Monday, December 20, 2010

The New American Writing, 1945-1960

edited by Donald Allen

"The body is real and all real things perish. Augustine discoverd in the City of God, unrealities, fantasies, mere ideas, can never be destroyd. Soul is the body's dream of its continuity in eternity - a wraith of mind. Poetry is the very life of the soul: the body's discovery that it can dream. And perish into its own imagination." - Robert Duncan

Fifty years on, we approach Donald Allen's seminal anthology, "the New American Poetry," not as as assault upon the stalwarts of canon, but as an epoch-defining machine of canon-building. Allen stratifies the 44 poets anthologized into five, at times arbitrary, locative centers. This effects a geographical gravity to the groupings; Ron Silliman in his discussion of the anthology points towards this unspoken hierarchy. The selections privilege Black Mountain poetics, followed in preeminence by the "S.F Renaissance," the Beats, the New York School and finally to non-localized "Independents," many of whom could conceivably be placed within the four central groupings. Yet while we can debate the merits of these groupings and their inevitable failings, credit must be given to the anthology for stressing the importance of community and place within the poetic discourse. Allen writes in his afterword to the 1999 edition, "... at the time, I tended to think of the poets in terms of communities." Yes, problems arise. Individuals without the privilege of residing near geographic hotbeds may as a result be pushed to ideological fringes and be consequently branded outliers. Looking back on "the New American Poetry" from the vantage point of 2010, the myopia of Allen's gendered and race-based lens is startling - of the 44 poets included, a scant four are women, while LeRoi Jones is the sole non-white contributor). Any appraisal of the book must consider these deficiencies, but how does one resist becoming mired in such a deficit?

Earlier Grove Press Edition

Criticism of the anthology's indiscretions must take stock of history. We must place "the New American Poetry" in its historical moment, as well as identify its relevance to us today. Poetry today is an invisible possibility - it remains disturbingly absent from the mainstream. I stopped by the Barnes & Noble in Syracuse recently and had difficulty finding the Poetry section - it was eventually located in a corner over by Music Reference books and Arts & Crafts. Let us not speak of the selection available at most bookstores when one finally finds the poetry section! But at the same time, it is incredibly easy to log online and order volumes of poetry either directly through the publisher or through a host of third-party dealers, to say nothing of the wealth of free material available via the Electronic Poetry Center. We are the lucky ones. In 1960, this anthology presented readers unable to hunt down issues of Yugen, Black Mountain Review or Big Table with their first exposure to many of these poets. But if the anthology provided many readers with their first exposure to the 44 poets included, we must acknowledge that due to Allen's omissions, the book perpetuated the myth of a white male-dominated field.

This is the popular criticism of "the New American Poetry," but such criticism must not suppose we are writing from an inevitable place of progress- a better clime. The contradictions and errors of the anthology are glaring, yes, but they must be recognized as ongoing difficulties. The problems of the anthology are problems which persist. To assume we exist in are era without gender bias or racial exclusion is naive, if not downright dangerous. An outright condemnation of such omissions in "the New American Poetry" is in danger of exacerbating the ugliness of our contemporary landscape by refusing to admit that such prejudices are ours as well as our forebears. How do the prejudices of 1960 mirror our own?

Allen's original compositional intention was "... leading of with recent work by William Carlos Williams, H.D., e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound and Waillace Steven..." and finally focusing on 24 new poets following a selection of "bridge" poets such as Kenneth Rexroth and Louis Zukofsky.This original semantic favors a through line of influence. Instead of explicating how the new generation skates upon the ice of influence, the published anthology, by omitting these elder poets, in effect breaks the ice. This is the new thing, prefigured by Williams in particular, but typified, yes, unified, by its very newness and youthful vitality. The volume is presided over by Charles Olson, who leads off both the poetry and poetics sections and also garners the largest page count of all poets compiled.

Charles Olson

The anthology can be seen through the lens of Olson's theories on a projective verse. Olson privileges "...the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader." I would argue that not only does Olson's concept of projective verse influence how syllable, word and line are positioned within many of the poems of the anthology, but that we can look at the positioning of the poets within the anthology itself as indebted to projective verse. Allen argues towards the poetic landscape of 1960, that is, of a 1950s poetry poised to undergo the new reactions and ventures of the 60s, via the placement of these poets and their poetries on a greater field. We return to Allen's insistence on a location-based order. This field is an abstract, the nebulous matter of a poetry landscape, as it is also literal - America as a physical space hemmed in by two oceans. Art must acknowledge geography, yet not be confined by it. Let's quickly look at location in other mediums. We can observe how Power Electronics and Industrial music finds a national identity whether in England, Italy, or Japan, or how the particulars of national funding and politics colors the film industry outside of the box factory of the American Hollywood paradigm. Allen's above-quoted statement on his tendency to think geographically is prefaced by an admittance that "... there was much movement between the coasts..." At their worst and most insoluble, the groupings of the anthology enforce a biased hierarchy, but if we allow these boundaries to become diffuse, the dance of poetries becomes apparent.

Location not only emphasizes the identity of a mapped territory, but provides exegesis on the relation between spaces. We need look no further than the debt the New York School owes to French writing. Kenneth Koch in his biographical note writes "... since I didn't read French very well but managed to be very excited by French poetry anyway, I began to try to get the same incomprehensible excitement into my own work." Remember the moment in Frank O'Hara's "the Day Lady Died," when he buys "... an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days..." Like the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School revolved around a large urban space, but so much of the community's flavor and vitality derived from the interplay between disparities - a cosmopolitan promiscuity.

Grove Press Edition, via Ron Silliman's blog

"The New American Poetry" is not only important because of the major poets contained herein, but also on account of its placement on a hinge of history. Allen presents the 44 poets as following in the Pound/Williams (and we really should add Gertrude Stein to that axis) tradition, but we also see the errant proclivities seeping into the greater landscape. The five groupings are imprecise - influences accrue and expand. It would be impossible to compile such an anthology in 2010. In the interim, an effusion of poetries and poetics have exploded drawing upon disparate and dizzying influences. As the identity of Americans has shifted, and as boundaries have taken on new meanings in the Electronic age, we find ourselves moving towards greater and greater complexities. "The New American Poetry" exists at a turning point, a final point where such a task was at least conceivable, if not executable.


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