As Reviewed By:
Strong Measures' Second-to-Last Hurrah (Part One)
The New Poets of England and America. Edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, with an Introduction by Robert Frost. Meridian Books, 1957.
New Poets of England and America: Second Selection. Edited by Donald Hall and Robert Pack. Meridian Books, 1962.
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Of all the anthologies of new verse published in the United States between 1945 and 1960, only two in retrospect may be said to have altered the course of American poetry for the remainder of the 20th Century. They were of such markedly different character that it is difficult to imagine their having been pulled out of the air at more or less the same time; and while it would round off too many corners to see the era of neo-Modernism and New Critical formalism fading to black with the appearance of the first, The New Poets of England and America (1957), edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, it would be no less distortive to see the second, Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), as having ushered in the Big Bang of the Beat counterculture all by itself. Such eliding of particulars, irrespective of the comfort it affords pigeonholers, simply does not fit the facts, not least of which was the peculiar rancor and divisiveness of the culture wars that raged throughout that contentious period. Nor did Hall and Pack significantly alter the situation with their 1962 sequel to their original anthology. Dropping the definite article from its title, this new edition featured fresh poems by essentially the same clutch of poets (now five years older) but could do little to stem the anti-formalist tide that was running, quite literally without ebb, from the mid-‘50s on, having been pretty much set in stone by a bi-coastal chiming of events in 1956-57, which saw the airing in public of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl at Six Gallery in San Francisco, and the swamping of that year’s New York publishing season by a book that has since become more indispensable to interstate highway users than the Gideon Bible: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. A quasi-autobiographical upending of Mark Twain’s classic novel in which a mode of transportation in the form of a raft drives its youthful hero (and his mentor-on-the-run) to moral extremes, extremities and extremism in the space of a few hundred pages—all, it may be said, in good fun, high spirits, and, if the book’s author is to be credited, lowered expectations. In Kerouac’s spinoff, the raft morphs into a car, the mentor-on-the-run into a speed freak, and its protagonist Sal (in ways more ammoniac than Paradisiac) a perennial adolescent for whom getting lit in a territory beats lighting out for it all hollow.
If “too little, too late” was the most frequently arrived at verdict regarding the verse in New Poets of England and America, the generally poor reviews it got stemmed less from a loss of faith in “strong measures” per se than from the sinking feeling many readers experienced in perusing its contents. Reviewers, clearly oblivious to the possibility that posterity might rule differently on such (admittedly more British than American) inclusions as Keith Douglas’s “Simplify Me When I’m Dead,” Philip Larkin’s “Church Going,” Geoffrey Hill’s “Genesis,” Robert Lowell’s “After the Surprising Conversions,” W. D. Snodgrass’s’ ”from ‘Heart’s Needle,’” and Richard Wilbur’s “Juggler,” found themselves yawning over poems that seemed less apprenticed to Auden, the capital maker of phrases, than to Auden, the phrasemaker bent on giving solace to the mildly depressed. Not surprisingly, critical response to the 1962 volume was to prove even spongier, for by then the Beat wave had crested, leaving eddies to sough polyphiloprogenitively in tidal pools whose paramecia would provide the dragon’s teeth to populate (in more ways than one) John Aldridge’s “country of the young,” Kenneth Rexroth’s “alternate society,” or Harold Rosenberg’s “herd of independent minds,” depending on how one views that concordat of brats and easy riders in whose penumbra of limitless Gimme! we all still live.
For if there was one thing the Beats (as distinct from its Black Mountain contingent) accomplished, it was the discrediting of poetic style as something beyond mere fortuities of lip. Conscious craftsmanship, as something valued for its own sake, was clearly most decidedly out. Slovenliness of utterance (often graced with the sobriquet “stream of consciousness”) was likely to meet with praise for its unretouched, heart-on-sleeve, and existentially spot-on spontaneity, while a rondeau, say, or a paysage moralisé in terza rima, was almost sure to encounter, no matter how intricate its accomplishment, scorn and contempt for its datedness and lack of immediacy. At some unnoticed point in its decline, responsible mindfulness, like the third member of New Poets’ 1957 editorial triumvirate, Louis Simpson, simply disappeared from contemporary art. A casualty of the abstract expressionist wars, possibly; or perhaps the backwash of a compulsion after a Great Depression, a second world war (complete with Holocaust and one-two atomic punch), and a New Apocalypse waiting upon an unpacking of the seven seals by a Soviet Union drunk on revenge and world domination to, quite simply, let everything go.
And yet, the 1957 volume, for all the sense it gives of being stillborn; of being the Piltdown man of ossified formalism, reflects in its roster of poets (give or take a handful of disparus) a shrewd purchase on the future, if not quite the makings of a hall of fame. The English contingent apart, American poets showcased (outside of Lowell, Snodgrass and Wilbur, accorded special mention earlier) include Robert Bly, Donald Finkel, Donald Hall, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Donald Justice, William Meredith, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Robert Mezey, Vassar Miller, Howard Moss, Howard Nemerov, Adrienne Rich, Louis Simpson, William Jay Smith, May Swenson, and James Wright. Almost all in their twenties when the collection appeared (the youngest, Robert Mezey, shows a birthdate of 1935), almost all moved on to successful careers as poets and/or teachers and became respected ambassadors for American poetry around the world. Given their rearward orientation stylistically, this was no small achievement. If by 1957 verse of the traditional variety wasn’t critically on the ropes, few in the know doubted its exponents were struggling to keep themselves energized. Having settled for an elitist audience of the curious, the college educated, and the curiously collegiate, a readership which, it was shortsightedly thought then, could only shrink with time, it looked for all the world like a movement that had lost its way and opted for immobility with its teeth set and heels dug in. The ultra-conservative and even reactionary ground it tenuously occupied had all the appearance of a burial site with cenotaphs already in place.
In England too, according to the recently published book, The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (2003), there was much laboring under the dead weight of what its author, Andrew Duncan, calls the “pleasure-free patriarchal regime of the Christian-academic ogres.” The image thus conveyed in the major portion of the English speaking world was of a reactionary tortoise, hareless, but given to constantly peering out of its distinctly academic carapace, fearful of being either passed or surpassed. Even before it came under fire from the counterculture later known as Beat, post-war formalism seemed merely to be marking time between failures of nerve. Various factors contributed to this, among which was a wave of anti-experimentalism that broke with the collapse of European surrealism into the chic frissonerie of its most notable avatar—after André Breton—Jean Cocteau. Rather than subside gracefully to the vague nouvelles of Paris’s latest thing, “writing degree zero,” the aging lion of Montparnasse chose to temporize self-aggrandizingly in film panderings to the memory of his own stage triumphs, La Belle et le Bête and Orphée. Such tightening of screws (which, to more than a few readers of such verse had a screw loose already) soon drew to itself the double-edged epithet “neo-Victorian.” A return to tersely controlled statement and a penchant for gnomic versifying, the like of which had not been seen since the most clinically uptight Tennysonians on both sides of the Atlantic had closed up shop were its twin hallmarks—though it wouldn’t be crowding things if a third were tacked on: thematic vagueness, carried at times to the vanishing point. The “Moss-covered poets” (as some called them in recognition of one of their polestars, Howard Moss) cast a cold eye at anything not resolvable in a handful of quatrains, and viewed reality as but another arcanum of the Higher Prosody, no more daunting than a Rubik’s cube, nor any less tameable by a well turned phrase or a paradox dizzyingly poised on but a slant rhyme’s slim escarpment.
