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The New American Poetry: A Proposal for New Terminology

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 7 (Conclusion)

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October 5, 2017

Probably the better label today by which to refer to all of this poetry called the New American Poetry is simply to include it into what has over the last few decades become a much bigger category—the Beat Movement itself. The reason many poets who later became part of the establishment poetry scene—like Levertov and Duncan—was because of the negative connotations of Beatnik poetry and Beatniks so mischaracterized by popular media. Those connotations no longer have much weight. Most of us look back on all the New American poets, the City Lights Pocket Poets, and so forth as part of the Beat Movement. Perhaps it’s time to discard the term “New American” poets and just refer to poets of the Beat Movement. Or perhaps it’s time to bring up the idea of postmodern. Allen and George F. Butterick in The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited attempted to make the transition of the term New American to the term Postmodern. Others have not extended the term quite that far.

In my book, Historical Dictionary of the Beat Movement for Rowman and Littlefield Press, I attempt to move the Beats from simply a Beat Generation, that is the generation of the 1950s—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Olson, Duncan, Snyder, Creeley,–the gang—to the much longer lasting Beat Movement—a broader picture of Beat literature. The original Beats worked hard to define Beatness—Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes most famously. But the Movement extended far beyond anything defined around being beaten down or searching for a state of beatitude. The movement extended outward to others beyond the early New York and San Francisco origins to arguably what became the dominant avant-garde movement of the 20th century and into our own time as well. Perhaps it’s time we dropped labels that keep the poetry of the Beat Movement stuck in the 1950s and 1960s. What do you think?

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Paul Varner


How The New American Poetry 1945-1960 Established the Canon of the Beat Movement

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 5


October 3, 2017

Early critical reviews and studies of literature of the Beat Movement defined Beat literature narrowly as referring almost exclusively to the works of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and the very early New York Beats. Later “New American Poetry” developed into a broader term including a much wider range of writers beyond the early Beats. Now, one of the appeals of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960 anthology was that it reprinted Ginsberg’s Howl for the first time in an anthology. And Allen included Jack Kerouac’s poetry, not yet well-known (Choruses from Mexico City Blues).

But Allen’s anthology considered the Beats, the Black Mountain Poets, the New York School, and the San Francisco Renaissance as all being part of the same movement. Through the years and with the regular issuing of anthologies and critical studies combining all the elements of the innovative literary movement, as opposed to the established and accepted canon, and with the huge increase in studies in the literature of the Beat Movement since the 1980s, the poets of all these factions: San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain, New York School, City Lights poets have all been jumbled up in many minds anyway as part of the Beat Movement. Thus writers such as Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, or Frank O’Hara, all of whom at one point or another distanced themselves from the early Beats, nevertheless today can be considered part of the Beat Movement as much as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Eckbert Faas even attempts to place the establishment poet Robert Bly among the New American poets and, thus, the Beats.

The Beats were always included in that label, the New American Poets . Values of the 1950s New Critics such as self-containment, tension, irony, metaphor, or complexity of form are not values held by New American Poets. Their poetry is as free as the lifestyle it reflects.

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Paul Varner

The Beginnings of New American Poetry

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


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.

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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


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.

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Paul Varner


Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 5

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 5

September 12, 2017


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



Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 4

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 4

September 7, 2017

In Cold Hell In Thicket5a204bbf182f5326ac818e1338e4c552

Ok, this post is quite a bit longer than the other ones in this series. But there is no cutting to be had here. Let’s go.

A key line in the “‘Homeric’ Hymn” is “Life/ is not of the earth. The dead are of the earth.” This statement is explained in the first two lines of “As the Dead Prey Upon Us”: “As the dead prey upon us/ they are the dead in ourselves.” The dead are in ourselves as spirits. The outward self is the “net of being.” This opening stanza sets the stage for the tenseness of the pejorative apocalyptic vision that follows. The work is a more developed vision of death than “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn,” and through its tension achieves the effect of Olson’s kinetic energy theory that is detailed in “Projective Verse.”

It is through a close call with death in the form of an automobile wreck that the speaker transcends the material world for a revelation of wisdom. He is able to see humanity and its destiny through the vision. The actual instrument of his vision is his mother who is dead but who comes back into his life to sit on her rocker under the lamp. The speaker sees dead souls wandering around the living room. When he questions their presence the vision abruptly changes to a collage of technological gadgetry:

And the whole room was suddenly posters and presentations

of brake linings and other automotive accessories, cardboard

displays, the dead roaming from one to another

as bored back in life as they are in hell, poor and doomed

to mere equipments….

Here is the first of many statements on the decadence of society as a result of technology. Along with this is the motif of the “net of being.” This net is humanity’s physical life as it has made it. We are trapped in our shells of existence. In order to escape we must “disentangle the net of being.” Thus the true hell is for it is equated with the mother’s living room, which is a material manifestation.

The vision itself is divided in two elements, which are interspersed throughout the narrative sequence. The first deals with the pejoracy of the material level of existence itself. The symbol of the oppression of natural “man” by technology is the blue deer and the Native American woman (Remember this poem is from the ‘60s, thus the language):

and the Indian woman and I

enabled the blue deer

to walk


and the blue deer talked,

in the next room,

a Negro talk


it was like walking a jackass

and its talk

was the pressing gabber of gammers

of old women….

