“Preferring the wrong way”:. mapping the ethical diversity of US. twentieth-century poetry

In the nineteenth century, poets like Whitman and Dickinson seemed to thrive on the impulse to push at boundaries and to seek out new idioms for an American vernacular poetics. In reaction to the weary genteel romanti­cism of much poetry at the turn of the nineteenth century, this transgressive impulse became more pronounced with the innovations generated by mod­ernist poets such as William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, and especially Ezra Pound, whose mantra “make it new” encapsulates this energetic thrust. While modern American poetry is indeed a broad, disparate field, embra­cing a range of practices and styles, nevertheless, no study of American poetry in the twentieth century can legitimately ignore the signal contri­butions of the modernists T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. Many of the driving formu­lations and elaborations of contemporary poetics owe themselves to Pound’s intervention in what he saw as the dilapidated and dead-end poetics of late-nineteenth-century romanticism. His development of Imagism was a formative thrust in the energy of modernist poetics, summed up in the three Imagist dicta:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.1

These tenets were put forward in an attempt to check what Pound saw as the vague use of language and the interference of the ego in contempor­aneous poetry. He sought a language of absolute efficiency, which led to attempts to rid language of those facets that reveal the materiality of discourse. The image was an attempt to capture the “primary form” of “every concept, every emotion [which] presents itself to the vivid con­sciousness.”2 The Cantos (1916-69) and a host of smaller poems, exempli­fied Pound’s Imagist techniques, although as he became more ensnared in fascistic ideology and authoritarian pronouncements about what passed muster as adequate poetry, Pound’s influence caused increasing angst among his left-wing poetic admirers, during a period of sharply divided political affiliations in the 1930s and 1940s.

To Ezra Pound’s Scylla, T. S. Eliot was the Charybdis of American mod­ernist poetics. Heavily indebted to the aesthetic ideologies of Pound, Eliot’s gloomy disaffection with the masses, in such poems as The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1935-44), together with his careful protection of a mandarin cultural tradition, his interest in French symbolism and ancient literary narratives, implicitly indicate a modernism that was a rejection of consumer culture. Although obsessively marking his distinction from Eliot, William Carlos Williams also focused upon modernism as an exhilarating opportunity for cultural renewal, although in his case, without recourse to the dead-end European classical culture. In such works as Spring and All (1923), The Desert Music (1954), and Paterson (1946-63), Williams’s modernism manifested itself in an American idiom combined with European aesthetic experiments such as surrealism and cubism, to form a new attention to the elemental locality of the American nation and its vernacular. Famously advocating that there is “no ideas but in things,” Williams produced a poetics of collage that sought to make poetry a consequence of a shared community and democracy. Wallace Stevens, another large influence in American modernist poetics, espoused a poetics more closely akin to symbolism. In works like Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1935), Stevens focused on “philosophical” preoccupa­tions, although he was also a highly visual poet with lush word patterns and evocative images. Elsewhere Robert Frost turned his back on the fragmented and fractured poetic technique and a manifestly political content, and sought to reinvigorate a deliberately unsophisticated, egali­tarian poetry that could be read for aesthetic enjoyment as much as being explored for its more somber preoccupations. In this respect, his Com­plete Poems (1942) shows him to be the heir of the romantic individual­ism of the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. Yet others, like E. E. Cummings, arguably the most technically innovative modernist poet, experimented extensively with grammar, typography, spelling, and word invention. As can be seen in his Complete Poems (1972), he put in place a challenging, subversive “disjunctive poetics” that was sufficiently defamiliarizing and eccentric to be simultaneously extolled for its daring originality, and marginalised as a technical novelty that is clever yet ultimately hollow. Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930), centered upon the symbol of Brooklyn Bridge, produced a poetics that traversed American history with its exploration of myths of America’s origins and its rhetoric of legitimation. Yet such modernist impulses also produced their conser­vative repercussions. Robinson Jeffers published poetry in such numerous collections as Flagons and Apples (1912) and Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925) that sounded anxieties about the destruction of nature by human interference. The southern Fugitive Poets (including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren), gave vent to their anti-industrial agrarian ideology with its feelings of southern despair, historical defeat, alienation from the nation, and efforts to cling to an idealized version of poetry that echoes an earlier genteel tradition, in The Fugitive (1922-5) and consolidated in Fugitives: An Anthology of Verse (1928). These poets reinforced their poetic practice with the New Criticism, with its stress on ahistorical literary analysis and its focus on the text as an aesthetic object uncluttered by social influence.

Somewhat overshadowed by these male giants, modernism embraced a wide range of practices by poets who are often overlooked but are increas­ingly being repositioned as central figures. For example, Gertrude Stein’s experimentations with words in Tender Buttons (1914), and her interro­gations of long-established definitions of syntax and grammar, have had a long and varied impact upon a large number of successive writers. Other poets’ engagements with the versatility and lability of language have equally gone largely unrecognized: Mina Loy’s Last Lunar Baedeker (1982) and her interests in Futurism and feminism; H. D.’s (Hilda Doolittle’s) treatment of feminism and psychoanalysis in a carefully constructed structure of myth­ical references in works like Helen in Egypt (1961) and Trilogy, 1944-1946 (1973); Marianne Moore’s unending and rigorous ambivalence toward language in her meticulously patterned verse in Poems (1921) and Obser­vations (1924); the many volumes by Edna St. Vincent Millay with her celebrated sonnet form; Louise Bogan’s rich metaphysical poetry in collec­tions such as Body of This Death (1923) and The Sleeping Fury (1937) that charts a woman’s experience in a changing culture; and other contributions from poets such as Amy Lowell with her praised volume Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), and Laura Riding’s extraordinary pressured language, which in some ways defies the categories of experimental modernism.