Such formalism for formalism’s sake had no shortage of detractors, but so stunning was the rate of defection from university library Morris chairs to the tavern booths of Greenwich Village and North Beach that even the redoubtable Van Wyck Brooks felt obliged to weigh in with a bill of complaints. His book The Writer in America (1953) anticipated the disaster waiting to engulf a whole new generation of anal retentives in the Eliotic mould, snug in an academic purlieu made up for them (a bed with hospital corners comes first to mind) by well entrenched New Critics under the direction of Robert Lowell’s mentor-in-chief, John Crowe Ransom. With acuity and astuteness Brooks went right to what was for him the root of the problem: a fixation on the technicalities of form oddly reminiscent of the early Eliot’s relief mapping of Donne and the metaphysical poets of the English baroque. “[C]ountless young writers,” he wrote in “On Certain Critics,” his opening chapter, “think first of their form and feel they must fit their material to a bed of Procrustes. Regardless of their own temperaments and the visions of life that spring from these, they are positively terrorized into writing as if metaphysics, and the forms of metaphysical poets, were native to them. . .” So much for the efficient cause of the deadness afflicting contemporary American poetry. The morbidity’s final cause for Brooks was the university itself—or, as he would have it, Bloodsucker Central, where vampires with advanced degrees drained all semblance of the lyric impulse from their charges, citing the autotelicism of poetic art as their authority. Quoting Dylan Thomas who on a visit to America asked, “Why do so many poets teach? . . . They graduate from college, and then they stay in college. When do they learn anything?”, Brooks finds it a shame and a scandal that American poets cut themselves off from “life” in so respectfully docile a manner. Poetry, while certainly not a battle-axe, should seek more for itself than the “honor” of sifting chaff put about by a priestly caste of word fakirs. What impressionable poets learn in such places, Brooks insists, are “preciosities . . . distillations of life at a far remove—owing to what Stephen Spender calls ‘the petrifying effects of an isolated culture which has too little communication’ with the world outside.” And what’s anachronistic for the goose is no less denaturing to the gander:
...This holds true also of the critics who share these conditions with similar results in their own adjoining field. It is natural that writers should shrink from life at a moment like our own, when the world is as full of terrors as Columbus’s ocean, and it is natural that they should withdraw, not merely for economic reasons, into the safety-zone of the “Department of English.” For the universities have become what monasteries were in the dark and hazardous world of the early Middle Ages, and for many life seems too forbidding to be ventured into. Facing insecurity, a prospect of atomic wars and at best the tedious bondage of a bureaucratic present, they can scarcely fail to see as an island of the blest, despite its restrictions and drawbacks, the sanctuary of study. . . .
But other factors were being folded into the mix as well. An ideological half-nelson, along with the aesthetic stranglehold exerted by New Critics over a captive generation of G. I. Bill beneficiaries, was being applied by fifth columnists of the status quo determined to keep the plus ça change in American culture and society forever la même chose. Unfortunately, the more of this endlessly depressing same thing, when combined with incomprehensibly mystifying poetics—verbal icons consorting with well wrought urns—resulted in verse more consistently fizzle-prone than explosive. While poets lodged in such quarters (and quarterlies) garnered the lion’s share of prizes and awards, their “drasty rhyming,” academically comme il faut though it might be, was held, beyond the pull of the collegiate black hole down whose maw more than a little of that kind of verse disappeared forever, to be, in the words of the Tabard Inn’s host, “nat worth a toord.” Not that it would take a Tabard Inn host to zero in on the Sir Thopas in more than few of the poems filling out the Hall, Pack and Simpson anthology. For all its sniffy W. S. Gilbertisms, the rum-tiddledy of John Heath-Stubb’s “The Death of Digenes Akritas” throws doggerel as good a bone as any:
I’m that distinguished twice-born hero
Or “The Holy Innocents,” by a bullocky Robert Lowell, who was not then as he is now, in such sacred odor as to be thought unsacrificeable to the shade of self-parody:
Listen, the hay-bells tinkle as the cart
A balanced analysis of just how this poem got to be so over the top would require the services of a panel of bacchantes and chaos theorists, with someone like Yvor Winters chairing the proceedings. Let’s just say that the chances of finding W.A.S.P.-waisted pseudo-profundity and Donnean scintillations that failed to scintillate in formalistic magazines of the ‘40s and ‘50s were in the high double digits. Anyone interested in running down some of the deeper psychological strains undergirding neo-Victorian poesis should consult Karl Shapiro’s Essay on Rime (1945), a much underrated “imitation” of An Essay on Criticism, by the then (also) young Alexander Pope. In bringing up simultaneously personality and style on the modernist screen, Shapiro discovered a disturbing contemporary tendency to confuse art with diverting profligacy:
In modern art what is phenomenal
The revered maître of this particular hotel was wont to wax rather grimly on the ephemeralities of fashion and fame, and to go about doing it when the dander of doggerel was not so easily got up as when Shapiro composed his homage to the bent rapier of Twickenham. While it was always Augustan practice to view “modern” poets as inferior to those of classical antiquity, Pope was on the whole more reactionary even than Dr. Johnson, who at least gave the benefit of the doubt to contemporary authors making their thoughts public in good faith. Passages like the following dot the Popean landscape with unsettling remembrances of grottoes past:
. . .
To poets of a conservative turn of mind, why language fails is less important than the fact that it does, again and again, and without so much as a smidgen of malice on anyone’s part. It “slips, slides, perishes” (to quote a famous reactionary) as required by the turf on the basis of which the company of poets—“the complete consort dancing together”—sets down its collective feet.
But that’s not what Shapiro was driving at in the passage from Essay on Rime quoted above. He was lamenting, as those susceptible to the rage for order often do, the breakdown in singular consciousness in much art given over to “extreme tendencies.” In this, he does not exempt from blame another of his masters, Auden, who, when not funneling Chestertonian dyspepsias into recessed Hardyan culs de sac, could lock in a Medusan gaze all self-enhancing foibles but his own unshackleable glibness. For Shapiro, this regrettably led to an otherwise protean artist betraying nature by playing fast and loose with style:
Auden, a man of many aptitudes
As fine as Auden’s “Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, The Sea and the Mirror is, it does not escape censure for precisely the reason Shapiro adumbrates: ideas dictate language, rather than the other way around. And this for no other reason than that multiplicitousness of personality has been allowed to flower into a “wild diversity of style.” Which is why, Shapiro goes on to say, “When we consider Dowson / Twisting his grief into a villanelle / We feel embarrassment.” And, it seems almost superfluous to add, not a little dismay at seeing frippery bully direct speech into needless affectation and even pusillanimity. Besides, wasn’t it somehow retrograde (not to mention insensitive) to ignore the exacerbations pressing in upon the contemporary poet when the possibility of apocalypse never seemed more imminent or real? Could not the nuclear stalemate between the world’s two superpowers someday reach a flash point and end all civilization deserving of the name?
