To Bedlam and Back: The New American Poetry

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
American Decades
From: American Decades(Vol. 7: 1960-1969. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1550L

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The New American Poetry

Donald M. Allen signaled the beginning of a new era in American poetry early in the decade with the publication of his anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 in 1960. In addition to publishing Beat poets from the 1950s such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen included many younger or little-known poets whose approaches sometimes differed radically from the carefully constructed and highly intellectual poetry then favored by most professors and critics.

Against Modernism

Like most of the new art movements and much of the experimental fiction of the late 1950s and the 1960s, this new poetry was an explicit rejection of modernism, which had dominated the arts in America and Europe since the early decades of the twentieth century. For instance, in his book In Defense of Ignorance (1960) poet Karl Shapiro attacks the influence of modernism on American poetry and criticism, particularly that generated by advocates of American-born British poet T. S. Eliot. Instead, many of the new poets adopted Walt Whitman or William Carlos Williams as models.

Confessional Poetry

In particular, confessional poetry rebelled against the impersonality advocated by modernist ideals. Poets such as John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, and Anne Sexton, all trained as modernist poets, as well as Allen Ginsberg from the Beat movement of the 1950s, broke new ground beginning in the late 1950s and through the 1960s in their intensely personal poems dealing with madness, guilt, and other emotional topics largely absent in earlier American poetry. Though the poets themselves were hardly ideal personal models—some had spent time in mental hospitals and some had committed suicide—their poetry was considered worthy of emulation.

New Directions Discouraged

Such success, however, was fairly limited in terms of audience. Many poets felt that the public as well as publishers and critics were unresponsive to new directions in poetry. For instance, at the National Book Awards Symposium in March 1968, poets such as John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, and Ginsberg complained that experiments in poetry were discouraged by critics and reviewers. In addition, many readers were put off by the use of personal revelation from the confessional poets on the one hand and the street language and rhythms from popular music in the work of poets allied with the Black Arts Movement on the other.

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On 20 January 1961 Robert Frost, the unofficial poet laureate of America, read his original poem "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the only poet to read at a presidential inauguration in the history of the country. The presence of the 86-year-old poet from New England, one of the most popular literary figures in the United States, indicated not only Kennedy's canny populist instincts but also the high esteem with which he and his wife Jacqueline held the arts. James Dickey read one of his poems at an inaugural gathering for President Jimmy Carter in 1977, but a poet did not read again at the actual ceremony until Maya Angelou at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.


Lawrence Thompson and R. H. Winnick with Edward Connery Lathem, Robert Frost: A Biography (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981).


Poets such as Ashbery, and, to a certain extent, Berryman, indicated another direction for American poetry: toward the abstruse and virtually nonsensical, a sharp contrast with the confessional poets and those who wrote about traditional subjects in traditional forms. Such divisions had always existed to a certain extent, but in the 1960s a split between poems using ordinary language about common experience and highly difficult works became especially pronounced, continuing for the next decades. As in art, poetry during the 1960s went from adherence of a uniform code to extreme diversity.

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During the 1950s writer John Updike was widely considered one of the most promising new voices in American literature with his stories in The New Yorker and his first novel, The Poor house Fair(1959). He entered his maturity as a writer, ironically, with a novel about a man who resists the responsibilities that maturity entails in his 1960 novel Rabbit, Run.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, the protagonist of Rabbit, Run, is a frustrated salesman nostalgic for the glory days of his youth. The novel captures not only the tension in Angstrom between the responsibilities of family life and the yearning for freedom but also the minutiae of American culture during the 1950s as experienced by a middle-class, suburban Everyman.

Rabbit, Run was a tremendous success both with the reading public and with academics. In its equally popular sequels—Rabbit, Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990)—Updike portrays Angstrom's life over the next three decades.


Donald J. Greiner, john Updike's Novels (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984).


David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Belknap Press-Harvard University Press, 1987);

Robert S. Phillips, The Confessional Poets (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973).

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"To Bedlam and Back: The New American Poetry." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 7: 1960-1969, Gale, 2001. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468302180