Another modernist figure, Louis Zukofsky, emerged as a leading intellec­tual who bound together a loose affiliation of poets who surfaced in New York during the early 1930s. Sharing common socialist political views and a Judaic heritage, the Objectivists initially comprised Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, with William Carlos Williams working on the side, although they later came to include Lorine Niedecker and Carl Rakosi. Zukofsky’s seminal 1931 essay, in which he describes “Objectivist” poetics as a combination of “Sincerity and Objectification,” adopted a deliberately provocative stance, challenging the prevailing poetics of reason with a new ethical language. For example, Zukofsky speaks about love as a “truer” basis for knowledge than reason in many of his writings, but most notably in the long poem “A.” This “new” ethical concern was sustained by the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance and the Black Mountain School poets, and more recently, it has been evident in the work of the “Language” poets and some of their immediate forebears, such as Larry Eigner, Theodor Enslin, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Jerome Rothenberg. The Objectivist ethical terms, “love” and “sincerity,” appear, in the light of the rhetoric of antihumanism in modernist literary and cultural theory, to be strangely sentimental and naive. The apparent naivete rests in the odd juxtapositioning of ethical terms (“sincerity” and “love”) with epistemological terms (“ob­jectification” and “reason”). Yet as Roland Barthes has argued, the discourse of feeling was constructed as a transgressive, “unwarranted discourse” within the context of modernism’s increasing concern with erotic desire rather than love.3 The Objectivist lexicon consequently jars uncomfortably with the “epistemological” language of many modernists.

What this Objectivist poetics calls for, on the one hand, is a phenomeno­logical concentration in its insistence that poetry must get at the object, at the thing itself, while on the other hand, it must remain “true” to the object without any interference from the imperialist ego, dismissing any essential – ism and calling for the “wisdom” of love or sincerity. The first approach leads to an epistemological and occasionally ontological poetics with a focus on the “being” of the object; while the second approach recognizes the limits of this representation and instead sets up a stance to the world that situates the subject/reader in an ethical relation to the world. Yet it is not simply a case of one discursive pole supplanting and ousting the other. Rather the Objectivist coalition created the conditions for a new ethical poetics to emerge. The Objectivist critical lexicon and poetic practice produced a space wherein the discourse of ethics was gradually recognized as a significant supplement to the modernist poetic lexicon of subjectivity, self-identity, and being.

Thus, modernism in the United States produced an exhilarating period for American poetry, in which modernism and politics expanded in a number of directions. Many critics have sought to characterize the development of American poetry as a process of “making it new,” following Ezra Pound’s time-honored definition of what ought to keep poetry alive. Consequently, a great deal of critical effort has gone into investigating the linguistic play in American twentieth-century poetics. Yet this interest in formalism arguably excludes an equally important preoccupation within modernist poetics – a discourse of responsibility. The linguistic experiments and “games” are not simply formalist in concern but are engaged in a more serious concern with ethics, with rethinking the relationship between language and ethics. Much has been written about the politics of form in American poetry, but little has been specifically written about the ethics of form. The following questions have been central to these poets: In what ways can formal experiments with language be said to have an ethical dimension? What are the ethical responsi­bilities of a “language”-centered poetry? Of what does an ethical poetry for the late twentieth century consist? I have characterized Objectivist poetics as a “poetics of the limit,” which is a proposition that Objectivist poetics developed a powerful utopian and ethical vision, a poetics of the “beyond,” of openness to unimagined possibilities and hence a call for a radical trans­formation of the present.4 Objectivist poetics disrupts totality as a way of presenting us with a glimpse of what things in their interrelatedness might become if they were allowed to rest in their affinity rather than forever being stuffed into a new system of identification or stifled by an imposed social totality.

Consequently, American modernist poetics was deeply concerned with the problem of how ethics manifests itself as linguistic representation in poetic form. The Objectivist lineage has been first and foremost an indigenous redefinition of American poetic modernism. As David Antin has argued, this poetic lineage has shifted poetics from questions of personal expression to matters of construction and composition; it has reinvented the techniques of collage central to European modernism; and it has adopted at the same time, as Charles Olson says, the example of Williams’s and Pound’s incorporation of “non-poetic” narrative materials in the making of poetry.5 This chapter is therefore partly focused upon the more overtly politicized consciousness in American poetry, following the Objectivist tradition, and considers the legacy of the “ethical narrative” to the work of the “Language” poets, as it manifests itself in a distinctive minimalist treatment of words as things in themselves. It is this trajectory of American twentieth-century poetry that provides its most energetic writing. Broadly speaking, this strand of Ameri­can poetics in the twentieth century has been marked by a particularly vibrant engagement with international and national poetic movements whose con­cerns have been to reconceive the ways in which we think and operate as human beings. Such efforts include the following broad-spectrum emphases, articulated most cogently by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris in their introduction to their two-volume anthology, Poems for the Millennium:

