Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Courtesy of the Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Five American poets, only one of whom is over the age of 40, 1963

There is always a lot to think about in the links lists as I patch them together & this week’s no exception. The link that I kept coming back to, not because it was the deepest or most insightful, was the article by David Barber in The Boston Globe, a review of three poets from that generation now coming into its eighties, that the headline suggested was “perhaps the greatest generation.” Barber, who is the poetry editor of The Atlantic, reviewed John Ashbery, Phil Levine & Gary Snyder, and may or may not have suggested the title, which in the daily press is something usually imposed on articles by the editorial staff. Which is to say that I don’t necessarily think that Barber himself deserves either credit or blame for this title.

A friend who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for decades once described the process to me this way: when the articles first get selected to run that day, junior editors work out where they will go and propose tentative titles. At the Chron there was something of a running competition among the junior editors to see who could propose the most lewd double entendre as a title for an article, and also to see who could get one all the way through the editing process without being caught by the editors. Every once in awhile, you’d pick up the morning paper & just gasp at something in the television section, realizing that the top editors were not up-to-date with the latest slang on Folsom Street. It’s how alienated labor makes the job bearable, and most offices have some version of this same process.

But the idea that the poets born between, say, 1925 & 1930, constituted something akin to a “greatest generation” gave me pause. For one thing, it equates these poets – and their peers – with the men & women who fought in combat during World War II, which none of the three writers that Barber reviews did. They were basically too young to serve during most if not all of the war. If, like John Ashbery, you were born in 1927, you didn’t turn 18 until 1945, something my father (born in January 1927) got around when he lied about his age to get into the Navy in ‘44. He became a radio operator on the USS Merriwether & got to make one trip across the Pacific during combat conditions, but most of his service was ferrying GIs home from the Pacific after the surrender of the Japanese.

In fact, Barber draws his boundaries much more widely – the “Prohibition years” (i.e., poets born between 1920 & ’33) – & is careful to lead with “Classifying artists by generation is an inexact science at best….” He’s no doubt correct that there is/was a “bumper crop” (his term) of American poets born during those years. But what does that mean? Using Hayden Carruth’s Voice That Is Great Within Us as an index of whom might be included, since that book lists poets by their year of birth, we find the following:

Hayden Carruth
Richard Wilbur

Marie Ponsot

James Dickey
Mitchell Goodman
Arthur Gregor
Anthony Hecht
Denise Levertov
Louis Simpson
Philip Whalen

Cid Corman
Harvey Shapiro

Philip Booth
Donald Justice
Bob Kaufman
Carolyn Kizer
Kenneth Koch
Jack Spicer

A.R. Ammons
Paul Blackburn
Robert Bly
Robert Creeley
Allen Ginsberg
James Merrill
Stanley Moss
Frank O’Hara
David Wagoner

John Ashbery
Larry Eigner
Galway Kinnell
Philip Lamantia
W.S. Merwin
James Wright

Bill Anderson
Philip Levine
Anne Sexton

Edward Dorn
Adrienne Rich
Jonathan Williams

Gregory Corso
Joel Oppenheimer
Gary Snyder

George Starbuck

Patricia Low
Sylvia Plath
David Ray

Robert Sward

Rich as Carruth’s list might be, he still missed Jack Kerouac & Jackson Mac Low, born in 1922, Barbara Guest, Alan Dugan & Jimmy Schuyler, born in ‘23, Edward Field (1924), Jack Gilbert, Gerald Stern, Robin Blaser all born in 1925, Lew Welch in 1926, Paul Carroll in 1927, Gerrit Lansing & Hannah Weiner in ’28, Gilbert Sorrentino in ’29, Bobbie Louise Hawkins in 1930 and David Bromige in ’33. That’s just off the top of my head, so no doubt I’m missing others. And of course, Barber is right about the arbitrariness of such a process. Expanding to 1919 would have brought in Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & May Swenson,for example. But note that there is nobody on either Carruth’s list or on my expanded version born in 1920, just one in 1921. One could make an argument that there was a renaissance in American poetry, and that these poets were at the heart thereof, but it’s much more concentrated than, say, the Prohibition years. I’d go so far as to argue that it really concentrated around poets born between 1925 & ’27, tho the outer ring reaches back to 1922 & forward to 1930. Just 9 of the 63 poets in my augmented list were born outside of those years, while 26 were born in those three crucial years between ’25 & ’27.

It’s worth thinking about what that means in terms of American poetry, what social conditions emerged during the years in which those poets came into their lives as poets. It’s also worth noting that of the 63 poets, just two – Kaufman & Anderson – are African-American. The most obvious is that these are poets, especially those born in 1925 onward, who escaped WW2, but got to reap the benefits of economic prosperity & a rapidly expanding educational system, that both democratized post-secondary education after the war and ensured that pretty much anyone who wanted to could get a teaching job.

