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 (1923-1997)
James Dickey, a novelist and essayist as well as poet, was a native of Georgia. At Vanderbilt University he studied under Agrarian poet and critic Donald Davidson, who encouraged Dickey's sensitivity to his southern heritage. Like Randall Jarrell, Dickey flew in World War II and wrote of the agony of war.
As a novelist and poet, Dickey was often concerned with strenuous effort, "outdoing, desperately / Outdoing what is required." He yearned for revitalizing contact with the world -- a contact he sought in nature (animals, the wild), sexuality, and physical exertion. Dickey's novel Deliverance (1970), set in a southern wilderness river canyon, explores the struggle for survival and the dark side of male bonding. When filmed with the poet himself playing a southern sheriff, the novel and film increased his renown. While Selected Poems (l998) includes later work, Dickey's reputation rests largely on his early collection Poems 1957-1967 (1967).
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 wrote highly crafted poems in a descriptive style that contains hidden philosophical depths. The description of the ice-cold North Atlantic in "At the Fishhouses" (1955) 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 1980s, embody strong emotions.
Rich's 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. 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."
The force behind Robert 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 The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 (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, counterculture 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 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 (1926-2005), 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 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
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Ten thousand years.
The San Franciso School blends into the next grouping -- the Beat poets, who emerged in the 1950s. The term beat variously suggests musical downbeats, as in jazz; angelical beatitude or blessedness; and "beat up" -- tired or hurt. The Beats (beatniks) were inspired by jazz, Eastern religion, and the wandering life. These were all depicted in the famous novel by Jack Kerouac On the Road, a sensation when it was published in l957. An account of a 1947 cross-country car trip, the novel was written in three hectic weeks on a single roll of paper in what Kerouac called "spontaneous bop prose." The wild, improvisational style, hipster-mystic characters, and rejection of authority and convention fired the imaginations of young readers and helped usher in the freewheeling counterculture of the 1960s.
Most of the important Beats migrated to San Francisco from America's East Coast, gaining their initial national recognition in California. The charismatic Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) became the group's chief spokesperson. The son of a poet father and an eccentric mother committed to Communism, Ginsberg attended Columbia University, where he became fast friends with fellow students Kerouac (1922-1969) and William Burroughs (1914-1997), whose violent, nightmarish novels about the underworld of heroin addiction include The Naked Lunch (1959). These three were the nucleus of the Beat movement.
Other figures included publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919- ), whose bookstore, City Lights, established in San Francisco's North Beach in 1951, became a gathering place. One of the best educated of the mid-20th century poets (he received a doctorate from the Sorbonne), Ferlinghetti's thoughtful, humorous, political poetry included A Coney Island of the Mind (1958); Endless Life (1981) is the title of his selected poems.
Gregory Corso (1930-2001), a petty criminal whose talent was nurtured by the Beats, is remembered for volumes of humorous poems, such as the often-anthologized "Marriage." A gifted poet, translator, and original critic, as seen in his insightful American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971), Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) played the role of elder statesman to the anti-tradition. A labor organizer from Indiana, he saw the Beats as a West Coast alternative to the East Coast literary establishment. He encouraged the Beats with his example and influence.
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
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 were not interested in overtly moral questions, and, in general, they steered clear of political issues. They had 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 critically esteemed poet of the late 20th century.
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:
Flying unknown colors has
entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous
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 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 criticized values that he felt played a part in the Vietnam War in poems like "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last."
It's because we have new
packaging for smoked
that bomb holes appear in the
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.
Women Poets and Feminism
Literature in the United States, as in most other countries, was long evaluated on 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. Also, regional, political, and racial differences have shaped their work. Among distinguished women poets are Amy Clampitt, Rita Dove, Louise Gl?orie Graham, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, May Swenson, and Mona Van Duyn.