• a conviction that this century’s poetry has been characterized by an overall investigation of new forms of language, consciousness, and social/biological relationships

• a breakdown of the conventional boundaries between poetry, art and politics, leading to reinvigorated poetic practices in which there is an increasing realization of the politics of the referent

• experiments with the unconscious and altered forms of perception (driven by the work of Surrealists in the 1920s, the psychedelic experi­ments in the 1960s, and the meditative experiments in the 1970s)

• a return to the belief in poetry as a performance, from Futurist and Dadaist innovations, sound-poems, simultaneities, to the “new orality” and the expanded textsound and performances of post-Second World War decades

• language experiments, including sound and performance innovations, as well as experiments with visual and typographical forms, efforts to devise a nonsyntactical (abstract) poetry, and explorations of new languages and those (dialects, creoles, pidgins) that had found themselves on the fringes of accepted literature

• ethnopoetics and related reassessments of the past and of alternative poetries in the present; a widespread attack on the dominance of European “high culture,” which has led to an increasing number of movements exploring poetic practices with gender, class or ethnicity at their center6

In exploring these emphases, I am concerned with plotting the energy and dynamism that these new trajectories have provided twentieth-century poetry. One should discuss the various trajectories within the development of American poetry, in which different groups of poets demonstrate affili­ated interests and stylistic preoccupations, in the full realization that these trajectories should not be construed as discrete paths that have no connec­tion with each other. On the contrary, many of these trajectories collide with each other tangentially or more fully, so that, for example, a poet clearly engaged with the poetics of formal innovation may also be regarded as a poet concerned with environmental matters; or a poet who might be pre­occupied with issues of epistemology might also clearly be regarded as a neo-romanticist.

Consequently, one finds movements and periods that sit astride each other, often consisting of hybrid interests and crossed paths. For example, by the early 1920s, a series of literary discussions in lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem), sections of New York City, was beginning to manifest itself as an African American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. It was the cultural mani­festation in the 1920s of a massive social movement with roots in the broken promises of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. More than a literary movement and more than a social revolt against racism, the

Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African Americans and redefined African American expression. African Americans were encour­aged to celebrate their heritage and to become “The New Negro,” a term coined in 1925 by sociologist and critic Alain LeRoy Locke. The Harlem Renaissance brought the black experience clearly within general American cultural history and its cultural impact was profound. Pursuing an art directly tied to the fortunes of a political agenda and centered upon such common themes as alienation, marginality, the use of folk material, the use of the blues tradition, and the problems of writing for an elite audience, the Renaissance saw a wide variety of work emerge, from Claude McKay’s sonnets, Countee Cullen’s lyrics, the work of Sterling Brown and James Weldon Johnson, to Langston Hughes’s experiments with twelve-bar blues mode. Arguably one of the boldest projects of the period emerges in Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), a text that explodes the generic boundaries in a strongly innovative fashion. Defying simple categorization as poetry, prose, or drama, the piece encompasses all three in synthesis of light/dark, North/ South, black/white, urban/countryside, narrative closure/fragmentation; this brooding text anticipates modernist and other later twentieth-century developments in creative writing.

Langston Hughes, one of the most significant African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance, was “discovered” working as a hotel bellhop in New York. He keyed into a wide variety of intellectuals, musicians, and black politicians in the 1930s, and went on to become one of the most influential African American writers of the twentieth century. Proud of his folk heritage and steeped in the language and music of the people of Harlem, Hughes often adopted the rhythms and shapes of blues and jazz music in his poetry, foreshadowing the work of people like Amiri Baraka in the 1950s and 1960s. He also used his poetry and other writing to “explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America,” fighting for human rights despite his subjection to discrimination. In “The Same,” he allies himself with the racial oppressed and exploited around the world, demonstrating an intimate connection between capitalist exploitation and racial prejudice. A poem such as “Negro” celebrates the African American’s blackness, showing the early stages of the “Black is Beautiful” campaign launched in the 1960s during the era of civil rights demonstrations. Furthermore, there is the strategy of re-correcting the white perspectives of America, questioning who has a right to America and its literary heritage. So, in “I, Too,” he says “I, too, sing America,” echoing the famous poems of Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass, in which Hughes offers a critical supplement to Whitman’s inevitably white vision of what America meant to the individ­ual. Writing alongside Hughes was Claude McKay. Composing sonnets about black experiences, poems like “If We must Die” or “The Lynching” often demonstrate a clear political edge. “America” demonstrates how there is a love-hate relationship between the African American poet and America: it continues to “feed me bread of bitterness,” and “sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,”7 but nevertheless, the poet finds himself loving the place, since the worse America treats him, the stronger and more resolute he is to confront its inequalities. There is a Romantic revolutionary urge to stand up against oppression and the poems seek to raise consciousness about injustice, oppression, inequality, and the perpetuation of modern slavery.

