Unlike the interwar years, in which the modernist aesthetic dominated, American poetry in the post-World War II era has been characterized by an eclectic mix of styles—from the self-referential confessional poetry of Robert Lowell to the raw, politically charged verse of Allen Ginsburg and the Beats to the formal virtuosity of James Merrill. If there was anything that unified the poets of the postwar era, it would be their reaction to modernism, with its technical free-verse innovation, its questioning of metaphor, and its elimination of the authorial presence.
1940s and 1950s
Robert Frost was American poetry's most visible post-World War II practitioner. In collections such as Steeple Bush (1955) and In the Clearing (1962), he built upon his already considerable reputation. Frost was the rare poet who achieved both critical acclaim and popular success. He wrote in a plainspoken style that was more accessible than many of his “modernist” contemporaries, such as T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. This helped Frost connect with a general audience, and, in 1961, he was asked to read at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Frost often wrote about rural New England, finding depth in the seemingly simple charms of nature and small-town America.
Langston Hughes established himself as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance prior to the war. Perhaps Hughes's most significant postwar poem was “Harlem” (1951), in which he asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The poem became a touchstone for the country's burgeoning civil rights movement. Hughes's status as the first African American poet to support himself as a full-time writer also made him an inspiration for many.
Theodore Roethke published an influential collection, The Waking, in 1953. Although influenced stylistically by T.S. Eliot, Roethke believed that poetry should be more accessible than Eliot's modernist verses. He used a more straightforward style, rooted in emotion and conveyed in traditional verse form. Roethke would be an important influence on several later poets, especially his students Carolyn Kizer and James Wright.
Perhaps the most significant poetic voice of this era, however, was that of Wallace Stevens. Although he had been writing for decades, Stevens's reputation grew substantially in the postwar period with the publication of his Page 1277 | Top of ArticleCollected Poems (1954), which garnered him both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. An innovative poet, Stevens often invoked strange, unorthodox images in his work. His chief concern was the disorder of modern American life, and his poetry often struggled to find a meaning in this chaos.
Stevens's friend Marianne Moore also published her own Collected Poems (1951) to wide acclaim in the early 1950s. Moore's poems were marked by her playful and mocking wit.
An ally of Stevens and Moore, William Carlos Williams, saw his reputation rise as well. His major postwar work was the epic poem Paterson, published in several installments between 1946 and 1963. The poem surveys the history and culture of Williams's hometown, Paterson, New Jersey. Williams was an important influence on younger generations of poets, who admired his open verse and his autobiographical subject matter, two key elements in one of the most important postwar schools of American verse, confessional poetry.
Confessional poetry used clear and everyday language, sometimes laced with expletives, to explore the intimate and often painful, embarrassing, and sexually explicit secrets of the poet's own life and consciousness. Perhaps the most well read and widely quoted of the confessional poets was Robert Lowell. The scion of a respected American literary family, Lowell drew heavily on his own life, including his mental disorders, for his poems' subject matter. His 1959 collection Life Studies was filled with revelations about his time in a mental institution, and the personal nature of these poems resonated widely.
John Berryman also practiced a self-revelatory form of poetry, best illustrated in Berryman's Sonnets (1967), a series of sonnets that chronicled one of the poet's relationships. Berryman also achieved fame for the autobiographical sequence The Dream Songs, published between 1964 and 1968.
Another widely read confessional poet was Anne Sexton, who, at one time, had been a student of Lowell's. Her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), also dealt with mental instability in a blunt, forthright manner.
The confessional impulse reached its most naked expression in the work of Sylvia Plath. Her posthumous collection Ariel (1965) addresses the poet's depression head-on, and the work is laden with frighteningly stark and even violent imagery. Lowell himself turned somewhat away from confessional poetry as he grew older, with collections such as For the Union Dead (1964), in which he explored American society and American identity, rather than his own tormented soul.
One of the freshest voices to emerge in American poetry at the time was Elizabeth Bishop. The New England-born poet was a friend and confidant of Lowell, but not a confessional poet. Her poems focused on creating a sense of place and relied on subtlety and implication to convey meaning. Her collection The Complete Poems (1969) includes most of her greatest work and was honored with a National Book Award.