Finally, the reserved tone and generally costive demeanor of New Poets could best be accounted for by viewing it as not so much in the crosshairs of pre-sixties’ anarchism as buffeted by the crosswind of fading modernism and a postmodernism not yet daring to speak its name. Its editors might today seem to have been a trifle overcautious in juggling their neo-Victorian options, but from their vantage point, the triumphal year of On the Road was no time to be risking formalism’s declining capital on verse that played the modernist nostalgia card by flaunting either preciosities out of A Lume Spento or the broken field running that made The Waste Land seem the equivalent in poetry of one of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch’s obloid odysseys. Restoring Auden to the foreground of this picture (which he seldom left before terminally relocating to Oxford), had not the titular exponent of the New Immodernism inveighed against the frightfulness of those who, if they didn’t mean Hardy any harm, had nonetheless led even the fans of Lady Windemere astray? And for all the respect they thought due to Wilde and his martyrdom, did they not pander to the Byzantine gyrations of a Willie Yeats, ignore the Cassandra cries of Freud, and toady to the frog heaven dysparadised by Julien Benda and Charles Maurras? Though rarely explicit about anything likely to shake his money tree, Auden maintained a Montaigne-like skepticism about literary movements that houseclean with a coiled spring in their step, having concluded, after a certain pratfall in Spain, that revolutions in taste invariably hosted fascistic tapeworms in their innards which would if necessary bust a gut to get out. Hence, the good Eliot was the Eliot who had the allusive stuffing knocked out him, the one not at all like his erstwhile collaborator, Ezra Pound, but the Saville Row recluse who dragged his strange gods behind him, not like a mendicancy out to franchise but, like Wolfe’s time and the river, able to backflush effluent and flow into a single braided stream.
It would seem advisable at this point to clear away the misconceptions that over the years have built up and obscured sightlines offering an unobstructed view of the deceptively quiescent mid- to late ‘50s. The formalist-antiformalist debate that rocked American poetry from the ‘50s through the ‘90s did not occur in a vacuum. A variety of extra-literary forces bore down upon both poets and readerships so as to create a cauldron of unholy loves (and hates) among constituencies of the extra-literate that had not all that long ago declared a common front against the “philistines” of an ever more predatory mass culture. This Goliath whose-name-was-legion was almost invariably portrayed in the underground press as an aloof academic churning out ivory tower—and Ivy League—verse that (to raid the glossary of Sing Sing’s most notorious singer of tales and couch potatoes, Wilhelm Reich) held briefs for both crypto-fascism and anal-retentiveness. Or, conversely, to lift a self-lacerating image of the Beatnik from the counterculture’s own Evergreen Review and its house cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, the enemy was an artless dodger in black turtleneck and sandals, to whom existentialist mummeries in imitation of the most photogenically repulsive scriptomane—and Diane Arbus subject—since Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, proved an irresistible turn-on. (Any Greenwich Village knockoff tavern or bar could serve as a setting, so long as its superfices more or less matched up with those of the Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots.)
Obviously some line in the sand, though for a long time indistinctly drawn, had at last been crossed. Old modernist bogeys once pitting Eliot epigone against Objectivist and Rahvian against Ezroid—demons which the Great Depression and the war that followed it were thought to have sidelined—were rising up in their graveclothes and demanding to be heard yet again. Never mind that a thick fog of déjà vu hung over all such proceedings, from the H. D. worship of San Francisco poet Robert Duncan to the largely tone-deaf (and Pound-inspired) ramblings of Charles Olson’s Maximus cycle. The formalists might have swallowed the bleak religiosity of mange and mea culpa (shorn on this side of the Atlantic of the anti-Semitic grousings dear to the conscience of Eliotic conservatism, Charles Maurras), that the Eliot-Auden axis gravitated toward, but they showed not the slightest inclination to relive personally in their verse the push given Eliot by Pound in 1921-22 in the stylistic direction of associationist discontinuity and echolalial montage, epoch-making though it might have been. While no one until quite recently has seriously doubted The Waste Land’s right to be held up as a masterpiece and an instant classic—the latter having naturally adhered to a poem that came into the world with its lines already numbered—the work has always been viewed, even by its most loyal fans, as an exquisite and unrepeatable poetic event. That it conferred upon its author the simultaneous repute of artistic notoriety and spiritual purity of which only gurus of the sort found in Hermann Hesse novels could properly lay claim to said more about the brokers of such projections than about the poet who occasioned them. Which was just as well for Eliot (and his heir-apparent Auden), it having become apparent by the time of the Four Quartets—i.e. the early ‘40s—that he had turned his back on the Tiresian follies of 1922 and left his isolated and now largely discredited colleague, Ezra Pound, to face the music of his interminably lengthy poem, The Cantos, alone.
But the unfinished business of modernism was not all that was impinging upon literary America. Long deferred problems arising out of the hostilities recently ended in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific had managed to elide, without missing a beat, into that standoff between capitalism and world communism yclept the Cold War. Major newsmagazines and the exponentially metastisizing TV networks were substantial beneficiaries of the dread this standoff awakened in the populace at large, having sold advertising in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars to make profitable the assuaging of all those atomic anxieties with broadcast images of the American nuclear family doing what it did best: keeping up with the Joneses in every way but sexually. Meanwhile, offstage, the breadwinning pater familias to whom this tidy little group was beholden for its material comforts was too busy keeping nose to grindstone, making the world safe for General Motors and the other crown jewels of capitalism, to notice much beyond what soggy and inedible synthetic sandwich meat, thrust between slices of comparably engineered “bread,” had found its way, via his wife’s ministrations, into his lunch pail. Those with the temerity to criticize the mass pursuit of Maya for profit risked opprobrium and even ostracism at the hands of not just the civic and political powers, but the religious ones too. The face of Big Brother so memorably etched in George Orwell’s 1984 (his death's-head valentine to Joseph Stalin) was in ‘50s America as likely to be that of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (the chalk-wielding televangelist), or of J. Edgar Hoover (the unhailed chief of renegade surveillance), or of Francis, Cardinal Spellman (the capo of St. Patrick’s, whose understudy-in-scarlet Sheen tried laboriously not to appear), as it was of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the serving president of the republic. From the collective mouth of this gaggle of gargoyles there emanated a rivulet of talk, laced with the purest Babbittry, in which the masses were sold conformity as both a patriotic duty and the skeleton key to success. Failure to embrace the “togetherness” promoted by the Ladies’ Home Journal (or other like publications) with the required sincerity and gusto, would result as surely, the citizen was admonished, in the slippage of health, wealth and happiness from his grasp as the comparable absence of grace kept the Holy Grail out of sticky infidel hands a millennium ago. A solid 9-to-5 work ethic, an unshakeable belief in God, and an acceptance of the proposition (elevated like the host before the altar of the Most High) that “the business of America was business” were all anyone need ante up in order to build Monticello on the cheap in his home town.