An important period of self-awareness and the celebration of African American cultural heritage, the Harlem Renaissance augmented a clear period of politics in poetry, yet one that was clearly oriented by an ethical vision of the United States. In addition to the Objectivists and the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, other poetries were similarly engaged in an overt energetic espousal of ethics and politics in the 1930s and 1940s. The relation of social and political issues to poetry was hotly debated in such journals as The Masses, Liberator, The New Masses, Dynamo, Morada, The Anvil, and Partisan Review, and in much of the poetry of the period, either directly or indirectly. Michael Gold wrote manifestos exhorting a proletarian poetry; John Wheelwright produced a hybrid poetry of Chris­tianity and Marxism; Muriel Rukeyser produced a strongly committed first book of poetry entitled Theory of Flight (1935); and this is not to mention work by poets as diverse as Genevieve Taggard, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, Richard Wright, Edgar Lee Masters, Edwin Markham, William Vaughn Moody, Lola Ridge, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Carl Sandburg, all of whom contributed to the range of socially engaged poetry marked “political” in the period.

The inheritance of modernism passed on in the late 1940s and 1950s to several groups of poets, among whom were a middle generation of American poets: John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, and Delmore Schwartz. With the edi­fices and monuments of traditionalism well and truly undermined by the first wave of modernism, these poets were not involved in the same wholesale aesthetic sabotage of Pound or Carlos Williams. Nonetheless, despite this ease of acceptance – some, like Lowell and Jarrell, achieved considerable literary reputations – their poetics did not break formal molds and in many ways, their poetry can be seen as a literary counter­part to the social conformity and bourgeois respectability of Cold War America. Theirs was a poetry shorn of the ethical poignancy of a poetics striving for a new language and form to deal with the pressures of postwar consciousness. This contentment and complacency are also evi­dent in the next generation of poets, often termed the “New Formalists,” such as James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, and Richard Wilbur, whose poetry was reminiscent of pre-modernist meters and forms, with more than a whiff of nostalgia about it. Arguably, it was Lowell and Berryman alone of these poets who carved out a more transgressive poetics, gradually breaking with the confines of traditional metrical verse. The so-called Confessional poets of the 1950s, who included poets like Lowell and Berryman, but also Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and W. D. Snodgrass, sought to define the creative act as a process of raw self-exposure, an unmediated expression of inner, urgent emotion stirred up by personal, and often acute, experiences. In this, they managed to create “permis­sion” for poets to utilize intense emotion and autobiographical subjects, exploring as they did such personal experiences as madness, hatred, drugs, and the proclivity to suicide. Less a movement than poets working in a like-minded manner, Lowell’s autobiographical Life Studies (1959) had paved the way, followed by Sexton’s To Bedlam and Part Way Back (i960), Plath’s Ariel (1965), and Berryman’s Dream Songs (1964-9). In other areas, A. R. Ammons developed a meticulous meditative poetics interested in particularity and the general; while moving in feminist directions, Adrienne Rich developed a poetics of complexity, irony, and intense structural patterns alongside these poets in the 1950s and 1960s. Her poetry became increasingly political and less private: her concerns were sexual politics, the Vietnam war, and issues of language and repre­sentation, evident in widely acclaimed volumes like Diving into the Wreck (1973) and The Dream of a Common Language (1978).

For all the permissiveness of the Confessional poets, the lineage of Ob – jectivist poetics with its ethical strand and disruptive activity in poetics was more properly inherited by the development of Projectivist or Black Moun­tain poetics, which emerged under the dominant leadership of Charles Olson at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the 1950s. A leading alternative college of its day, it was home to a wide variety of major figures, including painters, composers, and dancers, and poets such as Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Hilda Morley, John Wieners, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov were associated with it in various ways. The founding rationale for Black Mountain poetics occurred primarily in the teachings and writings of Olson, particularly in his essay “Projective Verse” (1950). In that essay, Olson puts the case for what he calls an “open” poetry, in which “field composition” substitutes for the “closed form” of previous poetics. Olson quotes Robert Creeley’s statement that “forM is NEvEr more ThaN aN extension Of content” and insists on the compositional pressure of poetry in his addition that “always one perception must must must move, instanter, on another.”8 Attention to the line as a unit of breath is a major principle of Black Mountain poetics, although this was a flexible and non­prescriptive formulation. This style was reflected in the typography of the poems themselves, as the length of each line and the line-breaks indicated the unit or measure of utterance. Such a reaching for new representations, at every moment in writing, necessitates the practice of a new ethic of percep­tion, an “alternative to the ego-position” as Olson put it.9 Language cannot be rigidly codified, regulated, or programmatically structured as Pound for example thought, since it is in a state of perpetual movement. This diminishes the importance of the dominant, co-ordinating subject, “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego,”10 which in turn opens the way for the reader to participate in the performance of the writing. The concern of Black Mountain College writers for maintaining the “breath of the word” in their writing, the physical performative dimension of discursive practice, is part of their attempt to reintegrate language with the dynamics of social context. Olson’s attempt to return language to the sphere of dialectical movement is evident in such works as his huge epic The Maximus Poems (1960-8) and shorter works like “The Kingfishers” (1950); and these poems and Olson’s intellectual rationalizations of his poetics, formed one of the major trajectories for subsequent developments in post-Second World War developments in American poetry.