By the mid-1950s, a new group of poets was beginning to question the very values of postwar American society—its consumerism, its militarism, and its insistence on political and cultural conformity. This countercultural impulse was most famously expressed by Allen Ginsberg, a leading figure in the decade's bohemian Beat movement, in his poem Howl (1956).
In its raw emotional expression and panoramic scope and its tour through an America ravaged by madness and paranoia, Howl evinced Ginsberg's deep debt to Walt Whitman, the seminal nineteenth-century American poet and chronicler of the national experience, whose reputation was burnished anew by postwar American critics. Ginsberg and other Beat poets, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder (both of whom explored Eastern philosophy and back-to-nature communalism), were enormously influential in shaping the counterculture movement of the 1960s, even as they became caught up in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the decade. Page 1278 | Top of ArticleAnother counterculture icon was the songwriter Bob Dylan, whose lyrics are cited by many critics as significant contributions to American poetry.
Among the most truly radical American poets—specifically questioning the nation's attitudes about race and class—was Amiri Baraka. His 1961 collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, used Ginsberg's Beat poetry as a jumping-off point and explored how black and white saw and dealt with each other in a nation undergoing a wrenching reexamination of race during the era of the civil rights movement. Outspoken in his black nationalist politics, Baraka created controversy throughout his career. This culminated when he read “Somebody Blew Up America,” a poem about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center at a poetry festival in 2002. The poem, which many criticized for being insensitive to Jews, was so controversial that it caused the state of New Jersey to abolish its poet laureate post, a position Baraka had held at the time.
As Baraka explored America's tortured race relations, so Hilda (H.D.) Doolittle, a contemporary of her friends Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, and Adrienne Rich—two of the country's most influential feminist-inspired poets—examined assumptions about gender. Most of Doolittle's finest poetry was written in the first half of the twentieth century, but she published one last masterpiece, Helen in Egypt, in 1961, the year of her death. Helen in Egypt was an epic retelling of the Trojan War from Helen of Troy's point of view, and it was lauded as a major work of feminist poetry.
Rich burst onto the literary scene in 1951 with her first book of poetry A Change of World, which won praise from British poet W.H. Auden, among others. In later collections, such as Diving into the Wreck (1973) and An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), Rich developed a highly political poetic sensibility. Her verses directly engaged what she saw as a patriarchal America, forcing readers to reexamine their conceptions of gender and class, even as she challenged the nation to work for social justice. Far from didactic, Rich's poetry was drawn to those on the outside of American society: women, the poor, and minorities.
A different kind of counterculture developed around John Ashbery and the New York School of poetry. Along with contemporaries Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, Ashbery wrote deliberately avant-garde poetry, the meaning of which was not always apparent. Many have tried to read his work as allegory, though the poet himself claimed it was meant to be abstract, a poetic expression of the same artistic impulses that motivated abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock. It took a while for the wider literary scene to catch on to Ashbery, but with the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), recognition finally came. The book managed to win three of America's most prestigious poetry awards: the National Book Critics Circle Prize, the National Book Award for Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries
Emerging poets of the late twentieth century included Sharon Olds and Louise Gluck. Olds's work often focused on the American family and the struggles and joys of family life. She first garnered acclaim for her collection The Dead and the Living (1984). In 1993, Gluck won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection The Wild Iris. Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, John Hollander, and Anne Carson also wrote significant poetry at this time.
The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen something of a popular renaissance for poetry. In his position as America's poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, Robert Pinsky worked to make poetry accessible to the Page 1280 | Top of Articlewider culture, appearing on television as an informal ambassador for the form.
Slam poetry, which grew out of hip-hop music, found a younger, generally urban audience for “poetry slams,” where, typically, younger poets read their work in front of an audience, often in a nightclub setting. These often-raucous get-togethers resembled a combination of rock music shows and amateur contests, as poets competed with each other for the loudest and most enthusiastic response from their audiences. The scene was chronicled by films such as Slam (1998), which starred slam poet Saul Williams, and on television's Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam.
Some critics have pointed out that slam poetry relies heavily on performance. Others compare it to the popular success of the coffee house Beat poets in the 1950s, who also popularized poetry by reading aloud to young audiences in popular, bohemian gathering places.
Guy Patrick Cunningham
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