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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

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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).

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Paul Varner

Profiles of the Early Beats: David McReynolds

August 4, 2017

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Profiles of the Early Beats: David McReynolds

Here is Seymour Krim’s profile of David McReynolds, in the anthology The Beats, first published in 1960. In later years McReynolds established himself more as a major socialist political activist than a writer of the Beat Generation.. Krim here published “Hipsters Unleashed’ in this anthology which is where you might go for information on the Beats’ fairly obscure political side. Here is Krim’s bio blurb written in 1960.

“McReynolds is 30, responsible, has a long socialist-pacifist background, was actually a Socialist Party candidate for Congress in 1958, is one of the few knowing bridges between tough politics and the beat mutiny. He’ll speak to an audience at the drop of a topic and writes a brainy straightforward prose. A good man to have on your side. Out of California.”

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Paul Varner

Profiles of the Early Beats: Norman Mailer

July 31, 2107

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Profiles of the Early Beats: Norman Mailer

We don’t usually associate Norman Mailer with the Beat Generation anymore. But long before the Beat canon was semi-settled Seymour Krim in his 1960 early early anthology of the Beat writers still considered Mailer as one of their own. Pay attention.

“Mailer is moving these days, carving out his own version of beat vision with his philosophy of the Hip, which he actually sees as the seed of a new religion equivalent to Christianity or Judaism. Hip to Mailer means a great transitional period of ‘violence, new hysteria, confusion, and rebellion’ as a means of smashing a repressive White Protestant morality which has made America a ‘sick country, proliferating cancer into every breath of being.’ Breathstopping in its sweep, Mailer’s imagination is both noble and sinister, ruthless and brilliant. In his dramatization of ‘The Deer Park’—his novel which almost never got published because it was thought to be too dirty for even a dirty age—this imagination comes to earth long enough to be embodied in some fascinating characters: Eitel, the Hollywood director who went to jail for refusing to talk to a congressional committee about his Commy past; Marion Faye, the hip pimp; Elena, the sad chick who wants to be a call girl; and Collie Munshin (whom we don’t see), producer-boss of Eitel’s and cultivator of elegant broads. Mailer’s handling of these people is mature and knowing; unlike the more circusy of the beat writers, Mailer knows the Stork Club world of money and bigleague sex with a hardness and sureness that came from his being launched into it via his early success at 25 with ‘The Naked and the Dead.’ Mailer himself makes fun of some of the beats as kooky kids although he has learned from their jazz and applied it in his own more intellectually drastic way. In the sections of his play which we’re running here you can see Mailer’s eerie and tender gift for exploring the man-woman relationship against a nightlit melodramatic background of money, suicide, prostitution—against the tabloid murder world that evilly grins from U.S. radio and scandal mag and newspaper. Mailer does this beautifully and with skill greater than his years; he has enormous potentialities as a writer, also slickness, glibness, pretentiousness. But what makes his work electrically flicker like a snakehead, always ready to strike at the reader’s vitals, is this grand silken murderous imagination which can take our casually conventional perspective and bewitch it into uneasy possibilities.”

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Paul Varner

Profiles of the Early Beats: Jack Micheline

July 28, 2017

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Profiles of the Early Beats: Jack Micheline

Here is Seymour Krim’s profile of Jack Micheline, in the anthology The Beats, first published in 1960.

“Jack is the real thing: jail in Frisco, fighting and dodging Arabs in Israel, getting pickled and poetic in Harlem. He’s a street-singer. His pants are always three inches too short for his shoes—he’s awkward—but, as he’d say, he’s got a good sound. This means seeing poetics and writing in terms of music, and Jack has music running out of him—corny some of the time, deep other times. Mich was born in East Bronx, N. Y. C. and discovered himself in West Humanity, in the country of Self. His future is an X but his present is inspiringly real. Keep that big beat through thick and thin, brother Jack! It’s strong, man.

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Paul Varner

Profiles of the Early Beats: Herbert Gold

July 26, 2017

Profiles of the Early Beats: Herbert Gold

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Here is Seymour Krim’s profile of Herbert Gold, in the anthology The Beats written long before Gold’s best works: The Room (1971), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), and Requiem for a Dream (1978).

“Gold is one of the flashiest writers around; his novels so far haven’t matched his verbal radiance and he’s not above hitting below the belt—as you’ll see in this knock-your-eye-out piece of prose [“The Beat Mystique”]—but he’s formidably clever, hip, has really swung in the short stories, and could write his way out of a locked trunk at the bottom of the Hudson River. Minority snipers like the editor of this book [Krim] think that if he brought a little Dreiserian holy corniness to his hipness he’d have it made. An extremely hard-working and probably demonic cat under some mighty slick icing.”

Krim published Gold’s foundational document describing the then contemporary Beat Scene, “The Beat Mystique” in The Beats. Here is a short passage describing, as he says, ‘the best minds’ of his generation:

These shrill moonbirds turn out to be rigid earth satellites, rocketed by bureaucrats beyond their ken into the air of reality, where they circle in a pattern determined without choice, give out a diminishing signal, draw to earth and burn, crumble, vanish.

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Paul Varner

The Beats–The Drive, the Fury, the Frankness! With Seymour Krim

July 24, 2107

The Beats–The Drive, the Fury, the Frankness! With Seymour Krim

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Unquestionably, the Beatnik scene in the 1950s U.S., and its counterpart in the U.K., the Angry Young Men, brought the Beat Movement to public awareness and provided color and popularity to the movement. I love uncovering original material from the Beatnik era and one of my favorites is a paperback anthology edited by Seymour Krim titled The Beats, published in 1960 with a second edition in 1962 lamenting the end of the Beatnik era.

The back cover of The Beats screams out at the reader the way old ‘50s paperbacks were wont:

The drive, the fury, the frankness they bring to their writing has made the Beat generation the most hotly discussed literary movement of the century. Here is the Beat world, the world that has aroused critics to shocked outrage and loud praise. Here is the jazz, the junk, the jargon—and, above all, the anger. Here is a ruthlessly honest collection of their writing together with some sharp critical assessments of their deliberate and their holy war with Society.

Earlier this year in The Scene I posted a number Profiles of the Early Beats from this amazing time capsule witness of the actual now and present of its colorful time in the late 1950s. Krim had a way of describing all the writers and the goings on especially in New York with current Beatnik slang and dramatic this-is-important! urgency. But I didn’t finish the series. So over the next couple of weeks plug in and let’s find out more from Seymour Krim’s The Beats.

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Paul Varner