Another frequent touchstone for discussions about the development of American poetry in the post-Second World War decades was the appearance of two influential poetry anthologies in the 1960s: Donald Hall’s New Poets of England and America (1962) and Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1960). Hall’s anthology presented a collection of poets who adhered to a notion of traditional craftsmanship and subject matter, and believed that poems should be well-made objects to be evaluated inde­pendently of the author’s intentions or private experiences. Allen’s anthol­ogy, by contrast, set out to celebrate the irrational and spontaneous instead of the decorous and elegant. Reaching back to the likes of Whitman and Carlos Williams, Allen’s poets saw themselves as accentuating the American idiom and landscape. Although mostly male, many were from the “new” ethnic backgrounds: Jewish, Irish, Italian, black, and gay – and they lived in New York or San Francisco, engaging closely with other arts such as jazz and painting. The most celebrated of this new group of poets was the Beat movement led by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, including poets like Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Lew Welsh, William Everson, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. Five years before Allen’s anthology saw the light of day, the San

Francisco Renaissance and the Beat movement was “born” at a feted reading event at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in autumn 1955, described by Kerouac in The Dharma Bums.11 The word “Beat,” first used by Kerouac, implied exhausted, beatitude, and the jazz improvization that inspired so many Beat writers. In many respects, the social impact of the Beats is incalculable – many of the things we take for granted today stemmed directly or indirectly from their impact, not only in terms of lifestyle but also in terms of civil liberties, such as the relaxation of censorship. Though their work has been understandably attacked by feminist critics, they were not entirely oblivious to gender issues and one can see in aspects of their work the formation of a nascent gay sensibility. They undoubtedly widened the expressive potential of literature, breaking the back of the elitism of the New Criticism and opening literature up to an unending series of collaborations with other forms of expression, particu­larly in the field of music. Yet Beat writing contained a range of different ethical engagements: in Snyder’s work such as Myths and Texts (i960) and Turtle Island (1974), one gets a spare, meditative, Zen-like poetics that presages much of the current interest in ecocriticism; in McClure’s works like Hymn to Saint Geryon (1959), one gets a poetics that is closely associated with the physical body and primitivism; in Ginsberg’s poetry, one gets an angry social prophet in a poetics that is vivid, direct, declamatory, and provocative, and in collections like Howl and Other Poems (1956), one can detect the influence of jazz improvization and sense of measure in its spontaneous style and free deviation. Despite these varieties, Beat writing was ecstatic, oral, and incantatory – offering irreverent perspectives on contemporary social circumstances and aiming to enlarge public consciousness about the pressures of conformity in the i950s.

Poets centrally associated with the New York School, such as John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler, were not entirely oblivious to the influence of the Beats, although their principal influences stemmed from French experimentalism, especially the fictional work of Raymond Roussel. Although eschewing a programmatic ideology, a good outline of their aesthetic ideas and stance is to be found in O’Hara’s essay “Personism: A Manifesto,” something of a caricature of Olson’s essay “Projective Verse.” According to O’Hara, personist poetry is driven by the immediacy and uninterrupted impact of everyday experience, and his notion that “You just go on your nerve”12 clearly echoes the spontaneity and anti-formalism of the Beats. Yet other poets such as Ashb – ery and Koch did not entirely adhere to this approach, since their use of such forms as the sestina, sonnet, and ottava rima suggests a hybrid style of the traditional with the innovative. Several of these poets are attracted to parody and pop culture (see for example, Ashbery’s references to Popeye in “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”), and contest clear distinctions between high and low culture. In many respects, form emerges as an essential preoccupation for these poets, not least since a few of them were active art curators and critics. Of this group, Ashbery surfaces as a principal figure in American poetry, especially after the publication of The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). His poetry manifests one of the defining terms of postmodernism – indeterminacy, or the conditionality of truth – as his poetry becomes a form of representing the unpresentable in its obliqueness and allusional tactics. Characteristic of an age in which forms of authority and legitimacy are increasingly suspected as the covert imposition of hegemonic ideologies, Ashbery’s compositional techniques steer away from closure and finality, leaving the text in a series of unstable and unfixed quandaries, such as the play of the words “I,” “you,” and “poem” in “Paradoxes and Oxymorons.” As this poem indicates, Ashbery is less concerned with the definition of a poem, and more with the mind processes of thinking with things as the poem emerges. There followed in the late 1960s a second generation of the New York School, including Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Tom Clark, Bernadette Mayer, and Amiri Baraka. A pulsating and audacious poetry scene firmly rooted in a culture of pub­licly performed poetry, it was located in New York’s Lower East Side at such venues as Les Deux Megots, Le Metro, and the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church (which has proved to be a seminal forum for poets to this day). The import for literary history of this loosely defined community of writers lies partially in its reclamation of an orally centered poetic tradition, modified to develop the possibilities for an aesthetically bold, mischievous poetics and a libidinal politics of resistance.

