren; such accomplished younger poets as John Hollander and Richard Howard; and the early Robert Lowell are examples. They are established and frequently anthologized.

The previous chapter discussed the refinement, respect for nature, and profoundly conservative values of the Fugitives. These qualities grace much poetry oriented to traditional modes. Traditionalist poets are generally precise, realistic, and witty; like Richard Wilbur (1921- ), they are often influenced in these directions by 15th- and 16th-century British metaphysical poets brought to favor by T.S. Eliot. Wilbur's most famous poem, "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" (1950), takes its title from Thomas Traherne, a metaphysical poet. Its vivid opening illustrates the clarity some poets have found within rhyme and formal regularity:

The tall camels of the spirit

Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud

With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey

of the arid

Sun. They are slow, proud...

Traditional poets, unlike many experimentalists who distrust "too poetic" diction, welcome resounding poetic lines. Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) ended one poem with the words "To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God." Allen Tate (1899-1979) ended a poem, "Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!" Traditional poets also at times use a somewhat rhetorical diction of obsolete or odd words, using many adjectives (for example, "sepulchral owl") and inversions, in which the natural, spoken word order of English is altered unnaturally. Sometimes the effect is noble, as in the line by Warren; other times, the poetry seems stilted and out of touch with real emotions, as in Tate's line: "Fatuously touched the hems of the hierophants."

Occasionally, as in Hollander, Howard, and James Merrill (1926- ), self-conscious diction combines with wit, puns, and literary allusions. Merrill, who is innovative in his urban themes, unrhymed lines, personal subjects, and light conversational tone, shares a witty habit with the traditionalists in "The Broken Heart" (1966), writing about a marriage as if it were a cocktail:

Always that same old story -

Father Time and Mother Earth,

A marriage on the rocks.

Obvious fluency and verbal pyrotechnics by some poets, like Merrill and John Ashbery, make them successful in traditional terms, although their poetry redefines poetry in radically innovative ways. Stylistic gracefulness makes some poets seem more traditional than they are, as in the case of Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) and A.R. Ammons (1926- ). Ammons creates intense dialogues between humanity and nature; Jarrell steps into the trapped consciousness of the dispossessed -- women, children, doomed soldiers, as in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (1945):

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Although many traditional poets use rhyme, not all rhymed poetry is traditional in subject or tone. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917- ) writes of the difficulties of living -- let alone writing -- in urban slums.

Her "Kitchenette Building" (1945) asks how:

Could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall...

Many poets, including Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, and Robert Penn Warren began writing traditionally, using rhyme and meters, but abandoned these in the 1960s under the pressure of public events and a gradual trend toward open forms.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977)

The most influential recent poet, Robert Lowell, began traditionally but was influenced by experimental currents. Because his life and work spans the period between the older modernist masters like Ezra Pound and the contemporary writers, his career places the later experimentalists in a larger context.

Lowell fits the mold of the academic writer: white, male, Protestant by birth, well-educated, and linked with the political and social establishment. He was a descendant of the respected Boston Brahmin family that included the famous 19th-century poet James Russell Lowell and a recent president of Harvard University. Robert Lowell found an identity outside his elite background, however. He went not to Harvard but to Kenyon College in Ohio, where he rejected his Puritan ancestry and converted to Catholicism. Jailed for a year as a conscientious objector in World War II, he later publicly protested the Vietnam conflict.

Lowell's early books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which won a Pulitzer Prize, revealed great control of traditional forms and styles, strong feeling, and an intensely personal yet historical vision. The violence and specificity of the early work is overpowering in poems like "Children of Light" (1946), a harsh condemnation of the Puritans who killed Indians and whose descendants burned surplus grain instead of shipping it to hungry people. Lowell writes: "Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones / And fenced their gardens with the Redman's bones."

Lowell's next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), contains moving dramatic monologues in which members of his family reveal their tenderness and failings. As always, his style mixes the human with the majestic. Often he uses traditional rhyme, but his colloquialism disguises it until it seems like background melody. It was experimental poetry, however, that gave Lowell his breakthrough into a creative individual idiom.

