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What is New American poetry?

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 4

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September 26, 2017

Donald Allen himself was an editor for Grove Press beginning in 1949. Grove Press was a small press featuring avant-garde titles from American as well as from the UK and the continent. But Allen was also the co-editor of Grove’s literary journal, the Evergreen Review. He was editor until 1970, first in New York and later in San Francisco. Thus Allen had already established a reputation as an editor of innovative literature before he began work in 1958 on the New American Poets Anthology. He had edited Evergreen Review in 1957 to include work of new poets from San Francisco including Brother Antoninus, Robert Duncan, and Gary Snyder. He began working on his new anthology in 1958 with much consultation from Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Duncan.

Particularly with Olson’s and Duncan’s help Allen began looking for a specific kind of poetry. He didn’t call it New American poetry. But he was looking for a certain kind of open form poetry that Duncan and Olson variously called field composition or Projective Verse. Olson described the compositional method of the new poets in his essay “Projective Verse,” printed in full in the section on poetics in The New American Poetry. You will read much more from me in future series in The Scene about this highly influential essay.

Three basic principles of composition make a poem projective, as opposed to “inherited line, stanza, over-all form,” or what is the traditional base of non-projective verse. The first basic principle is that of Kinetics: a given poem is “energy transferred” from the poet’s source through the poem to the reader. The problem, of course, is how the poet creates the energy. This process Olson calls Field Composition, where the poet puts himself or herself into the open by allowing the poem to develop in the only organic way it can develop and not to interrupt the open field. This necessary openness or “push” is an extension of Ezra Pound’s statement to go by the musical phrase, not the metronome.

The second basic principle Olson mentions that makes a poem projective is taken from Robert Creeley and echoed repeatedly by Denise Levertov. It is one of the Beat Movement’s most famous mottos: “Form is never more than an extension of content.”

The third basic principle is the process by which a poem is made. The basic premise is “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.”

This poetry Allen labeled New American Poetry—not merely because it was current or recent or even novelty poetry. The term evidently came from Charles Olson himself. In fact Donald Allen originally intended to title his collection Anthology of Modern American Poetry (1948 to 1958-59).

Be sure to follow The Scene: Radical Poetics from the ZigZag Edges.

Paul Varner

 

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The Beginnings of New American Poetry

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 3

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September 21, 2017

After the success of the original New American Poets 1945-1960 through the decade of the 1960s Donald Allen created a franchise of updated anthologies. By the way, the original edition is still in print and I always used it for a textbook for my course in literature of the Beat Movement. Beginning in 1973 Allen issued The Poetics of the New American Poetry, another anthology in which he collected every statement on the poetic craft and theory he could from 1950s-1960s avant-garde poets. The next series I will begin for The Scene will be these statements of poetics from the New American poets themselves.

Then in 1982 he updated his anthology altogether, making it more inclusive of women and poets of color, titled The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited. Also Ekbert Faas published in 1978 Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews, a widely quoted critical work that ultimately gave the term “New American Poetry” credence. Today, virtually any study of the poetry of such writers as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg still refers to the idea of New American Poetry.

Be sure to follow The Scene: Radical Poetics from the ZigZag Edges.

Paul Varner

 

What Made The New American Poetry 1945-1960 So Exciting

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 2

September 19, 2017

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It was the anthology of the San Francisco Renaissance, the poetry anthology of the Beat Movement. It included not only the certified rebels and outlaws of American literary society like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg but also intellectuals and academics such as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Kenneth Koch. Donald Allen shifted the landscape of contemporary American literature. The major turning point of the Beat Movement toward postmodernism was not so much Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous novels such as Visions of Cody, Dr. Sax, or even Tristessa, as it was The New American Poets, 1945-1960, from Grove Press.

But perhaps what really made a difference among young radical poets of the 1950s and 1960s was that the poets in that red and white anthology were all new. I remember when I first picked up a copy in a library a few years after its publication. I was stationed just down the road from San Francisco in the U.S. Air Force. It gave me my lifelong passion for poetry and ultimately all of literature and so much more. I mean, these were not the poets anybody studied in school. And I was right. In fact, in 1960 the anthology that had solidified the canon of contemporary poetry and thus established which poets were worthy of serious attention by serious people, was that venerable textbook New Poets of England and America, edited by Donald Hall and Robert Pack. Not one poet The New American Poets was found in Donald Hall’s anthology, nor his poets in Donald Allen’s anthology. There was no overlapping whatever. Instead, New Poets of England and America includes such poets as Anthony Hecht, Robert Lowell, W. S. Merwin, May Swenson, and James Wright, obviously all of whom developed distinguished careers in later life and all received early academic recognition. The difference between the two anthologies was simply that: one anthology represented the academic poets favored by the New Critics; the other represented poets outside the academic mainstream.