Further developments in the period from the 1950s and to the mid-1970s include the significant impact of Jerome Rothenberg’s study of ethnopoetics and multiculturalism, performance poetry, and the emergence of the term “deep image.” Inspired by the Spanish Andalusian “deep song,” and the surrealist-influenced work of Lorca, “deep image” poetics sought to capture the essence of a perception in a moment of near mystical enlightenment. Resonant, stylized, and heroic in tone, “deep image” poems tend to be struc­tured as a series of self-sufficient images, and although there were some serious exponents of this technique such as Diane Wakoski, Clayton Eshleman, and Robert Kelly, it was a short-lived and unsystematic approach that could not really be described as a school or movement in its own right. Robert Bly, a key figure in this group, who perceived Anglo-American modernism as a cul-de-sac, sought to separate the interior from the social. In Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), one gets a poetics in which the poet aban­dons the social world to perform a spiritual voyage toward self-tran­scendence. Often producing a poetry akin to the Beats in their visionary mystical insights, Bly opened a path for poets like Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, Louis Simpson, and James Wright, all of whom found in the unconscious a basis for ethical values, which can in turn be used to assess contemporary political realities like the iniquitous effects of industrial capitalism or the Vietnam War. Another significant approach is the devel­opment of aleatorical or chance procedures, most notably in the work of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low. For example, Cage’s compositions frequently depend upon non-intentional methods, such as mesostics and the use of I Ching casting operations to free language from the confines of syntax and to defamiliarize it. Echoing some of the activities of Dada, Mac Low uses similar procedures for the production of randomly gener­ated statements; and although aleatory poetry was not widely practiced, it nevertheless re-emphasized the preoccupations of indeterminacy and performativity that so characterized postmodern poetics.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of poets sought to rescue a poetry of meter and coherent discursive narrative destroyed by the modernists in the 1920s and their subsequent emulators. Distrustful of the forms and styles of the 1960s radicals, volumes like Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of Amer­ica (1979) and C. K. Williams’s I Am the Bitter Name (1972) contained stinging political critique, yet in measured, discursive lines that steered clear of challenges to poetic convention and its experiments in style and compos­ition. A poetic ally of Pinsky, Robert Haas has garnered equal public acclaim for his less traditional metrical and more fragmented verse, in volumes like Praise (1979) and Human Wishes (1989). Other poets of this generation include Frank Bidart, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Carolyn Forche, and Philip Levine, poets who are not necessarily affiliated with one another but whose poetics engage with ordinary everyday events and subjects and often show traits of the Confessional poets in the range and intensity of emotion represented in their poems.

1978 saw the launch of a small, New York-based magazine called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, which was to be something of a landmark for an emerging tendency within American avant-garde writing, the so – called “Language” poets. These writers were particularly interested in redefining the unit of linguistic awareness from the line to the word, but also more broadly in the relation of aesthetics to politics, in challenging the reification of language. Poets such as Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Carla

Harryman, Rae Armantrout, Leslie Scalapino, Diane Ward, Susan Howe, and Robert Grenier, found their precursors in the poetic “lineage” that includes the Objectivists, the European avant-garde, and aspects of the Beats and the Black Mountain poets. Writing, publishing, and reviewing their own poetry and theoretical essays in self-established small journals and “manifesto” magazines like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, This, Tottel’s, Poetics Journal, Hills, and The Difficulties, the “Language” poets prac­ticed a strategic engagement with contemporary theories of language, subjectivity, and aesthetics, to challenge the orthodoxies of canonical and normative poetries, showing how this becomes a means of combating reification in modern society, which is itself motivated by deep ethical concerns.

The eruption of “Language” poetry in the 1980s – with the important anthology by Ron Silliman entitled In The American Tree (1986), and the books on poetics such as the compilation edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein entitled The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984), Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax (1985), Steve McCaffrey’s North of Intention (1986), Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence (1987), Charles Bernstein’s The Politics of Poetic Form (1990) and A Poetics (1992) – belies the fact that many of these writers had been active since the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, if it is not too early to write its history, “Language” poetry appears to have had at least two phases to its development so far. Earlier works, for example Silliman’s Crow (1971) and Mohawk (1973); Andrews’s Vowels (1976), Praxis (1978), and Jeopardy (1980); and David Melnick’s Pcoet (z975), often show experiments with single letters, words, or signifiers. For instance, Crow explores the phonemic associations and combinations between and in words by splitting syllables across lines:




Mohawk explores similar patternings of words, repeating in various grids and designs a “core” set of words. Each page works like a template for the succeeding page, albeit a template for variation.

The aesthetic ideology underpinning this early poetic practice of “Lan­guage” poetry appears to have been partly motivated by a desire to wipe the linguistic slate clean, refocusing attention on how words operate without the conventional clutter of grammatical apparatus. Rather than continuity, the emphasis falls on discontinuities, interruptions, and disjunctions; and it is clear that linearity is only one means of effecting significance, not the sole means. Meaning arises from the juxtaposition of words, phrases, syllables.

This self-reflexive arrangement of language – language writing itself – raises the question of what happens when images cease to register for the reader and yet the writing goes on being produced. The poem suggests by this “listing” procedure that units of meaning integrate into wholes as a basic process of reading. The signifying chain can begin with any word, at any point, and a narrative can be “constructed.” Yet, as Andrews has written on another occasion, “Think don’t narrate”: it is precisely such “narrativiz – ing,” formalizing impulses that the poem interrupts, as any imposition of form becomes a hypostatization.