Before the 1960s, most women poets had adhered to an androgynous ideal, believing that gender made no difference in artistic excellence. This gender-blind position was, in effect, an early form of feminism that allowed women to argue for equal rights. By the late l960s, American women -- many active in the civil rights struggle and protests against the Vietnam conflict, or influenced by the counterculture -- had begun to recognize their own marginalization. Betty Friedan's outspoken The Feminine Mystique (1963), published in the year Sylvia Plath committed suicide, decried women's low status. Another landmark book, Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1969), made a case that male writings revealed a pervasive misogyny, or contempt for women.
In the l970s, a second wave of feminist criticism emerged following the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in l966. Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977) identified a major tradition of British and American women authors. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (l979) traced misogyny in English classics, exploring its impact on works by women, such as Charlotte Bront맳 Jane Eyre. In that novel, a wife is driven mad by her husband's ill treatment and is imprisoned in the attic; Gilbert and Gubar compare women's muffled voices in literature to this suppressed female figure.
Feminist critics of the second wave challenged the accepted canon of great works on the basis that aesthetic standards were not timeless and universal but rather arbitrary, culture bound, and patriarchal. Feminism became in the 1970s a driving force for equal rights, not only in literature but in the larger culture as well. Gilbert and Gubar's The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985) facilitated the study of women's literature, and a women's tradition came into focus.
Other influential woman poets before Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton include Amy Lowell (1874-1925), whose works have great sensuous beauty. She edited influential Imagist anthologies and introduced modern French poetry and Chinese poetry in translation to the English-speaking literary world. Her work celebrated love, longing, and the spiritual aspect of human and natural beauty. H.D. (1886-1961), a friend of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams who had been psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud, wrote crystalline poems inspired by nature and by the Greek classics and experimental drama. Her mystical poetry celebrates goddesses. The contributions of Lowell and H.D., and those of other women poets of the early 20th century such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, are only now being fully acknowledged.
The second half of the 20th century witnessed a renaissance in multiethnic literature that has continued into the 21st century. In the 1960s, following the lead of African Americans, ethnic writers in the United States began to command public attention. The 1970s saw the founding of ethnic studies programs in universities.
In the 1980s, a number of academic journals, professional organizations, and literary magazines focusing on ethnic groups were initiated. 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 and ethnicity, spiritual life, familial and gender roles, and language.
Minority poetry shares the variety and occasionally the anger of women's writing. It has flowered in works by Latino and Chicano 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 S. Harper, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni; and in Asian-American poets such as Cathy Song, Lawson Inada, and Janice Mirikitani.
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 annexed 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. New 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. Seminal 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 Anzald?heir poetry is much influenced by oral tradition and is very powerful when read aloud.
Some poets have written 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 Chicano poetry, I Am Joaquin by Rodolfo Gonzales (1928-2005) evokes acculturation: the speaker is "Lost in a world of confusion/Caught up in a whirl of gringo society/Confused by the rules..."
Many Chicano writers have found sustenance in their ancient Mexican roots. Thinking of the grandeur of 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 Americans today:
A candle is lit for the dead
Two worlds ahead of us all
In the 1980s, Chicano poetry achieved a new prominence, and works by Cervantes, Soto, and Alberto Rios were widely anthologized.
Native Americans have written fine poetry, most likely because a tradition of shamanistic song plays a vital role in their cultural heritage. Their work has excelled in vivid, living evocations of the natural world, which become almost mystical at times. Indian poets have also voiced 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
swirling above the treetops
The snow elk come,
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 Erdrich's "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 poem links Uncle Ray with the turtle he has victimized:
Somehow we find our way back,
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.
Black Americans have produced many poems of great beauty with a considerable range of themes and tones. African-American literature is the most developed ethnic writing in America and is extremely diverse. Amiri Baraka (1934- ), the best-known African-American poet of the 1960s and 1970s, has also written plays and taken an active role in politics. The writings of Maya Angelou (1928- ) encompass various literary forms, including poetry, drama, and her well-known memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).
Rita Dove (1952- ) was named poet laureate of the United States for 1993-1995. Dove, a writer of fiction and drama as well, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah (1986), 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 S. 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
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
History, jazz, and popular culture have inspired 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" (1978), she speaks as a woman warrior of ancient Dahomey, "arming whatever I touch" and "consuming" only "What is already dead."