The one symbol of hope, then, in the whole vision is the blue deer, ordinarily an animal swift of foot but now hobbling around like a jackass (clearly a reference to a caricature not the actual surefooted animal). As the speaker despairs of his own life, his descriptions of the animal change to that of a “filthy blue deer.” All hope is lost for humanity in its natural state. The speaker pleads for death: “O my soul, slip/ the cog.” This plea becomes an obsession with the speaker. Technology, which really becomes a manifestation of humanity itself, or the “net of being,” drives the speaker to his death wish.

O souls, in life and in death,

awake, even as you sleep, even as in sleep

know what wind

even under the crankcase of the ugly automobile

lifts it away, clears the sodden weights of gods,

equipment, entertainment. . . .

The second element of the vision concerns the realm of the dead, revealing Olson’s strong Catholic belief in heaven, hell, and purgatory. Hell is constantly equated with both poverty and material existence. The net symbolizes a person’s life. It has a number of knots in it that are described with fire imagery throughout: “each knot is itself its fire.”

The untying of the knot, then, preoccupies the mind:

each knot of which the net is made

is for the hands to untake

and knot’s making.

In addition to the knots in the net, there are five hindrances. In these hindrances perfection is hidden. The five hindrances transcend the physical world and, in fact, affect both realms of existence:

In the five hindrances men and an angels

stay caught in the net, in the immense nets

which spread out across each place of being, the multiple nets

which hamper at each step of the ladder as the angels

and the demons

and men

go up and down….

The obvious reference is to Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28, but here, instead of a vision of encouragement we read a message of gloom.

The five hindrances tie in with the description of purgatory. They keep one from heaven. These sins must be burned away:

O souls, burn

alive, burn now


That you may forever

have peace, have


what you crave

Life is a net that entangles us. These nets are flames of hell. Only through the process of untangling the knots of the net can one enter into purgatory to have the five hindrances burned away.

Our destiny as humans is determined by ourselves. Through our technology we have created our own hell. It is a hell of poverty—the poverty of our humanity. We can, however, reshape our destiny and shoot

through the screen of flame which each knot

hides as all knots are a wall ready

to be shot open by you

The speaker, then, has shaped his destiny, perhaps by his works through the sacraments, and “slipped the cog.” There is no indication that slipping the cog refers to suicide, but it is permanent death, which brings one back to the automobile crash. Did the speaker actually die in the wreck? Whether he died at that time or not he has entered paradise:

I ask my mother

to sleep. I ask her

to stay in the chair.

My chair

is in the corner of the fence.

She sits by the fireplace made of paving stones. The blue deer

need not trouble either of us.


And if she sits in happiness the souls

who trouble her and me

will also rest. The automobile


has been hauled away.

The chair has already been equated with purity and the blue deer has no place in a spiritual existence.

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Paul Varner

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 3

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 3

September 5, 2017


Charles Olson’s poetry is, for the most part, collected into two volumes, The Maximus Poems and The Distances, both published in the1960s.

Two Points:

  1. A major theme of both collections is pejoracy, an Olson word meaning the inevitable changing for the worse.
  2. Here are two poems from The Distances, “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn” and “The Dead Prey Upon Us,” that I’ll use to demonstrate Olson’s
  3. pejoracy
  4. and vision,
  5. especially as they relate to death.

In “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn,” Olson treats the subject of death in a detached manner. He doesn’t write like Homer did, obviously, and the poem contains hexameters and no typical Homeric devices like Homeric epithets, but the poem is a conscious effort to imitate the Homeric style. The uniqueness of the work is found in Olson’s juxtaposition of the exalted epic tone with contemporary conversational language: “Hail and beware the dead who will talk life until you are blue/ in the face.” The poem, as a result of this, back to Canto I by Ezra Pound whose The Cantos. The context of the poem also seems to be the same setting as Pound’s canto—Book XI of the Odyssey.

The speaker of the “Hymn,” who might or might not be Odysseus, tells the listener to “Hail” the dead. The dead deserve respect if for no other reason than that they are different from mortals. At the same time we must “beware” the dead. Thus Olson develops the theme of the poem. One must beware because contact with the dead is death itself. The dead will torment the living. They will “talk life until you are blue/ in the face.” One must beware of them because they come from a different place. That place is known only by the dead:

Hail and beware them for they come close from where you have not been,

They come close from where you cannot come, they come into life

By a different gate. They come from a place which is not easily known,

It is known only to those who have died.

The dead are always drunk from “the pot.” In the Odyssey the dead drink blood of Odysseus’s sacrifice out of their own internal craving. It is only through this “drunkenness” that the dead and the mortal may approach each other, as was the case of Odysseus. The dead, however, can be the only ones to drink. This is not to be a common celebration but only a one-way affair:

Hail them, and fall off. Fall off! The drink is not yours,

It is not yours! You do not come

From the same place, you do not suffer as the dead do,

They do not suffer, they need, because they have drunk of the pot,

They need. Do not drink of the pot, do not touch it. Do not touch


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Paul Varner