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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

 

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