New directions

Women's literature, like minority literature and surrealism, first became aware of itself as a driving force in American life during the late 1960s. It flourished in the feminist movement initiated in that era.

Recent directions in American poetry include the "language poets" loosely associated with Temblor magazine. Among them are Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Douglas Messerli [editor of "Language" Poetries: An Anthology (1987)], Bob Perelman, and Barret Watten, author of Total Syntax(1985), a collection of essays. They stretch language to reveal its potential for ambiguity, fragmentation, and self-assertion within chaos. Ironic and postmodern, they reject "metanarratives" -- ideologies, dogmas, conventions -- and doubt the existence of transcendent reality. Michael Palmer writes:

This is Paradise, a mildewed book
left too long in the house

Bob Perelman's "Chronic Meanings" begins:

The single fact is matter.
Five words can say only.
Black sky at night, reasonably.
I am, the irrational residue...

Viewing art and literary criticism as inherently ideological, they oppose modernism's closed forms, hierarchies, ideas of epiphany and transcendence, categories of genre and canonical texts (accepted literary works). Instead they propose open forms and multicultural texts. They appropriate images from popular culture, the media, and fashion and refashion them. Like performance poetry, language poems often resist interpretation and invite participation.

Performance-oriented poetry (associated with chance operations such as those of composer John Cage), jazz improvisation, mixed media work, and European surrealism have influenced many U.S. poets. Well-known figures include Laurie Anderson, author of the international hit United States (1984), which uses film, video, acoustics and music, choreography, and space-age technology. Sound poetry, emphasizing the voice and instruments, is practiced by poets David Antin (who extemporizes his performances) and New Yorkers George Quasha (publisher of Station Hill Press), Armand Schwerner, and Jackson MacLow. MacLow has also performed visual or concrete poetry, which makes a visual statement using placement and typography. Ethnic performance poetry entered the mainstream with rap music, while across the United States "poetry slams" -- open poetry reading contests that are held in alternative art galleries and literary bookstores -- have become inexpensive, high-spirited participatory entertainments.

At the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum are the self-styled "New Formalists," who champion a return to form, rhyme, and meter. All groups are responding to the same problem - - a perceived middle-brow complacency with the status quo, a careful and overly polished sound, often the product of poetry workshops, and an overemphasis on the personal lyric as opposed to the public gesture. The formal school is associated with Story Line Press; Dana Gioia (a businessman-poet); Philip Dacey, and David Jauss, poets and editors of Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (1986); Brad Leithauser; and Gjertrud Schnakenburg. Robert Richman's The Direction of Poetry: Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in English Since 1977 is a recent anthology. Though these poets have been accused of retreating to 19th-century themes, they often draw on contemporary stances and images, along with musical language and traditional, closed forms.