By the time the American middle class, stoned senseless on Levittown, had fled the cities for the suburbs, family values “suffused with the incandescent glow” (Tom Lehrer’s radiant phrase) of nuclear togetherness had become as immune to questioning as medieval Europe at the zenith of the Dantean world picture. Popular TV shows like The Rosenbergs and Father Knows Best spelled out boy scout manual morals in half-hour cameos of indelible black and white, while the time’s popular music, squeaky clean as Perry Como’s toupe until the exploding of Bill Haley and the Comets onto the national scene, revealed itself as but a piece of tail wagging the much larger nebula of rock and roll. But by 1953 there was no longer any need to harp on the capitalist version of Soviet “vulgar Marxism.” The consigning to oblivion of the other Joseph of contemporary politics, McCarthy, in that year rendered it supererogatory at best and tackily redundant at worst. (Unlike today, when a clearly insecure Republican establishment fears that without a constant wash of superpatriotism of right-wing talk radio and cable news drenching the electorate round the clock, an America not ruled by giant corporations might supplant Rupert Murdoch’s “fair and balanced” Mayberry for gullible evangelicals with real news outlets dispensing something more reliable than infotainment à la Hannity and Coombs.)
The only legitimate faith, ran conventional wisdom then, was a watered down Christianity made more marketable (and politically palatable) when presented in the easily swallowed formula of populist-flavored anti-Communism. What social critic Dwight MacDonald, in going against the American grain, contemptuously dismissed as mass- and midcult had by midcentury extinguished all but a few pockets of resistance to what mass- and midcultists excoriated as “highbrow” or “elitist,” while in a more remote corner of the plantation, the warning issued by Plato about staying on top of shifts in music favored by the young was being ominously validated by the crack-pipe gyrations of such crack pied pipers as Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Out back where the writers hung out, even novelists purporting to be critical of lock-step corporatism (like the author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) were under pressure from editors to mask their disdain of wolves coming wrapped in Ivy League sheepskins and meaning business with a civility scarcely distinguishable from the hypocrisy they were supposed to be bringing to book. Less hardwired to the erotically moist world of money and clout than powerhouses of the 19th Century social novel like Balzac and Trollope, gray flannel suited chroniclers of American business like Sloan Wilson and Louis Auchincloss were atop a libertarian volcano and oblivious to the conflagration bubbling away beneath them.
A formidable refugee from the Soviet Union named Ayn Rand was about to change all that. As obstreperously larger than life as the doorstopping novels she schemed the media into helping her promote, she used venues like TV’s The David Susskind Show to talk up the virtues of selfishness while being a walking advertisement for them herself. Sporting titles like Atlas Shrugged, they melded kitsch and camp with a panache not seen in the lowbrow novel since Forever Amber and the bodice-ripping days of Frank Yerby. Already a cult figure by the late ‘50s, not even the plastering of graffiti like “Ayn Rand gives good fountainhead” all over Manhattan could put a dent in her mystique or threaten her cult status among Milton Friedman bobbysoxers and trank-poppers who would melt into John Roger’s LifeSpring or clutch the security blanket of Scientology as soon as these pacifiers appeared on the market. In such a self-help free-for-all, how could Eric Hoffer’s “true believer” not acquire equal footing with Gertrude, the Simon and Schuster kangaroo’s version of Ragged Dick, Dale Carnegie? After all, hadn’t his bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People left Horatio Alger, stuck on something with as little traction as “pluck and luck,” eating dust among all the pimple strokers in the back lot jobs and rear-ended marriages?
But there was more afoot than just motivational speakers mouthing in sync. Something deranged and sociopathic was loose in the country—an unhatched battiness on whose radar screen Ayn Rand, for all her insistence that social Darwinism was Berberism with a human face, was only one isolated blip. Those muffled (but still very loud) sounds heard by those with their ears to the ground were the stirrings to life of a counter-counterculture before its Hegelian Other, the counterculture of the Beats (and their trailing afterbirth, the Hippies) could even declare itself. By the summer of 1964, this “revolt of the rubes” proved as expeditious in bringing uncivil rites to the Republican party’s lowest reaches as the Rand explosion and similar phenomena did in restoring Trimalchio’s Feast to Wall Street. So totalizing was the move from Suspenderville to Sunbelt, it seemed almost akin to interplanetary travel. Though not immediately obvious, the releasing of the not yet named “silent majority” from its longstanding Trappist-like quiescence by its new mouthpiece, Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona, would shake up the long-standing equipoise between the two dominant political parties in the United States to an extent not seen for a half-century.
Where “serious” poetry dovetailed with “art of war” strategizing was anybody’s guess; but that it was finding its way into fewer personal libraries and onto fewer radar screens scanned by the media hegemony’s Sun Tzus than its exponents cared to admit was an impression that, despite the appearance of a grizzled Robert Frost on JFK’s inaugural platform, even casual scrutiny confirmed. Beyond the aeries of tax write-off publishing (whose book lists tended to be assembled by tweedy academics of careerist reach and dilettantish grasp), financial pickings for poets were about what a wasteland of midcult business-as-usual would be expected to yield. It was a time when both fat poets with slim volumes and slim poets with fat volumes started from dreams of immortality to find obsolescence staring them in the face. After the war, the poetry reading (always more dispositive of outcome than income) had settled depressingly into the redoubt of pimply-faced adolescents who, if male, were usually gay or on the way to becoming so, and if female, were so raked by sweaty-thighed adolescent fantasies that dreams of servicing a kidnapped Dylan Thomas as a pis-aller were not only rampant but held failure-proof, if the snatch was handled well. Its sole remaining demographic—the eau-de-cologne-ed dowagers and marginally more youthful cleavages with eager divorcees crouching behind them—comprised a mountain of incommensurables that only a Rasputin could have scaled sexually. But few Casanovas plied that circuit of minor poets, alongside whose leavings a Drayton’s or a Gascoigne’s lie remaindered, though unlike the Layzers, Matchetts and McGraths of 400 years later, not entirely forgotten. The mere suggestion that any of their names might someday grace The New York Times’ bestseller list would have met with a breezy ganz meshugah from the entire American Psychiatric Association. For who, besides misfits like themselves, would relish squandering an evening on the unraveling of a reef knot wound rhetorically about a Brueghelian mise-en-scène of “hunters in the snow” jigsawed into tiny bookish pieces; or with a letter reeking of innigkeit tinged with heresy and guilt sent by William Tyndale to John Frith, his “most loyal disciple” and, if the gossip is true, comrade-in-arms? The very question seems supra-rhetorical. Even the two poets around whose works appearing in the Hall, Pack, and Simpson anthology the issue was made to arise, Joseph Langland and Edgar Bowers, would today likely agree that for all but the most tradition-directed (and youth-challenged) readers, the rapsheet allure of an Eminem would unfailingly trump the de rigueur mortising of puzzle palaces, whether raised on vellum according to New Critical prescription or traced from templates owing more to neo-Victorian or Georgian building codes.