There are limits to this exploration through the single-unit focus, ignoring as it does the operations of ideology at work in larger organizational units of form, grammar, and narrative production. “Language” poets appear to have recognized such limitations around the early 1980s, when they began to examine and experiment with larger forms, moving into a second phase, in works like Barrett Watten’s Complete Thought (1982), Ron Silliman’s Tjanting (1986), Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1980), and Charles Bernstein’s The Sophist (1987). An increasing interest in how forms shape, reinforce, or interfere with language systems and their structures of significance also begins to become apparent. These take a whole variety of shapes: for instance, experiments with typography, as in Bruce Andrews’s Love Songs (1982); the interaction of different modes of signification, like the juxtapos­ition of visual images with text, or the juxtaposition of different texts superimposed upon one another, as in the collaborative poem LEGEND (1980); or the substitution of syllables or letters to produce unexpectedly different signifiers in familiar phrasal constructions (‘Would you do me the flavor of buying that sty?’), as in Bernstein’s poem ‘Outrigger’ in The Sophist.14

It might be argued that Charles Bernstein and many of the “Language” poets sought to release an “alternative” Other that has been systematically and repeatedly suppressed by the structures of writing. Yet that “Other” finds itself everywhere in the contemporary United States. One astonishing piece of information is that twenty years ago, there were simply no acknow­ledged, much less published, Native American “poets” in America, albeit a handful of exceptions which proved the rule, and went unheralded as American writers. A renaissance occurred in the 1960s partly driven by such new anthologies as Jerome Rothenberg’s Shaking the Pumpkin (1972). Nowadays, developments in contemporary American poetry could not ignore poets such as James Welch, Joy Harjo, Wendy Rose, and Simon Ortiz. The Native American is, of course, heavy with romantic representa­tion in narratives about American westward expansion, from Puritan nar­ratives to contemporary Hollywood films. However, the onetime frontier that separated the forces of “civilization” and the “savages” is now not so easily distinguishable. Joy Harjo, a member of the Creek tribe, has pub­lished several collections of poetry, amongst which are She Had Some Horses (1983) and In Mad Love and War (1989). Harjo’s work explores issues of hybrid ethnicity and interrogates myths of American identity, often working by repetition (reminiscent of the steady beat of the ceremonial drum), and her poems often depict the mesa-strewn territory of the South­west, with a rich lushness of feel for the landscape. The function of memory in writing the past crops up time and again, especially as it functions as a source of the forgotten, marginalized, obscured past. In “Remember,” Harjo speaks of identity formed by the relation with the earth and the landscape. Memory’s power lies in forming the history, identity, and present consciousness of people. The implication of the poems is that to forget is an abandonment of self-identity, a self-crippling, a surrender to the dominant culture which is in effect an alienation. Lines from “New Orleans” speak of memory that “swims deep in blood, / a delta in the skin,” and in an interview, Harjo is asked about this line:

Int: You said once, memory is like “a delta in the skin”, so you are “memory

alive,” your poetry stems from memory always at work.

Harjo: It is Creek, and touches on the larger tribal continental memory and the

larger human memory, global. It’s not something I consciously chose; I mean, I am not a full-blood, but it was something that chose me, that lives in me, and I cannot deny it. Sometimes I wish I could disappear into the crowds of the city and lose this responsibility, because it is a responsi­bility. But I can’t. I also see memory as not just associated with past history, past events, past stories, but nonlinear, as in future and ongoing history, events, and stories. And it changes.15

Harjo’s work, like that of so many Native American poets, is about survival, the perpetuation and longevity of Native American traditions and cultures: in this, she speaks for the dispossessed, the lost of rural, urban, and reservation America. Her poetry is a constant celebration of the struggle to survive against all the odds; and in this respect, she seeks to reclaim a language, culture, and ways of telling.

Engaged in much the same reclamation and rewriting of an ignored culture as the Native American poets, is Chicano/Chicana writing, a devel­opment in ethnic poetry of major significance in recent decades. When one thinks of literature of the American West, it is generally not that of the Latino/ Latina peoples that springs to mind. Instead, Mexican populations in films seem to be either the bandits or outlaws, or the silent and passive victims of American individualism and entrepreneurship gone awry, as in the film The