On a reading tour in the mid-1950s, Lowell heard some of the new experimental poetry for the first time. Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Gary Snyder's Myths and Texts, still unpublished, were being read and chanted, sometimes to jazz accompaniment, in coffee houses in North Beach, a section of San Francisco. Lowell felt that next to these, his own accomplished poems were too stilted, rhetorical, and encased in convention; when reading them aloud, he made spontaneous revisions toward a more colloquial diction. "My own poems seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down into a bog and death by their ponderous armor," he wrote later. "I was reciting what I no longer felt."

At this point Lowell, like many poets after him, accepted the challenge of learning from the rival tradition in America -- the school of William Carlos Williams. "It's as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language," he wrote in 1962. Henceforth, Lowell changed his writing drastically, using the "quick changes of tone, atmosphere and speed" that Lowell most appreciated in Williams.

Lowell dropped many of his obscure allusions; his rhymes became integral to the experience within the poem instead of superimposed on it. The stanzaic structure, too, collapsed; new improvisational forms arose. In Life Studies (1959), he initiated confessional poetry, a new mode in which he bared his most tormenting personal problems with great honesty and intensity. In essence, he not only discovered his individuality but celebrated it in its most difficult and private manifestations. He transformed himself into a contemporary, at home with the self, the fragmentary, and the form as process.

Lowell's transformation, a watershed for poetry after the war, opened the way for many younger writers. In For the Union Dead (1964), Notebook 1967-69 (1970), and later books, he continued his autobiographical explorations and technical innovations, drawing upon his experience of psychoanalysis. Lowell's confessional poetry has been particularly influential. Works by John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath (the last two his students), to mention only a few, are impossible to imagine without Lowell.


P oets who have developed unique styles drawing on tradition but extending it into new realms with a distinctively contemporary flavor, in addition to Plath and Sexton, include John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, Philip Levine, James Dickey, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Sylvia Plath lived an outwardly exemplary life, attending Smith College on scholarship, graduating first in her class, and winning a Fulbright grant to Cambridge University in England. There she met her charismatic husband-to-be, poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children and settled in a country house in England. Beneath the fairy-tale success festered unresolved psychological problems evoked in her highly readable novel The Bell Jar (1963). Some of these problems were personal, while others arose from repressive 1950s attitudes toward women. Among these were the beliefs -- shared by most women themselves -- that women should not show anger or ambitiously pursue a career, and instead find fulfillment in tending their husbands and children. Successful women like Plath lived a contradiction.

Plath's storybook life crumbled when she and Hughes separated and she cared for the young children in a London apartment during a winter of extreme cold. Ill, isolated, and in despair, Plath worked against the clock to produce a series of stunning poems before she committed suicide by gassing herself in her kitchen. These poems were collected in the volume Ariel (1965), two years after her death. Robert Lowell, who wrote the introduction, noted her poetry's rapid development from the time she and Anne Sexton had attended his poetry classes in 1958. Plath's early poetry is well-crafted and traditional, but her late poems exhibit a desperate bravura and proto-feminist cry of anguish. In "The Applicant" (1966), Plath exposes the emptiness in the current role of wife (who is reduced to an inanimate "it"):

A living doll, everywhere you look.

It can sew, it can cook.

It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.

You have a hole, it's a poultice.

You have an eye, it's an image.

My boy, it's your last resort.

Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

Plath dares to use a nursery rhyme language, a brutal directness. She has a knack for using bold images from popular culture. Of a baby she writes, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch." In "Daddy," she imagines her father as the Dracula of cinema: "There's a stake in your fat black heart / And the villagers never liked you."