But that is to cast Now’s shadow on Then, rather than the reverse. Given to playing at Cirque de Soleil with penumbras, historians are not all that vigilant when it comes to rumors of influence bounced rebarbatively off influence exerted by rumors. For always at hand is that class of adverbials masquerading as legitimate time zones—then and now, here and heretofore, the two-handed engine of forever and ever—which remains as loopy in its execution of homological figure-eights as do immanence and imminence (temporal homonyms equally out of phase with one another) eternally frozen in their homoiousian/homoousian incompatibility. When viewpoints obscured by prejudice are merely sublimated instead of being fully overcome, polemics unrecapturable in their original vehemence erupt in bumper sticker-like flashbacks as impossible to keep down as salmonella-laden food. The sociological shorthand commonly used to underwrite these flashbacks is seldom more than lip service paid to unlaid ghosts; as a rationale it gets little mileage anyplace but where the on-ramp for damaged vehicles merges with the Autobahn of lost causes. They are but pretexts—and poor ones at that—for reviving old culture wars and for jumpstarting sodalities which once set countercultural hearts a-thumping, like the Spanish Civil War did in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the cult of Che and Fidel residually do today. The class warfare brought to a head in 1957 by the insertion of the Hall, Pack and Simpson anthology into the literary debate was given yet a further schizophrenic twist just in the way the book was sent out into the world. New Poets may have been marketed as a “sewn-bound” quality paperback, but for all its “durability” (as distinguished, say, from a “pocket book” of fresh creative work like New World Writing or Discovery), it was, at the price of $1.45, barely a cut above the newsstand cost of any number of “double volumes” issued by New American Library, Bantam Books, and Dell Publications. When, after a “phony war” of three years, the masterclass of non-rhymers assembled by Donald M. Allen for Grove Press appeared as a riposte to the formalist challenge thrown out by Hall, Pack and Simpson, it came out in a somewhat larger format at approximately the same price. (As to its precise cost, my memory is less precise than it might be: it was either $1.75 or $1.95. But after 16 printings—and there is no question of memory here, a copy of the book being in my hand—its price had risen to only $2.95)
This latter outfit, along with its racy subsidiary, Evergreen Books, was controlled—“run” being too colorless a word—by the irrepressible Barney Rosset, and was as responsible for climatizing the Beat phenomenon in the ‘50s and ‘60s as Norman Granz was for fanning the frissons of bebop during that same period. (Through the indenturing power of his twin plantations, Verve Records and Jazz at the Philharmonic, Granz literally gave voice to the Bird, Diz and Bud revolution which then went on to dampen enthusiasm for dance bands like Benny Goodman’s and Artie Shaw’s. Even allowing for the service Granz rendered to American music, it can’t be denied that, had justice prevailed, the concert promoting end of his business would, should have borne the title “Jazz at the Hegemonic.”) The fracas in question was not in the least like the sort of debate staged by the Oxford Union in which “Tweeds” and “Sandals” (again, Donald Hall’s dichotomy) faced off over some arbitrary “Resolved that . . . .” Centering on issues far to the left and/or right of dress or personal demeanor, it transcended those differences of opinion that arise in the ordinary way between groups with differing philosophies or critical approaches. The brouhaha it unleashed, as resistant to mediation as the Second Crusade, has so far managed to outlast the Cold War, with which it was roughly coincident, and could conceivably survive the fatwa recently declared by America against Islamic terrorism—though that seems likely to go the distance, if for no other reason than that the cold warriors who pronounced it (the names Rumsfeld and Cheney are of some documentary interest here) are survivors of a doomsday scenario once micromanaged by them.
All that, however, is neither there nor here. New Poets was intended as an alternatively addictive shot in the arm for poetry fanciers who found the Fidelista-style rising on the left as noisome and unkempt as did its editors and the more tight-assed of its contributors. To them, “Beat poet” was a term both moronic and oxymoronic for a sans-culotte who declaimed with fitful intelligibility a music from which all melody had been evacuated like a Tennessee trailer park before a twister. Elevating this band of misfits to a “generation”—a bit of free publicity, courtesy of the media—only made things worse. Gild a rabblement and it remains a rabblement, regardless of pains taken to turn its warts into beauty spots. Such cosmeticizing took on additional absurdity when the poet in question was the Beats’ designated wild man and clown, Gregory Corso, a K-Mart Keats who had the effrontery to suggest that the following could make the rent needed to live in a real poem:
It was lovely hair once
That the traditionalist camp (cultivating camp more than tradition) stayed as far away from the welfare rolls as it found inhumanly possible is amply demonstrated in this flashing of moral soup-and-fish, “The Rainy Season” by William Meredith:
As boring as the fact of a marvelous friend
Though no walkway to the stars, this at least sets the pedestrian to work where it will seem overqualified rather than running fast to stay in place. The problem—and it extends to much of the apprentice work in New Poets—is the collapse of prosody into a kind of halting doggerel in which old coinage is elaborately counterfeited to pass as slugs. The intermittently thumping pentameters give the show away (or would, if Meredith could find someone to take it off his hands), and mark “The Rainy Season” as a poem that merely straddles extremes—of affection and disaffection, of continuity and discontinuity, of plangent dreaming and infernal wakefulness—instead of confronting them head-on. The Corso poem is content to skate thinly on its own bravado, all the while drumming Don Rickles bits into the skull of complacency’s alter id in true flamenco style. As with Elvis (and in no way contravening the famous dictum of Hermes Trismegistus), the hair above is seen as giving promise of fire down below. The poet’s chevelure, mounting to hirsute crescendo, helps deliver the double whammy of a head of hair made further caput by the head beneath, which is of course the poet’s own. At any rate, waved or combed, dirty or washed, it’s all one—hair, that is—except that like the poet in person, unwashed is better than washed because, as every gamin since Rimbaud can attest, dirt sustains a wave better than non-dirt. Besides, apocalyptizes Corso, “Athene requests my unbecoming.”
Yet, while these two poems by Corso and Meredith might appear dissimilar on the compositional level, their differences begin to blur as soon as thematics enters the picture. Corso’s lyric, a veritable cyclone of inimitability, declares that hair is worth a poem so long as it’s blood and not plasma that is drawn, and the stuff is really and truly le sang du poète. “The Rainy Season,” while slicker in the clinches than the hair-piece Corso would have us conflate with the muse’s laurel wreath, can’t quite get past the canebrake of not having been born rich. To the extent that feeling at home with him- or herself ranks high on a poet’s list of priorities, the Corso wins a squeaker over the Meredith, but only because its default setting of “narcissist” convinces us (assuming we’re not ourselves hiding under comb-overs) that what is on a head can be as important as what is in it (and smugly condescending to it).
Though one might never deduce it from the previous sentence, the majority of Americans do wonder if there is a life to be lived beyond the parenthetical, and by that is meant even its upper brackets. Should not more be asked of poetry than just a settling for victories won adventitiously through slippages in the popularity of rival media, or through just slogging on despite warnings sounded by doomsayers regarding the death of verse? Surely poets should demand more for and from themselves than the grubby fifteen minutes of fame bequeathed to every citizen of the technological age by Andy Warhol. For poetry to survive, a book of poems had to take on more than a table-clearing run of quickies with the muse. And there had to be more to its cultural fallout than a handful of brief reviews in academic journals too obscure even to be written off as unknown.