Magnificent Seven. However, recent scholarship and writing are attempting to recover and restore the American Hispanic contribution to American literature. The uniquely “Wild West” of the untamed American frontier, a land of unlimited opportunity, has been transformed into an academic discourse about borders, where multiple intersecting cultures engage in complex interactions of resistance and accommodation, conflict and assimi­lation, most notably in Gloria Anzaldua’s work entitled Borderlands/La Frontera. Both literal and metaphorical relationships with the land play an important role in questions about race and gender. Just as the history of the West has a past longer than the United States of America and its Puritan roots, so does the literature of the area. Marked by the Nuyorican Cafe poets, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Pedro Pietri, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Gary Soto, Tato Laviera, Lorna Cervantes, and Pat Mora, the 1990s witnessed an explo­sion of Latino/Latina writing, and not just in various and diverse forms, but also in the distinctions which compose the Latin-American popula­tion, such as Mexicano/Chicano, Cuban, and Puerto Rican. Key issues that find their way into the poetry of these writers are representations of the West rewritten as a site of resistance and border tension; the ways in which intersecting cultures result in syncretic mixtures, racial and cultural mestizaje (the mixing of cultures and races); and the use of the land as both a literal and metaphorical reflection of ethnic identity. Representing persistent suffering from racial prejudice, the poetry often takes the form of cultural instruction, to Chicanos as well as white Americans, as in Abelardo Delgardo’s poem “Stupid America,” which laments the waste of aesthetic talents through the ignorance of the American population. Con­centrating upon the hand as an instrument of creation or destruction, it questions whether the Chicano hand will be allowed to contribute to America or be forced to destroy it. Albeit with regard to a different ethnic context, similar questions about identity, origins, and belonging, are asked by Asian American poets like Li-Young Lee, Garrett Hongo, Kimiko Hahn, and Cathy Song.

Many critics have written about the so-called “linguistic turn” apparent in the work of the “Language” poets and in other recent contemporary poetry. Yet if the “linguistic turn” was the realization of the dependence of consciousness on language, a major factor in the discrediting of subjectivity as a principle of modernity, then the “ethical turn” of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a reinstatement of the responsibilities of subjectivity. How­ever, this reinstated subject is not a sovereign, founding subject but one that is shaped by models of existence which look to aesthetic experience and its forms as ways of understanding aspects of subjectivity that are not reducible to the cognitive or the rational. Hence, music becomes important in art as a

model that is most distant from representation. This goes hand-in-hand with ideas of the subversion of self-consciousness based on language as the representation of the ideas of the subject. Bruce Andrews confirms this ethical stance in his introduction to the anthology Floating Capital: New Poets from London: “Reading? The reader builds in relation to (every possible phenomenology and ethnomethodology is a sourcebook) embodi­ments of next as Other, as activity of Facework. The I departure is the multiplication of I.”16 Language attesting to the word of the Other in sound becomes the basis for an ethical poetics. All the efforts of the post-Beat poets to introduce a new spoken poetry, of writing seeking the performance of the tongue and intersubjective communication, enacts this ethical attestation to the Other. As Charles Bernstein has said of his poetic practice, “I prefer the wrong way – anything better than the well-wrought epiphany of predictable measure – for at least the cracks and flaws and awkwardnesses show signs of real life.”17 Lying in these cracks and fissures, is a sort of “negative identity,” where the reader gets glimmers of another social structure, an­other sexual ideology, another life-world, through the current language of the day. To this degree, this writing is a “situated ethics,” one that poses an alternative to a coercive moral absolutism on one hand and to an inchoate postmodernist relativism on the other. Poetic activity of this sort becomes an ethical poetry, a “poetics of the limit,” that becomes a poetics of interrup­tion. This “ethical turn” is part of an attempt to preserve the role of the subject in view, while respecting the difference of the (other) object, and forms a principal characteristic of the diversity of practice in the different trajectories of American twentieth-century poetry.


1. Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” in The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1954), p. 3.

2. Ezra Pound, “Vorticism,” Fortnightly Review (September 1914): 573.

3. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, Fragments (1977; Harmondsworth: Pen­guin, 1990).

4. Tim Woods, The Poetics of the Limit: Ethics and Politics in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmil­lan, 2002).

5. David Antin, “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry,” boundary 2, 1 (Fall 1972): 98-133.

6. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (eds.), Poems for the Millennium (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 2-3.

7. The Poems of Claude McKay (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, i922), poem 3 .

8. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Charles Olson: Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1966), p. 16.

9. Charles Olson, Mayan Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), p. 29.

10. Olson, “Projective Verse,” p. 24.

11. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958; London: Grafton, 1972), p. 14.

12. Charles Bernstein, “Outrigger,” The Sophist (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1987), pp. 27-30.

13. Ron Silliman, Crow (Ithaca, NY: Ithaca House, 1971), p. 10.

14. Charles Bernstein, “Outrigger” The Sophist (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1987), pp. 27-30.

15. Joy Harjo, interview in Laura Coltelli (ed.), Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. 57.

16. Bruce Andrews’s introduction to Adrian Clarke and Robert Sheppard (eds.), Floating Capital: New Poets from London (Elmwood, CT: Potes and Poets Press, 1991), p. iv.

17. Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1992),

p. 2.


Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid­century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Elisabeth A. Frost, The Feminist Avant-garde in American Poetry, Iowa City: Uni­versity of Iowa Press, 2003.

Richard Gray, American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, London, Longman, 1990.

Robert von Hallberg, American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

James de Jongh, Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

James Longenbach, Modern Poetry after Modernism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy, Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univer­sity Press, 1981.

Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Peter Quartermain, Disjunctive Poetics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Andrew Ross, The Failure ofModernism: Symptoms ofAmerican Poetry, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Geoff Ward, Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets, London: Macmil­lan, 1993.

Tim Woods, The Poetics of the Limit: Ethics and Politics in Modern and Contem­porary American Poetry, New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Updated: 18th July 2015 — 3:16 pm