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

Like Plath, Anne Sexton was a passionate woman who attempted to be wife, mother, and poet on the eve of the women's movement in the United States. Like Plath, she suffered from mental illness, and ultimately committed suicide. Sexton's confessional poetry is more autobiographical than Plath's and lacks the craftedness Plath's earlier poems exhibit. Sexton's poems appeal powerfully to the emotions, however. They thrust taboo subjects such as sex, guilt, and suicide into close focus. Often they daringly introduce female topics such as childbearing, the female body, or marriage seen from a female point of view. In poems like "Her Kind" (1960), Sexton identifies with a witch burned at the stake:

I have ridden in your cart, driver,

waved my nude arms at villages going by,

learning the last bright routes, survivor

where your flames still bite my thigh

and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.

A woman like that is not ashamed to die.

I have been her kind.

The titles of her works indicate their concern with madness and death. They include To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), Live or Die (1966), and the posthumous book The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975).

John Berryman (1914-1972)

John Berryman's life parallels Robert Lowell's in some respects. Born in Oklahoma, he was educated in the Northeast -- at prep school and at Columbia University, and later was a fellow at Princeton University. Specializing in traditional forms and meters, he was inspired by early American history and wrote self- critical, confessional poems in his Dream Songs (1969), which feature a grotesque autobiographical character named Henry and reflections on his own teaching routine, chronic alcoholism, and ambition.

Like his contemporary, Theodore Roethke, Berryman developed a supple, playful, but profound style enlivened by phrases from folklore, children's rhymes, clichés, and slang. Berryman writes, of Henry, "He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back." Elsewhere, he wittily writes, "Oho alas alas / When will indifference come, I moan and rave."

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

The son of a greenhouse owner, Theodore Roethke evolved a special language evoking the "greenhouse world" of tiny insects and unseen roots: "Worm, be with me. / This is my hard time." His love poems in Words for the Wind (1958) celebrate beauty and desire with innocent passion: One poem begins "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, / When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them." Sometimes his poems seem like nature's shorthand or ancient riddles: "Who stunned the dirt into noise? / Ask the mole, he knows."

Richard Hugo (1923-1982)

Richard Hugo, a native of Seattle, Washington, studied under Theodore Roethke. He grew up poor in dismal urban environments and excelled at communicating the hopes, fears, and frustrations of working people against the backdrop of the northwestern United States. Hugo wrote nostalgic, confessional poems in bold iambics about shabby, forgotten small towns in his part of the United States; he wrote of shame, failure, and rare moments of acceptance through human relationships. He focused the reader's attention on minute, seemingly inconsequential details in order to make more significant points. "What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American" (1975) ends with a person carrying memories of his old hometown as if they were food:

in case you're stranded in some odd

empty town

and need hungry lovers for friends,

and need feel

you are welcome in the street club

they have formed.

Philip Levine (1928- )

Philip Levine, born in Detroit, Michigan, deals directly with the economic sufferings of workers through keen observation, rage, and painful irony. Like Hugo, his background is urban and poor. He has been the voice for the lonely individual caught up in industrial America. Much of his poetry is somber and reflects an anarchic tendency amid the realization that systems of government will endure.

In one poem, Levine likens himself to a fox who survives in a dangerous world of hunters through his courage and cunning. In terms of his rhythmic pattern, he has traveled a path from traditional meters in his early works to a freer, more open line in his later poetry as he expresses his lonely protest against the evils of the contemporary world.

James Dickey (1923- )

James Dickey, a novelist and essayist as well as poet, is a native of Georgia. By his own reflection, he believes that the major theme in his work is the continuity that exists -- or must exist -- between the self and the world. Much of his writing is rooted in nature -- rivers and mountains, weather patterns, and the perils lurking within.

In the late 1960s, Dickey began working on a novel, Deliverance, about the dark side of male bonding, which, when published and later filmed, increased his renown. His recent collections of verse deal with such varied themes as the landscape of the South (Jericho: The South Beheld, 1974) and the influence of the Bible on his life (God's Images, 1977). Dickey is often concerned with effort: "Outdoing, desperately / Outdoing what is required."