Now, there is little here that the majority of Tweeds or Sandals would have fought over, let alone died a Byronic death to defend. Both factions viewed the spread of corporate iniquity into every nook and cranny of American life as a scandal and a curse. But their ways of expressing opprobrium were on such different wave lengths they hardly seemed to be excoriating the same scandal. The only collective effort the Sandals thought worthy of endorsement was a full spiritual renaissance along Tolstoyan and Dostoievskian lines (if that could be imagined), with all the trappings of a Dionysian resurrection of the body, envisioned by Walt Whitman and approved by D. H. Lawrence, with additional nods of concurrence by the Henry Miller of the Tropics, the Céline of récits noirs like Mort à Credit (Death on the Installment Plan), and a host of Christian mystics and Buddhist bodhisattvas. Though this hardly gives an adequate sense of the heterogeneity of cultural mix that passed muster as “Beat.” Chunkily folded in as well were Black Mountain neo-modernism with its cult of Pound worship; the theatre of the absurd; Sartrean existentialism; the Kafka revival; anti-anti-Communism and the resurgence of Trotskyism; abstract expressionism; the embrace of drugs and the Far East by the Beats; the bop annunciation of Charlie Parker; Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, and Robert Lindner’s The Fifty-Minute Hour; and a landfill of other sources no less heterodox and skimmable by intellectuals for whom “making it” encompassed both brass ring and even brassier carousel.
It was a bizarre time to be alive and putting fingers to typewriter keys. Accounts like John Clellon Holmes’s Go! And Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans indicate that the Beats were much too busy carousing to do much serious writing beyond the scriptomaniacal binges that resulted in works like On the Road materializing on shelf paper rolls. The otherwise preoccupied were often too beat to put their names to anything beyond the occasional check written to cover living expenses. Writing may have been held up as a quasi-magical process by such poets as Black Mountaineer Robert Duncan; but for the typical Beat it was more like the strutting before the crowd of the carny Stompano in the Federico Fellini film, La Strada. What appeared over their signatures (and the protests of many literary critics) was all too frequently a dead ringer for a transcription by a self-styled writer, ad lib, ad hoc, and running off at the mouth, uncontrollably.
On the other side of the coin, the Tweeds mostly comported themselves with self-possession born of more than a touch of noblesse oblige. Whether scions of an Ivy League establishment anointed to be the heirs of T. S. Eliot, or sons of Southern gentlemen wafted north on breezes fanned by the “horse-breeder’s modernism” of Allen Tate and William Faulkner, they approached the altar of verse with all the seriousness of priests officiating at Anglican High Mass. Though not unvaryingly dour or without fire, their poetry was almost never “upbeat” in any sense a Duke Ellington or a Count Basie would have picked up on. It was, to put not too fine a point on it, convoluted as to form, and when anything stood in the way of sufficient reason, it rhymed. The Sandals’ poetry might have seemed generically rudderless, but the Tweeds’ pooped out as though an entire Sargasso was weighing down its progress. At worst, their poems seemed driven from line to line and stanza to stanza by replications of tired conventionalities passed off as triumphs of craft or “strong measures.” Here is John Hollander narrowly averting disaster in making his tetrameters reasonable as well as rhyme-efficient in “The Lady-Maid’s Song”:
When Adam found his rib was gone
Clearly, American poetry has come a long way since lapdogs like this were pushed to hunt. For one thing, there’s hardly an intelligent male reader today who would take kindly to being told that he identified, secretly or otherwise, with that Harley-smoking, massively tattooed, lumpen masculinity which holds women in the resentful disesteem attributed sweepingly to everything male in this poem. The last thirty years have seen a lot of consciousness-raising—well over their heads of some, admittedly—about the damages that result from letting the sexual duplicities sired by men upon women double as standards for interpreting everything from what “no” means on a date to how far “yes” carries when it, rather than what it licensed, is abruptly withdrawn. The whiting out of many sexual gray areas has made getting a divorce in America akin to a felony proceeding and left many males high, dry, and hating themselves for having to say they were sorrier as lovers than they had reason to think they were.
That literature has led the charge in such consciousness raising has not been due entirely to chance. Feminist studies like Madwoman in the Attic have gone to great lengths to remind us that if the distaff side of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre is not wholly sugar and spice, their masculine-antagonist side, as represented by Heathcliff and Rochester, comes perilously close to dysfunctionality’s bleeding edge. Abjects of passion rather than objects, these two compagnons de stalle—no, the heck with euphemisms: studs—from the Brontëan écurie not only left much (beyond all the throbbing sublimity) to be desired, but enough erotic havoc in their wake from Haverford to Hollywood and back, to make 1847, the year those potboiling twins joined at the clitoris, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, dropped the other sexual shoe, a Wunderjahr to remember in the annals of stroke books for women.
Despite efforts by D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and other Anglo-American writers to liberate sex from the ravages of prudery (much of it, in their view, an overheated inversion of its opposite), within a little more than a century the frissons secured by the daughters of Madame de Staël would again be rendered subordinate to paternalisms radiating repressively through not just the neural pathways of the American woman’s sex life, but through its social, economic and juridical channels as well. The Frauendienst freiheit proclaimed by orthodox Freudians might have ceded the bitch goddess her inch, but they made sure she kept her leash length to no more than a yard. And that unyielding severity extended itself to those godchildren of psychoanalysis, the Beats. Though, nominally at least, more Reichian (or Reikian) in outlook (and outreach) than Freudian, they approached the feminine Other in their lives more like the Stephen Boyd character did the Charlton Heston one in the film Ben-Hur than like that no less implausible Her, who, as the recherché femme-là of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s pronomial hymn to Paris sans everybody’s Helen (1960), leads the author a merry chase through genderscapes long ago plowed silly by H. Rider Haggard. Put rather more crudely, they were expected to man the galleys and keep themselves horizontally available for R & R whenever the purgatory of the Road freed up their Sal Paradises for a bit of respite and repose. They were not even welcome as “come withs” on their men’s journey to the Inner Station where “apocalypse now” moments with one’s moribund bourgeois self could be induced with the help of a little heroin, hashish or peyote.
But things weren’t really all that great for women where the formalists hung out, either. Their marginalization by editors supposedly entrusted with the upholding of civilized values in the new American century can in retrospect be viewed as nothing less than scandalous, despite the token inclusion of female poets in this toney anthology or that. A glance at New Poets of England and America’s table of contents immediately reveals the enormous disparity between the number of male poets and that of females represented. Of the 52 poets selected, only six are female—barely more than a ninth of the total. By any standard, a gender imbalance of such proportions is thoroughly inexcusable. And so it should be. The world of American letters no longer needs an Adrienne Rich (who by the way did make it into the volume herself) to teach it that uni-sex writing done entirely by males makes of gender nothing but a patois and a gibberish, all the bloviations of a Thomas W. Laqueur and notions about “made-up sex” to the contrary notwithstanding. We still recognize one or two of the non-male names recognized by Hall, Pack and Simpson as peers—May Swenson and, of course, Adrienne Rich—but the closest any of the six female poets comes to protesting women’s stay-at-home status in this nest of harpoons is Catherine Davis’s rather mousy villanelle, “After a Time.”
After a time, all losses are the same.
It’s hard not to see this as anything but a whist with loss too easily won. In such a poem what comes round again indefatigably is not a circle of fire or of fate, but only blithe recurrences of lines and rhymes—and more for their own sake than for any going under’s casus belli.
