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About this book

This book features a collection of essays on some of the key poets of post-war America, written by leading scholars in the field. All the essays have been newly commissioned to take account of the diverse movements in American poetry since 1945, and also to reflect, retrospectively, on some of the major talents that have shaped its development.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, American poets took stock of their own tumultuous past but faced the future with radically new artistic ideals and commitments. More than ever before, American poetry spoke with its own distinctive accents and declared its own dreams and desires. This is the era of confessionalism, beat poetry, protest poetry, and avant-garde postmodernism. This book explores the work of John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath, as well as contemporary African American poets and new poetic voices emerging in the twenty-first century. This New Casebook introduces the major American poets of the post-war generation, evaluates their achievements in the light of changing critical opinion, and offers lively, incisive readings of some of the most challenging and enthralling poetry of the modern era.

Table of Contents

‘I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear’: Introduction

Abstract
In late 2011, a furiously articulate argument raged across the pages of The New York Review of Books. Helen Vendler, Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor in the Department of English at Harvard University, and widely regarded as the leading critic of poetry in America, decried former American Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry for what she described as a politically motivated focus on ‘multicultural inclusiveness’ at the expense of coverage of canonical (that is, oft-anthologized and oft-taught) poets and poems – ‘T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound).’1 Dove’s anthology, Vendler suggests, aims ‘to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors’. ‘These writers are’, she wrote, ‘included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style.’ Dove mounted a defence of her anthology in a later issue of the magazine, accusing Vendler of ‘hubris’, ‘barely veiled racism’, and ‘an agenda beyond aesthetics’.2 It was her intention, she asserted, only to ‘choose significant poems of literary merit’.
Eleanor Spencer

Poets

Frontmatter

1. ‘Whims & emergencies, discoveries, losses’: The Poetry of John Berryman

Abstract
For a time, John Berryman’s place in the literary history of the twentieth century seemed assured. He was the author of the popular and critically acclaimed sequence The Dream Songs (1969), credited with playing a pivotal role in his generation’s revival of the personal element in American poetry, and his work stimulated a critical engagement that placed him prominently alongside his most important contemporaries, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Randall Jarrell. He was the subject of significant biographical studies, and his work demonstrably drew a wide readership; one that in the 1970s and 1980s placed The Dream Songs on the promotional lists of book clubs, a position occupied alongside Robert Frost’s Collected Poems. Berryman’s success seemed to be of a particular moment in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was both hard-earned and the result of a long poetic development, beginning with his publishing poetry in the 1940s. Like his contemporaries he made radical shifts in his style during the 1950s, and emerged as a major figure because of that.
Eleanor Spencer

2. Robert Lowell: Protean Poet

Abstract
Robert Lowell, a poet of remarkable verbal skills, intellectual gifts, and personal wounds, dominated American poetry from the 1940s through the 1970s. His work as a public poet, a ‘confessional’ poet, and a meditative poet is remembered today as a central, if sometimes controversial, contribution to the literary history of post-war America. He helped define his era, and his achievement has had rippling effects on poetry ever since. Lowell transformed English-language poetry at several different points in his career. He first made his mark with his two initial volumes of poetry, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946). These volumes seemed to Allen Tate and Randall Jarrell to portend a new style of poetry – traditional in form, complex in style, critical in social perspective, and, according to Jarrell, ‘post-modern’ in ethos.1 Lord Weary’s Castle, in particular, was a turning point: it could be seen as one kind of culmination of the modernist project or, conversely, as an effort to discover a successor poetics.
Eleanor Spencer

4. Making and Making Do: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

Abstract
In 1934, Elizabeth Bishop, recently graduated from Vassar College, visited Cuttyhunk Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. As with her visit to Newfoundland two years before, she seems to have enjoyed the sense of limits the island imposed and its lessons about exigency and improvisation. The ‘Cuttyhunk’ notebook is one of Bishop’s earliest travel diaries but even here, while she is observing and recording, she is also aware of the possible connections and analogies with poetry: Mr Van Wuthenaur wanted to ‘simplify life’ all the time – that’s the fascination of an island … On an island you live all the time in this Robinson Crusoe atmosphere; making this do for that, and contriving and inventing … a poem should be made about making things in a pinch – & how it looks sad when the emergency is over … The idea of making things do – of using things in an unthought of way because it’s necessary – has a lot more to it.1
Eleanor Spencer

4. Adrienne Rich: Poetry and Social Change

Abstract
Adrienne Rich was committed to the transformative power of poetry, and she remained a forceful agitator on behalf of the rights of women and the oppressed throughout her career. Her journey begins with Women’s Liberation, but her activism is not bound to gender or sexuality. Indeed, Rich was committed to raising her readers’ awareness to all forms of oppression, inequality, and political aggression. Over the course of her life, Rich was a passionate advocate for a radical political transformation. Insisting that poetry could produce significant social change, she emphasized the importance of freedom and equality, which would transcend gender, nationality, and class. In response to accusations that poetry has no serious impact on political realities, Rich responds that ‘poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it is unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet, in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together, and more.’
Eleanor Spencer