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) and Adrienne Rich (1929- )

Among women poets of the idiosyncratic group, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich have garnered the most respect in recent years. Bishop's crystalline intelligence and interest in remote landscapes and metaphors of travel appeal to readers for their exactitude and subtlety. Like her mentor Marianne Moore, Bishop, who never married, wrote highly crafted poems in a cool, descriptive style that contains hidden philosophical depths. The description of the ice-cold North Atlantic in "At the Fishhouses" could apply to Bishop's own poetry: "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free."

With Moore, Bishop may be placed in a "cool" female poetic tradition harking back to Emily Dickinson, in comparison with the "hot" poems of Plath, Sexton, and Adrienne Rich. Though Rich began by writing poems in traditional form and meter, her works, particularly those written after she became an ardent feminist in the 1960s, embody strong emotions. Her special genius is the metaphor, as in her extraordinary work "Diving Into the Wreck" (1973), evoking a woman's search for identity in terms of diving down to a wrecked ship. The wreck is like the wreckage of women s selfhood, the speaker suggests; women must find their way through male-dominated realms. Rich's poem "The Roofwalker" (1961), dedicated to poet Denise Levertov, imagines poetry writing, for women, as a dangerous craft. Like men building a roof, she feels "exposed, larger than life, / and due to break my neck."


T he force behind Lowell's mature achievement and much of contemporary poetry lies in the experimentation begun in the 1950s by a number of poets. They may be divided into five loose schools, identified by Donald Allen in his The New American Poetry (1960), the first anthology to present the work of poets who were previously neglected by the critical and academic communities.

Inspired by jazz and abstract expressionist painting, most of the experimental writers are a generation younger than Lowell. They have tended to be bohemian, counter-culture intellectuals who disassociated themselves from universities and outspokenly criticized "bourgeois" American society. Their poetry is daring, original, and sometimes shocking. In its search for new values, it claims affinity with the archaic world of myth, legend, and traditional societies such as those of the American Indian. The forms are looser, more spontaneous, organic; they arise from the subject matter and the feeling of the poet as the poem is written, and from the natural pauses of the spoken language. As Allen Ginsberg noted in "Improvised Poetics," "first thought best thought."

The Black Mountain School

The Black Mountain School centered around Black Mountain College an experimental liberal arts college in Asheville, North Carolina, where poets Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley taught in the early 1950s. Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, and Jonathan Williams studied there, and Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner, and Denise Levertov published work in the school's magazines, Origin and the Black Mountain Review. The Black Mountain School is linked with Charles Olson's theory of "projective verse," which insisted on an open form based on the spontaneity of the breath pause in speech and the typewriter line in writing.

Robert Creeley (1926- ), who writes with a terse, minimalist style, was one of the major Black Mountain poets. In "The Warning" (1955), Creeley imagines the violent, loving imagination:

For love -- I would

split open your head and put

a candle in

behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us

if we forget

the virtues of an amulet

and quick surprise

The San Francisco School

The work of the San Francisco School -- which includes most West Coast poetry in general -- owes much to Eastern philosophy and religion, as well as to Japanese and Chinese poetry. This is not surprising because the influence of the Orient has always been strong in the U.S. West. The land around San Francisco -- the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the jagged seacoast -- is lovely and majestic, and poets from that area tend to have a deep feeling for nature. Many of their poems are set in the mountains or take place on backpacking trips. The poetry looks to nature instead of literary tradition as a source of inspiration.

San Francisco poets include Jack Spicer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, Phil Whalen, Lew Welch, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Joanne Kyger, and Diane diPrima. Many of these poets identify with working people. Their poetry is often simple, accessible, and optimistic.

At its best, as seen in the work of Gary Snyder (1930- ), San Francisco poetry evokes the delicate balance of the individual and the cosmos. In Snyder's "Above Pate Valley" (1955), the poet describes working on a trail crew in the mountains and finding obsidian arrowhead flakes from vanished Indian tribes:

On a hill snowed all but summer

A land of fat summer deer,

They came to camp. On their

Own trails. I followed my own

Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,

Pick, singlejack, and sack

Of dynamite.