Yet all nitpicking aside, The New Poets of England and America does in fact stand out as one of the landmark collections of “nearly new” verse (the qualification is needed because most of its poems had already appeared elsewhere) of both its type and its time. The noted Auden scholar Monroe K. Spears has observed—albeit through the astigmatism of an early ‘70s’ purple haze—a metamorphic grandeur beginning to take hold in American poetry circa 1957, with the onset of “’open’ (or naked or confessional)” verse associated, on the formalist side, with Lowell, Plath, Sexton, and Snodgrass, and, on the Beat /Black Mountain side, with so-called “open field” poets Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg, Duncan and Snyder. Formalists who for whatever reason missed leaping onto the new bandwagon of confessionalist verse were, in Spears’s view at least, left out in the cold. Himself not quite under the spell of postmodernism, Spears wraps up his study of “modernism in twentieth century poetry,” Dionysus and the City (1972), by welcoming, if with only one open arm rather than two, the “mini-revolution” of “the movement that began in 1957.”
In the revolution of the 1950s . . . there was a drive away from
In this drive toward confessionalism formalist and anti-formalist poet met and found a measure of consanguinity, if only where bloodlines thinned to permit intertransfusional life support. On what other common ground might a W. D. Snodgrass and a Charles Olson come together to compare mythologies and usable pasts? Only in the confession booth could the Maximalism of Olson co-draft an open form/forum remonstrance to separateness with the seamster’s rhetoric of Snodgrass, as broached in Heart’s Needle.
While the shared intention of New Poets’ editors might have been to show where the best recent poetry had been rather than where, as the ‘60s loomed dead ahead, it was going, their hopes that the future would ultimately vindicate the formalists could be read without a great deal of haruspicating and scrying. The poets whom they favored (redolent of orthodoxy as they were) left little doubt that it would be the St. Elmo’s fire of a W. H. Auden tutored by Thomas Hardy that would lead in the new millennium in Anglo-American verse and not the altarwise owlight of an already fading Dylan Thomas. Nor (keeping to the same side, if different littoral, of the Atlantic), would faith with the modernism just past be kept through the reiterative apprentice work of Pound and Williams clones; no, not reasonably through the Moore-ish mosaics of Elizabeth Bishop, with their eye for animal lustres and ear cocked for tourists’ accidentals. If such faith were sustainable at all, it would only be made so via the Platonized agonies of a Delmore Schwartz or a Robert Lowell’s principled disinterest in anything less upending than Kierkegaardian leaps into the vortex, well beyond the battening of booby hatches and the cries of cormorants choking on sea-borne hosts. If the Tweeds (already duly Christianized by Eliot the Elder who went abroad and Eliot the Younger who refused to stay home) saw themselves as martyrs for whom the crossbeams of metre and traditional form were the only legitimate bridge to salvation, how, forced rhymes or no, could they settle for anything less excruciating than the “Between Porch and Altar”’s exacerbations and “After the Surprising Conversions”’s Judas tree of doubt?
Still, a number of poets, though sympathetic to the Auden line, could hear at their back and from not very far off the wingèd chariot of Black Mountain hurrying near, propelled by the chariot-team of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, which, if not quite out of the Phaedrus, reared as proxies of the nimbuses of war. The antipodes separating moribund from emergent poetic style in America (though less so in England, where the ubiquitous Angries, intent on having “chips with everything,” espoused views as narrow as the shoulders bearing the chips lesser mortals were to enjoined to try to knock off) were mirrored by the antipathies which had had town and gown cocking each other’s snook since at least the late ‘40s. Much of the hostility between them sprang from class distinctions relating to who did what in World War II; and insofar as it captured, with acerbity (and not a little self-righteousness) the antagonisms between prep school up-and-comers and dogfaces barely less disadvantaged than the grim Appalachians Walker Evans photographed for Life magazine during the Great Depression, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, and the short stories of John O’Hara continue among the least unreliable guides to these social inequities. (The vastly better written, if too self-consciously Melvillean, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer would have outdistanced Wouk’s without breaking a sweat, had it not conflated sociological swamps with metaphysical fens.) Enlistees—and draftees lower on the food chain even than they—tended to stick at ranks not much above infantryman, Coast Guardsman, plain G.I.. By contrast, the officer class appeared to swim effortlessly in an aquarium of privilege, of old school ties, of City connections intricate as a printed circuit board. The proletarian contingent dispersed its Corsos, Ginsbergs, and Ferlinghettis, as the joke went, as a matter of course that was mostly intercourse, and was concentrated for the most part in the sprawling cities on the two coasts. The postwar American elite, on the other hand, now flourishing by leaps and bounds, floated a social register ranging from a Donald Finkel or a Robert Mezey, whose gifts prompted few fees, to a Robert Lowell or a James Merill, the first of whom was directly descended from the Mayflower Lowells, while the second, as scion of the family responsible for founding Wall Street’s legendary “Thundering Herd,” was heir to a fee-in-gift beyond all but a Plantagenet’s dream of an uncommon weal.
The thirst for new kinds of writing, cutting across genres and exceeding in scope and penetration the banalities of popular culture, had by midcentury spread throughout all of restless and divided Europe and was beginning to make itself felt in an America deeply ambivalent about its runaway ethnic diversity. Nearly everywhere, the preference was for realistic subject matter transubstantiated by surrealist ends and means. Samuel Beckett’s French “entertainment” En attendant Godot (1952; first performed in Paris, 1953) proved by far the most illustrative artwork of the period, carrying in its brace of imponderables the coal of hobo contumely to the Newcastle of tragoedia del arte nightmarishly holomorphologized into a metaphysical farce too wordy for fun. “A play in which nothing happens twice” was one reviewer’s response to the work of this tragicomedian; “a tramp through an ontological swamp,” the untelltale heart of another’s. But by its odd success, and to the point of notoriety as well of its sequel Fin de Partie (or in English, Endgame, 1957), the message was duly conveyed: the artistic formula for that absurd time was one in which unresolvable contraries were to be wed to one another, while the marriage bed in which they were constrained to lie had perforce to be divorced from all traditional modalities of predication. A closely contemporaneous, though lamentably unfunny, knockoff of these works by the American theatricalist Edward Albee, The American Dream (1959) rode their coattails for a time and then dropped, quite unceremoniously, away. An earlier play of his, The Zoo Story (1958), and a later one, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1960-61), almost made amends for this impertinence, but defending it as drama conducted by other means, as its author tried to do, convinced no one. Conversely, the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet’s pretentious attempts to explain away his conducting the hardboiled American fiction of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler by other means similarly met with disbelief everywhere but on Paris’s Left Bank, where there was rather more vague (not to mention plain ordinary vague) than nouvelle in much of the haut couture then being put up for export. A black day it was for noir when The Erasers entered the hall of fame as a classic novel of the gumshoe genre. Indeed, as bad, one might say, as elevating on the basis of supposition alone Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice to immortality’s single digits.