Be sure to follow The Scene: Radical Poetics from the ZigZag Edges.

Paul Varner

 

About The Scene: What is “The Scene?”

What is “The Scene?”

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September 15, 2017

I want to work with many scenes. Early scenes like the Surrealists and Dadaist. The Beats, of course, are the dominant scene in U.S. history and are still around. But there were also the East Side Scene, the Immanentist poets, the Language poets, and then you’ve got all the scenes out there right now. All are what I am calling the ZigZag poets and their poetics. Let’s talk about serious poets, not just people who write poetry. Let’s talk about poetry as LIFE and as ART! Let’s Go! Become part of The Scene. Hit the Follow button.

Paul Varner

The Early Excitement About The New American Poetry 1945-1960

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 1

September 14, 2017

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The popular British poet Roger McGough remembers that when Donald Allen’s revolutionary anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 with its famous red and white jacket design first appeared in Liverpool, “everybody in town who was interested in writing seemed to have a copy of it, and they were shouting poems out of it to one another across crowded pubs.”

It seems every member of the 1950s generation who was coming to awareness about literature and the Beat Movement remembers when or where he or she first encountered The New American Poetry. Hettie Jones, former wife of LeRoi Jones, in her memoir How I Became Hettie Jones, recalls her initial reaction to the appearance of The New American Poets, spending long hours absorbing the poems she already knew so well from having published them in Yugen. The anthology inspired her own writing. Similarly, Joyce Johnson, Jack Kerouac’s lover, wrote in Minor Characters of the day The New American Poets came out.

More recently, Ron Silliman in his blog considers, “Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, unquestionably [to be] the most influential single anthology of the last century. It’s a great book, an epoch-making one in many ways. If you didn’t live anywhere near a location that might carry the small press books of the 1950s & early ‘60s, the Allen anthology was the place where you got to hear what all the fuss was about with the Beatniks, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets & so forth” (Silliman’s Blog 11 June 2007).

Be sure to hit the button and become a follower of The Scene: Radical Poetics at the ZigZag Edges.

Paul Varner

About The Scene: How Do You Differentiate Radical Poetry from Mainstream or Establishment Poetry?

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How Do You Differentiate Radical Poetry from Mainstream or Establishment Poetry?

September 13, 2017

Who knows? I know the difference when I see it, ok? But I do see a clear distinction between radical, innovative, avant garde, experimental (or whatever label you want to use) poetry and what I usually call genteel poetry. I mean, most of the radical poets of the past are in the big canon taught in schools nowadays, so that’s no longer a distinction. I’ve taught courses on the Beat Movements a number of times.

Yes, I have great respect for genteel poetry and, again, have written about genteel poets plenty of times. And I encourage to you follow my Literary Life blog where I separate out the genteel from the radical somewhat. More than that, though, let’s read the genteel poets radically.

Generally, the distinction is most often made on the basis of the poetic tradition itself. In American literature we usually distinguish the formal, genteel, tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and his successors with that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and their successors. Obviously lines are blurred all the time and even the common dichotomy of the two traditions is often disputed.

But I am going to maintain a bold claim for poetry right now in our own time. Modern and contemporary fiction has virtually caved in to becoming capitalist cheerleaders. Even our best contemporary novelists just as our best filmmakers see their work as market driven. The true literary art forms and artists today are almost exclusively our poetry and poets and some non-market driven plays and playwrights.

Are You Developing a How to Write Poetry blog?

No no no! I just read the stuff. I don’t write it. So I cant tell you how to write it. Well, maybe one bit of advice. Don’t rhyme. Come follow The Scene by hitting the button on this page.

Paul Varner

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 5

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 5

September 12, 2017

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Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, and the Black Mountain College scene

These two poems, “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn” and “As the Dead Prey Upon Us,” however, do much more than possibly demonstrate Charles Olson’s view of death. The first poem exemplifies Olson’s interest in classical and ancient literature and his influence by Ezra Pound. “As the Dead Prey Upon Us,” which takes the views of “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn” and develops them further, also shows us Olson’s belief in vision. Although the poem uses a persona, the visionary element coincides with the views of Olson. In a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley in 1965 he said, “I was very lucky once to have what poets call visions. And they’re not dreams . . . . They are literally either given things or voices which come to you from cause.” These poems lack the typical romantic element of visionary optimism. Instead they deal with one of Olson’s central themes—pejoracy. Faced with the dilemma of humanity in the middle of the twentieth century, Olson, in the two poems, has treated his subject first by referring the classical methods of the ancients and then by juxtaposing technological symbolism and mysticism, which synthesizes into a modern apocalyptic vision.

So there you have it. My reading of some of Charles Olson’s poems from The Distances. Pay attention, though, if radical poetry matters to you.

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Paul Varner