Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"The Greatest Generation" of American Poets?

An interesting post from Ron Silliman:

One could make an argument that there was a renaissance in American poetry, and that these poets were at the heart thereof, but it’s much more concentrated than, say, the Prohibition years. I’d go so far as to argue that it really concentrated around poets born between 1925 & ’27, tho the outer ring reaches back to 1922 & forward to 1930. Just 9 of the 63 poets in my augmented list were born outside of those years, while 26 were born in those three crucial years between ’25 & ’27.

It’s worth thinking about what that means in terms of American poetry, what social conditions emerged during the years in which those poets came into their lives as poets. It’s also worth noting that of the 63 poets, just two – Kaufman & Anderson – are African-American. The most obvious is that these are poets, especially those born in 1925 onward, who escaped WW2, but got to reap the benefits of economic prosperity & a rapidly expanding educational system, that both democratized post-secondary education after the war and ensured that pretty much anyone who wanted to could get a teaching job.

Second, not one, but both traditions in American writing underwent profound transformations in the 1950s, with the New American Poetry arising out of a strand that had mixed roots in both modernism & an Americanist tradition that could be traced further even than Whitman, while the neo-colonialist Anglophile poetics of the more genteel tradition likewise saw a hard rupture in the revolt of The Fifties, as Bly, Wright, Merwin, Rich & even Hall moved away from their own heritage of closed forms to embrace aspects of European literature & a more open poetics. What’s notably absent from Carruth’s list (& my expansion of it) are direct descendants of the agrarians: Randall Jarrell, Robert Penn Warren et al. James Dickey & Jonathan Williams are the only real southerners here, neither of whom could be so described. The closest you might get are indirect descendants, all students of Robert Lowell’s. Indeed one might say that the disappearance of the agrarian strain in American poetry is nearly as dramatic as that of the Objectivists, except that the Objectivists returned circa 1960, while the closed verse poetics of the agrarians simmered underground before returning as the New Formalism of a decade later.

So in the 1950s you had this clash between these two traditions – the raw & the cooked, as Lowell himself put it – but even the cooked poets were offering a version of nouveau cuisine, each side with its own variants. Phil Levine is as unlike Sylvia Plath as Gregory Corso is to Jonathan Williams. The degree to which these poets were their generation is worth underscoring. If I pick up one of the big double-issues of Poetry from that period, such as the October-November 1963 number, every single American poet born between 1920 and 1933 comes from the list above. All but two of the rest are older poets: John Berryman, J.V. Cunningham, Jean Garrigue, Randall Jarrell, Lowell, Charles Olson, Henry Rago, Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, Elizabeth Bishop, Vernon Watkins & Louise Zukofsky. There is one poet who is younger, Ronald Johnson, born in 1935, and one British poet from this period, Charles Tomlinson. The 1965 double issue has fewer poets who are older (Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Ernest Sandeen & Ted Weiss), and two who were born after 1933 (Ronald Johnson again, and Wendell Berry, born in 1934). Again there are two Brits, Tomlinson & Gael Turnbull, and nine poets from my expanded list: Carruth, Creeley, Kinnell, Koch, Levertov, Rich, Sexton, Snyder & Whalen. There is however one not on my list but from that generation, David Posner, born in 1921, educated at Kenyon & Oxford, who taught for awhile at the University of Buffalo & at the University of California (it’s not clear at which campus). Posner’s status within the canon, which is pretty much nil, tells you everything you need to know about the boundaries of this list.

The degree of prominence that so many members of this “greatest generation” earned was not solely because they were fabulous (some were, some weren’t), but because they were it, pretty much the sum of what was available by writers in that age cohort during those years. In 1960, they were the poets between the ages of 27 and 40. Ginsberg, for example, was just 34.

But by the middle 1960s, you already had the kudzuing of MFA programs across the land, meaning that there were an increasing number of writers everywhere. If you look at my expanded roster, one thing you will notice is that most of the poets who did not teach, or at least not teach much, during that decade, came primarily from the post-avant tradition: Eigner, Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, Corso, Ginsberg, Spicer, Blackburn, Whalen, Corman. Ashbery & Ginsberg would go on to teach later, but not during that critical decade. So that even tho the numbers of post-avants and quietists are almost even in that expanded list, ten, fifteen years hence creative writing programs would acquire a distinct orientation – and reputation – they are only now fully outgrowing. ....(read on)

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