Ten thousand years.

Beat Poets

The San Franciso School blends into the next grouping -- the "Beat" poets, who emerged in the 1950s. Most of the important Beats (beatniks) migrated to San Francisco from the East Coast, gaining their initial national recognition in California. Major Beat writers have included Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. Beat poetry is oral, repetitive, and immensely effective in readings, largely because it developed out of poetry readings in underground clubs. Some might correctly see it as a great-grandparent of the rap music that became prevalent in the 1990s.

Beat poetry was the most anti-establishment form of literature in the United States, but beneath its shocking words lies a love of country. The poetry is a cry of pain and rage at what the poets see as the loss of America's innocence and the tragic waste of its human and material resources.

Poems like Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) revolutionized traditional poetry:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,

starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking

for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection

to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...

The New York School

Unlike the Beat and San Franciso poets, the poets of the New York School are not interested in overtly moral questions, and, in general, they steer clear of political issues. They have the best formal educations of any group.

The major figures of the New York School -- John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Kenneth Koch -- met while they were undergraduates at Harvard University. They are quintessentially urban, cool, nonreligious, witty with a poignant, pastel sophistication. Their poems are fast moving, full of urban detail, incongruity, and an almost palpable sense of suspended belief.

New York City is the fine arts center of America and the birthplace of Abstract Expressionism, a major inspiration of this poetry. Most of the poets worked as art reviewers or museum curators, or collaborated with painters. Perhaps because of their feeling for abstract art, which distrusts figurative shapes and obvious meanings, their work is often difficult to comprehend, as in the later work of John Ashbery (1927- ), perhaps the most influential poet writing today.

Ashbery's fluid poems record thoughts and emotions as they wash over the mind too swiftly for direct articulation. His profound, long poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which won three major prizes, glides from thought to thought, often reflecting back on itself:

A ship

Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.

You are allowing extraneous matters

To break up your day...

Surrealism and Existentialism

In his anthology defining the new schools, Donald Allen includes a fifth group he cannot define because it has no clear geographical underpinning. This vague group includes recent movements and experiments. Chief among these are surrealism, which expresses the unconscious through vivid dreamlike imagery, and much poetry by women and ethnic minorities that has flourished in recent years. Though superficially distinct, surrealists, feminists, and minorities appear to share a sense of alienation from white, male, mainstream literature.

Although T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound had introduced symbolist techniques into American poetry in the 1920s, surrealism, the major force in European poetry and thought in Europe during and after World War II, did not take root in the United States. Not until the 1960s did surrealism (along with existentialism) become domesticated in America under the stress of the Vietnam conflict.

During the 1960s, many American writers -- W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, and Mark Strand, among others -- turned to French and especially Spanish surrealism for its pure emotion, its archetypal images, and its models of anti- rational, existential unrest.

Surrealists like Merwin tend to be epigrammatic, as in lines such as: "The gods are what has failed to become of us / If you find you no longer believe enlarge the temple."

Bly's political surrealism harshly criticized American values and foreign policy during the Vietnam era in poems like "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last":

It's because we have new packaging

for smoked oysters

that bomb holes appear in the rice


The more pervasive surrealist influence has been quieter and more contemplative, like the poem Charles Wright describes in "The New Poem" (1973):

It will not attend our sorrow.

It will not console our children.

It will not be able to help us.

Mark Strand's surrealism, like Merwin's, is often bleak; it speaks of an extreme deprivation. Now that traditions, values, and beliefs have failed him, the poet has nothing but his own cavelike soul:

I have a key

So I open the door and walk in.

It is dark and I walk in.

It is darker and I walk in.


W omen's literature, like minority literature and surrealism, first became aware of itself as a driving force in American life during the late 1960s. It flourished in the feminist movement initiated in that era.