5. ‘A work of art that the critic cannot even talk about’: The Poetry of John Ashbery

Abstract
In 2007, mtvU, the subsidiary of the MTV music television channel broadcast at US college campuses, announced that it had selected its first poet laureate. Many expected the inaugural laureate to be a rapper, a performance poet, or a fêted lyricist like Bob Dylan. The octogenarian poet John Ashbery was not an obvious choice, yet the general manager of mtvU Stephen Friedman explained that ‘he resonates with college students that we’ve talked with’.1 Free-floating fragments of Ashbery’s verse chosen by college students appeared in eighteen promotional ‘shorts’ on the channel – ‘like commercials for verse’, writes Melena Ryzik – and the full texts of the poems were made available on the website mtvu.com.2 Ashbery, who was the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003, later said of his unlikely appointment to the role, ‘it seemed like it would be a chance to broaden the audience for poetry’.3
Eleanor Spencer

6. Sylvia Plath in the Early Twenty-First Century

Abstract
Sylvia Plath’s work is absolutely of its time, yet continues to speak to readers. Over the last half-century, her writing has demonstrated a powerful ability to increase in currency. It resonates with readers from diverse cultures, in numerous languages. This essay evaluates responses to four significant Plath anniversaries that occurred in late 2012 and early 2013. There is the anniversary of the writing of the October poems of 1962, in what has been called Plath’s ‘miracle month’.1 There is the anniversary of The Bell Jar’s original publication in January of 1963. There is the anniversary of Plath’s death, on the eleventh day of the following month. And there is the anniversary of the discovery of the Ariel manuscript she left on her desk at that time. The multitude of reactions to this concurrence of fifty-year anniversaries presents a perfect opportunity for teasing out the ways that Plath is being read in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and for assessing the degree to which debates about her writing have developed since these important events.
Eleanor Spencer

7. ‘You Asked Me to Sing Then You Seemed Not to Hear’: African American Poetry since 1945

Abstract
Rita Dove raised the concern: ‘We all understand the dangers of being put into one little box.’1 From its origins, African American poetry has been more diverse and innovative than is commonly realized. In the past and present, a persistent bind for this genre has been the criterion of ‘authenticity’, which has relegated it to narrow stereotypes of how African American poetry should look, sound, and operate. The period from the end of World War II to the present has been an explosive time of poetic experimentation that extends the innovations of Modernism into the twenty-first century. This expanding body of new poetic styles equally builds on the genre’s origins. Rather than signalling a departure or new direction, such exploratory and diverse practices are based on long-present trends, goals, and characteristics. These developments are an invitation to re-examine the canon, to speculate on why such dynamic, even difficult, writing has been systematically excluded, and to redraw the picture for a more accurate and richer view of the full range of African American poetry. Exposure to overlooked, under-appreciated, and forgotten voices produces a radically transformed perspective of the scope of recent African American poetry. When examined through the prospect of innovation, a hidden canon is revealed, putting to rest those stereotypes that African American poetry is autobiographical, vernacular, unitary, and exclusively about the theme of oppression. Its legacy of bold challenge to the status quo is a defining trait. This body of writing, whose founding texts are among the most original ever produced in America, proves that tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive.
Eleanor Spencer

Form and Genre

Frontmatter

8. The Great Divide? Post-confessional and Language Poetry

Abstract
‘Not a group but a tendency’1 is how Ron Silliman announced, in 1975, what has since come to be known as Language poetry. Similarly, we should see confessional poetry as a tendency, rather than as a group or movement. The term ‘confessional poetry’ was coined by M. L. Rosenthal in a review in 1959: the poets most directly associated with the tendency – Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, with W. S. Snodgrass and Stanley Kunitz in supporting roles – did not consider themselves a group, and produced no manifesto. As only some of their work can be called confessional, it is misleading to refer to them as the ‘confessional poets’. Furthermore, the confessional tendency was only one of several post-war reactions to the supposedly ‘impersonal’ poetics of Eliot and Pound, which seemed discredited after having proved compatible with fascist sympathies and anti-Semitism. Other avowedly ‘personal’ poetic movements included Projectivism, with its emphasis on the poet’s breath; Frank O’Hara’s ‘I-do-this-I-do-that’ poems and mock-manifesto ‘Personism’; poetries of witness that asserted the political identity of the poet; and Beat poetry. Readers familiar with such movements may find it difficult to appreciate the extent to which confessional poetry represented, to many of its initial readers, a radical, decisive break with the high modernist tradition. Today it is more likely to appear timely, or else of its time, in the way it embodies the paradoxes that characterized the Cold War period in the US. The paranoia and insularity that accompanied the country’s emergence as the dominant economic global force find a corollary in confessionalism’s swaggering vulnerability and theatrical narcissism.
Eleanor Spencer