Second, not one, but both traditions in American writing underwent profound transformations in the 1950s, with the New American Poetry arising out of a strand that had mixed roots in both modernism & an Americanist tradition that could be traced further even than Whitman, while the neo-colonialist Anglophile poetics of the more genteel tradition likewise saw a hard rupture in the revolt of The Fifties, as Bly, Wright, Merwin, Rich & even Hall moved away from their own heritage of closed forms to embrace aspects of European literature & a more open poetics. What’s notably absent from Carruth’s list (& my expansion of it) are direct descendants of the agrarians: Randall Jarrell, Robert Penn Warren et al. James Dickey & Jonathan Williams are the only real southerners here, neither of whom could be so described. The closest you might get are indirect descendants, all students of Robert Lowell’s. Indeed one might say that the disappearance of the agrarian strain in American poetry is nearly as dramatic as that of the Objectivists, except that the Objectivists returned circa 1960, while the closed verse poetics of the agrarians simmered underground before returning as the New Formalism of a decade later.

So in the 1950s you had this clash between these two traditions – the raw & the cooked, as Lowell himself put it – but even the cooked poets were offering a version of nouveau cuisine, each side with its own variants. Phil Levine is as unlike Sylvia Plath as Gregory Corso is to Jonathan Williams. The degree to which these poets were their generation is worth underscoring. If I pick up one of the big double-issues of Poetry from that period, such as the October-November 1963 number, every single American poet born between 1920 and 1933 comes from the list above. All but two of the rest are older poets: John Berryman, J.V. Cunningham, Jean Garrigue, Randall Jarrell, Lowell, Charles Olson, Henry Rago, Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, Elizabeth Bishop, Vernon Watkins & Louise Zukofsky. There is one poet who is younger, Ronald Johnson, born in 1935, and one British poet from this period, Charles Tomlinson. The 1965 double issue has fewer poets who are older (Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Ernest Sandeen & Ted Weiss), and two who were born after 1933 (Ronald Johnson again, and Wendell Berry, born in 1934). Again there are two Brits, Tomlinson & Gael Turnbull, and nine poets from my expanded list: Carruth, Creeley, Kinnell, Koch, Levertov, Rich, Sexton, Snyder & Whalen. There is however one not on my list but from that generation, David Posner, born in 1921, educated at Kenyon & Oxford, who taught for awhile at the University of Buffalo & at the University of California (it’s not clear at which campus). Posner’s status within the canon, which is pretty much nil, tells you everything you need to know about the boundaries of this list.

The degree of prominence that so many members of this “greatest generation” earned was not solely because they were fabulous (some were, some weren’t), but because they were it, pretty much the sum of what was available by writers in that age cohort during those years. In 1960, they were the poets between the ages of 27 and 40. Ginsberg, for example, was just 34.

But by the middle 1960s, you already had the kudzuing of MFA programs across the land, meaning that there were an increasing number of writers everywhere. If you look at my expanded roster, one thing you will notice is that most of the poets who did not teach, or at least not teach much, during that decade, came primarily from the post-avant tradition: Eigner, Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, Corso, Ginsberg, Spicer, Blackburn, Whalen, Corman. Ashbery & Ginsberg would go on to teach later, but not during that critical decade. So that even tho the numbers of post-avants and quietists are almost even in that expanded list, ten, fifteen years hence creative writing programs would acquire a distinct orientation – and reputation – they are only now fully outgrowing.

By 1975, the number of poets had already grown substantially. We were already beginning to experience the Babylon effect of having several different tendencies in poetry, each with several dozen members between the ages, say, of 27 & 40. Another 15 or so years, and these scenes had expanded all that much further. The 1993 Writing from the New Coast anthology presents the work of 119 poets from post-avant side of the street, 70 or 80 of whom I suspect would be every bit as recognizable to readers of this blog as that the names from that original list by Hayden Carruth. And here’s the secret: many of these poets are every bit as good as their elders. Plus there were at least as many post-avants excluded as included in that volume – the scale was already impossible for any attempt at completism. And very probably just as many non-post-avants as well. That 119 is just the tip of the iceberg.

So my point is this: what made the generation of the 1950s special were three things. First was breaking out of the doldrums of the Second World War; second was the presence of multiple kinds of new poetry in lively (& often bitter) debate; and third was scarcity. That third item is at least as important as the first two. Even in my expanded list, the number of 34-year old poets in 1960 was a grand total of ten. Fifty years later, I’d be curious to know just how many of today’s poets were born in 1976. I’ll wager that the number is much greater than ten, and I’ll wager further that the best of them are every bit as good as the poets born in 1926.