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What is New American poetry?

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

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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).

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Paul Varner



Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 1

Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 1

August 29, 2017

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If you are a poet or reader of ZigZag poetry you really need to know about Charles Olson. If you don’t know much about Charles Olson then welcome to The Scene where you are going to find out why, yes why Charles Olson matters, why his work matters to you.

This, then, is the first part of a 5 part series on Charles Olson. I will be posting this series on Monday, Wednesday, Fridays.

Charles Olson has been a powerful voice among ZigZag poets since the beginning, and by beginning I mean those days after World War II when everything changed everywhere with the radical poets, writers, and artists of the Beat Movement which started it all and has kept it going with all the spinoffs from the 1950s right up to now.

Because, look, Olson was acknowledged as the intellectual inspiration of The Movement of movements: the Black Mountain poets, the New York poets, the San Francisco poets—in other words, The Beats. With poets like Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley. Robert Duncan once said, “For all of the poets who matter to me in my generation Charles Olson has been the Big Fire Source. One of the ones we had to study.” And Robert Creeley affirmed, “Charles Olson is central to any description of literary ‘climate’ dated 1960.”

Olson’s great work, the one always studied in greatest detail, is his essay “Projective Verse,” first published in an obscure little poetry magazine in 1950. But this complex, detailed essay became the heart of the Olson theory. British poet and critic Davie said Olson’s projective verse essay was “the most ambitious and intelligent attempt by a poet of today to take his bearings and to plot his future course.”

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Paul Varner