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What is New American poetry?

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

Poem-on-page jwb02a-olson-elegies

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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