Experimental poetry

The force behind Lowell's mature achievement and much of contemporary poetry lies in the experimentation begun in the 1950s by a number of poets. They may be divided into five loose schools, identified by Donald Allen in his The New American Poetry (1960), the first anthology to present the work of poets who were previously neglected by the critical and academic communities.

Inspired by jazz and abstract expressionist painting, most of the experimental writers are a generation younger than Lowell. They have tended to be bohemian, counter-culture intellectuals who disassociated themselves from universities and outspokenly criticized "bourgeois" American society. Their poetry is daring, original, and sometimes shocking. In its search for new values, it claims affinity with the archaic world of myth, legend, and traditional societies such as those of the American Indian. The forms are looser, more spontaneous, organic; they arise from the subject matter and the feeling of the poet as the poem is written, and from the natural pauses of the spoken language. As Allen Ginsberg noted in "Improvised Poetics," "first thought best thought."

The Black Mountain School
The Black Mountain School centered around Black Mountain College an experimental liberal arts college in Asheville, North Carolina, where poets Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley taught in the early 1950s. Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, and Jonathan Williams studied there, and Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner, and Denise Levertov published work in the school's magazines, Origin and the Black Mountain Review. The Black Mountain School is linked with Charles Olson's theory of "projective verse," which insisted on an open form based on the spontaneity of the breath pause in speech and the typewriter line in writing.

The San Francisco School
The work of the San Francisco School -- which includes most West Coast poetry in general -- owes much to Eastern philosophy and religion, as well as to Japanese and Chinese poetry. This is not surprising because the influence of the Orient has always been strong in the U.S. West. The land around San Francisco -- the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the jagged seacoast -- is lovely and majestic, and poets from that area tend to have a deep feeling for nature. Many of their poems are set in the mountains or take place on backpacking trips. The poetry looks to nature instead of literary tradition as a source of inspiration.

San Francisco poets include Jack Spicer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, Phil Whalen, Lew Welch, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Joanne Kyger, and Diane diPrima. Many of these poets identify with working people. Their poetry is often simple, accessible, and optimistic.

At its best, as seen in the work of Gary Snyder (1930- ), San Francisco poetry evokes the delicate balance of the individual and the cosmos. In Snyder's "Above Pate Valley" (1955), the poet describes working on a trail crew in the mountains and finding obsidian arrowhead flakes from vanished Indian tribes:

On a hill snowed all but summer
A land of fat summer deer,
They came to camp. On their
Own trails. I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Of dynamite.
Ten thousand years.

Beat Poets
The San Franciso School blends into the next grouping -- the "Beat" poets, who emerged in the 1950s. Most of the important Beats (beatniks) migrated to San Francisco from the East Coast, gaining their initial national recognition in California. Major Beat writers have included Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. Beat poetry is oral, repetitive, and immensely effective in readings, largely because it developed out of poetry readings in underground clubs. Some might correctly see it as a great-grandparent of the rap music that became prevalent in the 1990s.

Beat poetry was the most anti-establishment form of literature in the United States, but beneath its shocking words lies a love of country. The poetry is a cry of pain and rage at what the poets see as the loss of America's innocence and the tragic waste of its human and material resources.

Poems like Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) revolutionized traditional poetry:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...

The New York School
Unlike the Beat and San Franciso poets, the poets of the New York School are not interested in overtly moral questions, and, in general, they steer clear of political issues. They have the best formal educations of any group.

The major figures of the New York School -- John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Kenneth Koch -- met while they were undergraduates at Harvard University. They are quintessentially urban, cool, nonreligious, witty with a poignant, pastel sophistication. Their poems are fast moving, full of urban detail, incongruity, and an almost palpable sense of suspended belief.

New York City is the fine arts center of America and the birthplace of Abstract Expressionism, a major inspiration of this poetry. Most of the poets worked as art reviewers or museum curators, or collaborated with painters. Perhaps because of their feeling for abstract art, which distrusts figurative shapes and obvious meanings, their work is often difficult to comprehend, as in the later work of John Ashbery (1927- ), perhaps the most influential poet writing today.

Ashbery's fluid poems record thoughts and emotions as they wash over the mind too swiftly for direct articulation. His profound, long poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which won three major prizes, glides from thought to thought, often reflecting back on itself:

A ship
Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous matters
To break up your day...

Surrealism and Existentialism
In his anthology defining the new schools, Donald Allen includes a fifth group he cannot define because it has no clear geographical underpinning. This vague group includes recent movements and experiments. Chief among these are surrealism, which expresses the unconscious through vivid dreamlike imagery, and much poetry by women and ethnic minorities that has flourished in recent years. Though superficially distinct, surrealists, feminists, and minorities appear to share a sense of alienation from white, male, mainstream literature.

Although T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound had introduced symbolist techniques into American poetry in the 1920s, surrealism, the major force in European poetry and thought in Europe during and after World War II, did not take root in the United States. Not until the 1960s did surrealism (along with existentialism) become domesticated in America under the stress of the Vietnam conflict.

During the 1960s, many American writers -- W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, and Mark Strand, among others -- turned to French and especially Spanish surrealism for its pure emotion, its archetypal images, and its models of anti- rational, existential unrest.

Surrealists like Merwin tend to be epigrammatic, as in lines such as: "The gods are what has failed to become of us / If you find you no longer believe enlarge the temple."

Bly's political surrealism harshly criticized American values and foreign policy during the Vietnam era in poems like "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last":

It's because we have new packaging
for smoked oysters
that bomb holes appear in the rice

The more pervasive surrealist influence has been quieter and more contemplative, like the poem Charles Wright describes in "The New Poem" (1973):

It will not attend our sorrow.
It will not console our children.
It will not be able to help us.

Mark Strand's surrealism, like Merwin's, is often bleak; it speaks of an extreme deprivation. Now that traditions, values, and beliefs have failed him, the poet has nothing but his own cavelike soul:

I have a key
So I open the door and walk in.
It is dark and I walk in.
It is darker and I walk in.