9. The Art of Exclusion: Form and Prosody in American Poetry since 1970

Abstract
The latest edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics contains 1639 pages and 1100 articles. At more than one million words, it is roughly four times the length of Ulysses and five times the length of Moby-Dick.1 It is a book meant to be consulted, not read whole. This hefty text, though, addresses only a portion of the nearly countless forms and prosodies that the contemporary moment offers. The Internet presents an even more massive, swiftly expanding resource that dwarfs any print volume, regardless of how comprehensive it seeks to be. In an era that presents such abundant poetic choices, too many exist for any poet to try, let alone master. To write a poem, then, is also not to pursue nearly countless options and opportunities. ‘In the Renaissance’, Northrop Frye observed, ‘anyone who wanted to be a serious poet … was supposed to be what Gabriel Harvey called a “curious universal scholar” as well as a practical expert in every known rhetorical device.’2 As Frye implies, no contemporary poet claims a comparable status. No matter how learned, none is a ‘universal scholar’; no matter how devoted to the art, none claim expertise ‘in every known rhetorical device’. In a culture generally suspicious of universalizing claims, some observers might object to the very notion of all-encompassing expertise and knowledge, seeing its partiality and biases. They place ‘universal’, as Stuart Hall urged, ‘always in quotation marks’.3
Eleanor Spencer

10. The Art of Losing: American Elegy since 1945

Abstract
American poets writing about death and mourning since the middle years of the twentieth century have faced severe challenges, both philosophical and linguistic, in composing an elegiac art for modern readers. In the aftermath of two world wars and the accompanying assault on religious belief, it became increasingly difficult for poets to perform the traditional elegiac rites of honouring the dead and consoling the living. The classical myths and ceremonies that had been carried over into Christian elegy, helping to sustain belief in immortality, were now likely to appear hollow and ineffective. What ideas and what words might sustain a sceptical post-war generation in the midst of massive personal and public loss? Since 1945, attitudes to death have altered dramatically and so, too, have artistic responses. Peter Sacks notes how death has ‘tended to become obscene, meaningless, impersonal’, an event either ‘stupefyingly colossal in cases of large-scale war or genocide’ or ‘clinically concealed behind the technology of the hospital’.1 The consequences for the writing of elegy have been profound, with modern American authors wilfully renouncing traditional elegiac codes and conventions, or else treating them ironically, while flagrantly disputing the comforting, consoling function of earlier poetry. However, if modern merican poetry has sometimes displayed ‘a drying up or a deliberate termination of the familiar expressions of grief ’, it has also been astoundingly inventive in its artistic exploration of death and mourning.
Eleanor Spencer

Movements and Moments

Frontmatter

11. ‘Singularly rich’: Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945–1960

Abstract
In 1958 and 1959, when Donald Allen was laboriously putting together The New American Poetry: 1945–1960, he could have had no idea that by the end of the century his assemblage of poems mainly by marginalized and unfavoured poets would have achieved canonical status, or that many of the poets he included would have the reputations he wished for them.1 He could not have expected the volume to be reprinted after four decades with a blurb advertising 100,000 sales, or that it would come to be widely regarded as the most influential avant-garde American poetry anthology of the twentieth century. It was the ‘Bible of American counterpoetics’, in the words of Mark Scroggins2 – a book that, as Marjorie Perloff points out, is ‘still acknowledged by all later anthologists as the fountainhead of radical American poetics’.
Eleanor Spencer

12. Not Quite The End Of The World: American Poetry since 2000

Abstract
In James Merrill’s final book of poetry, A Scattering of Salts (1995), the poet and his lover visit a residential twelve-step facility called Oracle Ranch, as if the place could predict some larger future. Their time there prompts a series of sonnet-like poems that intersperse the all too simple, therapeutic language of the programme with Merrill’s own typically elaborate wordplay, rhyme, allusion and irony. At the end of ‘Family Week at Oracle Ranch’, the guests and patients receive alarming advice: ‘(a) you are a brave and special person (b) / There are far too many people in the world / For this to still matter for very long.1 What could matter instead? As in much of Merrill’s late work, the quoted solecisms (‘to still matter’, ‘for … for’) and mismatch between line shape and sentence shape (the line break between ‘(b)’ and what ‘(b)’ indicates) portray a technically gifted sophisticate both attentive to, and far out of step with, the language of his own time. Merrill played with that portrayal throughout this last and best book, while making the book itself resolutely contemporary, with personal computers, up-to-date materials science (‘a new synthetic substance / Crystallized in Sacramento for the first time’), HIV/AIDS (Merrill himself was HIV positive), anthropogenic species extinction, and global climate change.2
Eleanor Spencer
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