Literature in the United States, as in most other countries, was long based on male standards that often overlooked women's contributions. Yet there are many women poets of distinction in American writing. Not all are feminists, nor do their subjects invariably voice women's concerns. More often than not, they are humanists. Also, regional, political, and racial differences have shaped their work and given them food for thought. Distinguished women poets include Amy Clampitt, Rita Dove, Louise Glck, Jorie Graham, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, May Swenson, and Mona Van Duyn.

The second half of the 20th century has witnessed a renaissance in multiethnic literature. Beginning with the 1960s, following the lead of African-Americans, ethnic writers in the United States began to command public attention. During the 1970s, ethnic studies programs were begun. In the 1980s, a number of academic journals, professional organizations, and literary magazines devoted to ethnic groups were initiated. By the 1990s, conferences devoted to the study of specific ethnic literatures had begun, and the canon of "classics" had been expanded to include ethnic writers in anthologies and course lists. Important issues included race versus ethnicity, ethnocentrism versus polycentrism, monolingualism versus bilingualism, and coaptation versus marginalization. Deconstruction, applied to political as well as literary texts, called the status quo into constant question.

Minority poetry shares the variety and occasionally the anger of women's writing. It has flowered recently in Hispanic- Americans such as Gary Soto, Alberto Rios, and Lorna Dee Cervantes; in Native Americans such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, and Louise Erdrich; in African-American writers such as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Michael Harper, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni; and in Asian-American poets such as Cathy Song, Lawson Inada, and Janice Mirikitani.

Chicano/Hispanic/Latino Poetry

Spanish-influenced poetry encompasses works by many diverse groups. Among these are Mexican-Americans, known since the 1950s as Chicanos, who have lived for many generations in the southwestern U.S. states won from Mexico in the Mexican-American War ending in 1848. Among Spanish Caribbean populations, Cuban- Americans and Puerto Ricans maintain vital and distinctive literary traditions. For example, the Cuban-American genius for comedy sets it apart from the elegiac lyricism of Chicano writers such as Rudolfo Anaya. Recent immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and Spain constantly replenish and enlarge this literary realm.

Chicano, or Mexican-American, poetry has a rich oral tradition in the corrido, or ballad, form. Recent works stress traditional strengths of the Mexican community and the discrimination it has sometimes met with among whites. Sometimes the poets blend Spanish and English words in a poetic fusion, as in the poetry of Alurista and Gloria Anzaldúa. Their poetry is much influenced by oral tradition and is very powerful when read aloud.

Some poets write largely in Spanish, in a tradition going back to the earliest epic written in the present-day United States -- Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's Historia de la Nueva México, commemorating the 1598 battle between invading Spaniards and the Pueblo Indians at Acoma, New Mexico. A central text in recent Chicano poetry, Rodolfo Gonzales's (1928- ) I Am Joaquin (1972), laments the plight of Chicanos:

Lost in a world of confusion

Caught up in a whirl of a gringo society,

Confused by the rules,

Scorned by attitudes,

Suppressed by manipulations,

And destroyed by modern society.

Nonetheless, many Chicano writers find sustenance in their ancient Mexican roots. Thinking of the grandeur of ancient Mexico, Lorna Dee Cervantes (1954- ) writes that "an epic corrido" chants through her veins, while Luis Omar Salinas (1937- ) feels himself to be "an Aztec angel." Much Chicano poetry is highly personal, dealing with feelings and family or members of the community. Gary Soto (1952- ) writes out of the ancient tradition of honoring departed ancestors, but these words, written in 1981, describe the multicultural situation of all Americans today:

A candle is lit for the dead

Two worlds ahead of us all

In recent years, Chicano poetry has achieved a new prominence, and works by Cervantes, Soto, and Alberto Rios have been widely anthologized.

Native American Poetry

Native Americans have written fine poetry, most likely because a tradition of shamanistic song plays a vital role in their cultural heritage. Their work excels in vivid, living evocations of the natural world, which become almost mystical at times. Indian poets also voice a tragic sense of irrevocable loss of their rich heritage.

