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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?

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

Paul Varner

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The Beats: John Clellon Holmes

March 6, 2017

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This is the third post I am publishing based on Seymour Krim’s 1960 anthology of the Beat Movement. Before each Beat writer Krim featured he wrote a short profile. What’s so fascinating about Krim and his little book is that it was written and published when the Beatnik culture was dominating America’s 1950s. So he writes from the perspective of the moment and with the crazy Beatnik vernacular that often was fodder for cartoons, satire, and ultimately Hollywood movies.

His first profile was of the first real daddy-o of the Beatniks–John Clellon Holmes–who 1.) wrote Go, the first novel of the Beat Generation, and 2.) defined the essence of “Beat” as Krim notes below.

John Clellon Holmes

“Less glamorous, less publicized than Kerouac-and-gang, Holmes was one of the first explicit beat writers, wrote the fairly good ‘Go,’ was sort of conservative ballast to the high cats who wailed the first notes of the movement. Loves and knows and digs jazz, lives the suburban scholar sober hardworking novelist life in Connecticut, is both in and out of the present beat hurly-burly; has acted as sort of Ivy league counterpoint to the gutter-scenes played by the crazier beats. Doesn’t get his hands too dirty. But he has a unifying mind, has impressive ‘felt thought,’ in the words of the big American novelist Henry James, and is really capable one day of writing a huge, thorough blockbuster of a novel about the bloody beat 50’s. Brings a New England temper to Harlem, so to speak—conservativeness to a frantic scene, and nobody else writing on the same wavelength gets the same convincing result. His article [‘The Philosophy of the Beat Generation’] was written in late 1957-58, before the movement was as torrid as today; nevertheless it holds as honest sober statement, despite its occasional tone of Apologizing to the Squares” (13).

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