Simon Ortiz (1941- ), an Acoma Pueblo, bases many of his hard-hitting poems on history, exploring the contradictions of being an indigenous American in the United States today. His poetry challenges Anglo readers because it often reminds them of the injustice and violence at one time done to Native Americans. His poems envision racial harmony based on a deepened understanding.

In "Star Quilt," Roberta Hill Whiteman (1947 - ), a member of the Oneida tribe, imagines a multicultural future like a "star quilt, sewn from dawn light," while Leslie Marmon Silko (1948 - ), who is part Laguna Pueblo, uses colloquial language and traditional stories to fashion haunting, lyrical poems. In "In Cold Storm Light" (1981), Silko achieves a haiku-like resonance:

out of the thick ice sky

running swiftly


swirling above the treetops

The snow elk come,

Moving, moving

white song

storm wind in the branches.

Louise Erdrich (1954- ), like Silko also a novelist, creates powerful dramatic monologues that work like compressed dramas. They unsparingly depict families coping with alcoholism, unemployment, and poverty on the Chippewa reservation.

In "Family Reunion" (1984), a drunken, abusive uncle returns from years in the city. As he suffers from a heart disease, the abused niece, who is the speaker, remembers how this uncle had killed a large turtle years before by stuffing it with a firecracker. The end of the poen links Uncle Ray with the turtle he has victimized:

Somehow we find our way back, Uncle Ray

sings an old song to the body that pulls him

toward home. The gray fins that his hands have become

screw their bones in the dashboard. His face

has the odd, calm patience of a child who has always

let bad wounds alone, or a creature that has lived

for a long time underwater. And the angels come

lowering their slings and litters.

African-American Poetry

Contemporary black Americans have produced many poems of great beauty and considerable range of themes and tones. It is the most developed ethnic writing in America and is extremely diverse. Amiri Baraka (1934- ), the best known African-American poet, has also written plays and taken an active role in politics. Maya Angelou's (1928- ) writings have taken various literary forms, including drama and her well-known memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), in addition to her collection of verse, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971). Angelou was selected to write a poem for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Another recently honored African-American poet is Rita Dove (1952- ), who was named poet laureate of the United States in 1993. Dove, a writer of fiction and drama as well, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah, in which she celebrates her grandparents through a series of lyric poems. She has said that she wrote the work to reveal the rich inner lives of poor people.

Michael Harper (1938- ) has similarly written poems revealing the complex lives of African-Americans faced with discrimination and violence. His dense, allusive poems often deal with crowded, dramatic scenes of war or urban life. They make use of surgical images in an attempt to heal. His "Clan Meeting: Births and Nations: A Blood Song" (1971), which likens cooking to surgery ("splicing the meats with fluids"), begins "we reconstruct lives in the intensive / care unit, pieced together in a buffet...." The poem ends by splicing together images of the hospital, racism in the early American film Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan, film editing, and X-ray technology:

We reload our brains as the cameras,

the film overexposed

in the x-ray light,

locked with our double door

light meters: race and sex

spooled and rung in a hobby;

we take our bundle and go home.

History, jazz, and popular culture inspire many African- Americans, from Harper (a college professor) to West Coast publisher and poet Ishmael Reed (1938- ), known for spearheading multicultural writing through the Before Columbus Foundation and a series of magazines such as Yardbird, Quilt, and Konch. Many African-American poets, such as Audre Lorde (1934-1992), have found nourishment in Afrocentrism, which sees Africa as a center of civilization since ancient times. In sensuous poems such as "The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands to Mark the Time When They Were Warriors," she speaks as a woman warrior of ancient Dahomey, "warming whatever I touch" and "consuming" only "What is already dead."

Asian-American Poetry Like poetry by Chicano and Hispanic writers, Asian-American poetry is exceedingly varied. Americans of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino descent may have lived in the United States for seven generations, while Americans of Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese heritage are likely to be fairly recent immigrants. Each group grows out of a distinctive linguistic, historical, and cultural tradition. Recent developments in Asian-American literature have included an emphasis on the Pacific Rim studies and women's writing. Asian-Americans generally are resisting the orientalizing racial stereotype as the "exotic" and "good" minority. Aestheticians are beginning to compare Asian and Western literary traditions -- for example comparing the concepts of tao and logos.

Asian-American poets have drawn on many sources, from Chinese opera to zen, and Asian literary traditions, particularly zen, have inspired numerous non-Asian poets, as can be seen in the 1991 anthology Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Asian-American poets span a spectrum, from the iconoclastic posture taken by Frank Chin, co- editor of Aiiieeeee! (an early anthology of Asian-American literature), to the generous use of tradition by writers such as novelist Maxine Hong Kingston (1940- ). Janice Mirikitani, a sansei (third-generation Japanese-American) evokes Japanese- American history and has edited several anthologies such as Third World Women, Time to Greez, and Ayumi: Four Generations of Japanese in America.

Chinese-American Cathy Song's (1955- ) lyrical Picture Bride (1983) also dramatizes history through the lives of her family. Many Asian-American poets explore cultural diversity. In Song's "The Vegetable Air" (1988), a shabby town with cows in the plaza, a Chinese restaurant, and a Coca-Cola sign hung askew become an emblem of rootless multicultural contemporary life made bearable by art, in this case an opera on cassette:

then the familiar aria,

rising like the moon,

lifts you out of yourself,

transporting you to another country

where, for a moment, you travel light.


R ecent directions in American poetry include the "language poets" loosely associated with Temblor magazine. Among them are Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Douglas Messerli [editor of "Language" Poetries: An Anthology (1987)], Bob Perelman, and Barret Watten, author of Total Syntax(1985), a collection of essays. They stretch language to reveal its potential for ambiguity, fragmentation, and self-assertion within chaos. Ironic and postmodern, they reject "metanarratives" -- ideologies, dogmas, conventions -- and doubt the existence of transcendent reality. Michael Palmer writes:

This is Paradise, a mildewed book

left too long in the house

Bob Perelman's "Chronic Meanings" begins:

The single fact is matter.

Five words can say only.

Black sky at night, reasonably.

I am, the irrational residue...

Viewing art and literary criticism as inherently ideological, they oppose modernism's closed forms, hierarchies, ideas of epiphany and transcendence, categories of genre and canonical texts (accepted literary works). Instead they propose open forms and multicultural texts. They appropriate images from popular culture, the media, and fashion and refashion them. Like performance poetry, language poems often resist interpretation and invite participation.

Performance-oriented poetry (associated with chance operations such as those of composer John Cage), jazz improvisation, mixed media work, and European surrealism have influenced many U.S. poets. Well-known figures include Laurie Anderson, author of the international hit United States (1984), which uses film, video, acoustics and music, choreography, and space-age technology. Sound poetry, emphasizing the voice and instruments, is practiced by poets David Antin (who extemporizes his performances) and New Yorkers George Quasha (publisher of Station Hill Press), Armand Schwerner, and Jackson MacLow. MacLow has also performed visual or concrete poetry, which makes a visual statement using placement and typography. Ethnic performance poetry entered the mainstream with rap music, while across the United States "poetry slams" -- open poetry reading contests that are held in alternative art galleries and literary bookstores -- have become inexpensive, high-spirited participatory entertainments.

At the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum are the self-styled "New Formalists," who champion a return to form, rhyme, and meter. All groups are responding to the same problem - - a perceived middle-brow complacency with the status quo, a careful and overly polished sound, often the product of poetry workshops, and an overemphasis on the personal lyric as opposed to the public gesture. The formal school is associated with Story Line Press; Dana Gioia (a businessman-poet); Philip Dacey, and David Jauss, poets and editors of Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (1986); Brad Leithauser; and Gjertrud Schnakenburg. Robert Richman's The Direction of Poetry: Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in English Since 1977 is a recent anthology. Though these poets have been accused of retreating to 19th-century themes, they often draw on contemporary stances and images, along with musical language and traditional, closed forms.

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