Nonetheless it’s highly doubtful that the editors of New Poets could have persuaded the relatively new publishing enterprise, Meridian Books, in 1957 that verse by writers whose names were hardly household words was worth the outlay of whatever it cost to market that oddest of oxymorons, a mass produced “quality paperback,” if the feeling were not abroad that fine verse by relatively unknown poets could find a limited audience if brought out in a pleasing format and at a reasonable price. But it was more than just a feeling. In England, the trial balloon in the late ‘40s of Penguin New Writing, a paperback anthology edited by John Lehmann of the prestigious Hogarth Press and showcasing the work of mostly young, and in some cases unpublished authors, had achieved a degree of acceptance quite beyond the expectations of its publishers. (Lehmann also for a time hosted the BBC radio program Soundings, which featured live readings of poems, stories and extracts from novels- in-progress. It, too, was greeted warmly by critics accustomed to taking their cue from bulletins periodically issued from T. S. Eliot’s London office in 24 Russell Square.)
The most promising venture in this vein was the equivalent in the United States to Penguin’s flagship magazine: New American Library’s New World Writing, which made its appearance in September 1952, prefaced by a two-page note to the reader, in which Arabel J. Porter was duly walled in as series editor and the rationale for the enterprise spelled out in less than thrilling boilerplate:
. . . The intention of New World Writing is to provide a friendly medium through which new, promising, genuine and vigorous talent may be communicated to a wide and receptive audience, and also to provide an instrument for serious letters and criticism. It has no prejudiced link to any special school, group, cult or movement, academic, literary or political, in the field of criticism. Our publishing experience, and our close association with people who write, edit and publish books, constantly demonstrate that today’s new writing becomes tomorrow’s “good reading for the millions.” Therefore we want New World Writing to attract and interest the significant writers of the future.
By the third issue (out in May 1953), the field was becoming significantly more crowded. The preliminary note “To the Reader” welcomed to the good ship New Writing the companion crews of discovery, edited by John Aldridge and Vance Bourjaily; the Partisan Review anthology series published by the always forward-looking Avon Books; and New Voices, “consisting of material produced by the creative writing group at the New School in New York . . . [and] published by Permabooks in paper-bound book form.” Nor was the search for new talent kept to the well trodden precincts of professional, professorial, and self-professed writers. Work by promising university students, encouraged by the proliferating choice of venues for their poetry and fiction, also began to find appreciators in the unlikely location of the trade paperback boardroom. In September 1955 New Campus Writing, the collaborative brainchild of Nolan Miller and Judson Jerome (and midwived by Bantam Books), joined the party, boasting contributor recommendations by “such famous writer-teachers as Wallace Stegner, Karl Shapiro, Malcolm Cowley, Carl Hartman, Walter Havinghurst, and many others.”
So there was hardly a shortage of talent pools for editors of new verse by young writers to draw from. Moreover, some of the lucky few reaching for the brass ring had already basked in the glow of acceptances from flashy new journals like George Plimpton’s The Paris Review, not to mention the cream of both the trade and the academic presses, ranging all the way from Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, and The New Yorker to Poets of Today I and II, and The New Orleans Poetry Journal. Of course, the input of Donald Hall (who was then poetry editor of The Paris Review) when The New Poets of England and America was being cobbled together, gave an additional advantage to alumni of that much talked about journal. Robert Bly, Henri Coulette, Robert Layzer, and Charles Gullans were among the beneficiaries of this finessing of bias-free selection, but given the nepotism, mutual backscratching and swapping of significant others that made the publishing world go round, reaching for the Cuban Especials nearest to hand hardly shook that world to its foundations. Being up on the competition was what senior editors of important houses most lost sleep over; and if poems by Richard Eberhart, William Jay Smith, Harvey Breit, Lawrence Josephs, Peter Viereck, Louis Simpson, Eugenio Montale,Theodore Roethke, Jane Mayhall, Ruth Herschberger, James Merrill, Casimir Wierzynski, and Roy Fuller could all be featured in the November 1952 issue of New World Writing, why then, could not Mentor Books legitimately claim to have trapped desire—at least that which lusts after saleable literary exotica—featly by the tail.
Still, there should be no laboring under illusions as regards the economic viability of high end poetry publishing in the mid-‘50s—or at the present time, for that matter. There had to be some sane rationale behind the insistence of Hall, Pack and Simpson that the poets and poems selected to appear in their jeweler’s case of New Formalism be, for the most part, paragons of primness, death masks of severity, and repositories of a lifelessness only a mummy could envy. For seldom in the history of American verse anthologies had the mandarin entered so blithely into a morganatic marriage with the picayune. And to drive home this most unmissable of points with what has to be one of the most egregious uses ever of the definite article—The New Poets of England and America—well, this had to be a case of the de trop trawling the over-the-line. How could they have remained so tone deaf to the Siren call of “Loosen up!” beginning to echo across America just after mid-century? This needs to be looked into, and not just as an instance of inattention bordering on the comatose. But first, some necessary background to that all-important lapsus of retention.
With precious few exceptions, volumes of verse, even by poets as seaworthy as Robert Frost, W. H. Auden and e. e. cummings, have been bottom-lined by cost accountants as, at best, loss leader items, and those same senior editors, whatever their feelings about skimming profits from bestsellers like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Caine Mutiny to fund authors whose sales tended to stall in the hundreds rather than thousands, were better at launching boats than making waves. While it is true that a book of poetry as a rule requires less hands-on editing than the average novel or that rarity, the work of belles lettres, getting one in the pipeline and through the press could be an undertaking more suggestive of a rite for an overdressed cadaver than for the instauration of a Virgilian classic. (That some might view these as homologous if not queasily identical need not delay us here.) Rosenberg and White’s anthology of essays Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (1957; and still, fortunately, in reprint) spells out in sad, though well documented detail the situation facing writers (as well as their finders and keepers) during the Age of Conformity, that Gehenna of the soul to whose depredations Norman Mailer responded with the fecal mantra, “The shits are killing us.”
It was also about this time that younger poets started realizing that utterly moribund volumes of verse could be useful when listed on resumes submitted with grant applications and in competing for poetry prizes and awards. Sales figures on their books virtually ceased to matter—indeed, assumed the same irrelevancy as they came to have for P.R.-minded publishing executives accustomed to writing off losses on poetry titles in precisely the way corporations such as Mobil Oil would later create tax-deductible slush funds for “non-commercial” TV shows like the long-running Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. Creative writing sinecures for poets (and novelists) at places like the University of Iowa were already mushrooming (some said toadstooling), and the stage was set for those captive student audiences compelled from the ‘60s on to read for academic credit what their professors had managed to churn out on busman’s holidays from “lit. crit.” in this publish-or-perish mill or that. No doubt some skillful apologist for PoMo could make the argument that books like The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966) by John Barth would have succeeded on their own, unaided by the money-making centrifuge of the university boom in “postmodern” writing. But to sell that argument would require a tongue with enough silver at its disposal to launch a gravy boat the size of a Cunard cruise ship.
If the explosion in attendance at American colleges and universities during the ‘60s and ‘70s had a salutary effect on anything other than a sagging job market, it was to give the stalled, even moribund avant garde a new lease on life by throwing unheard of amounts of money at writers unused to such attention. No more having to put up with rejections by foundations grown stingy with all but the stodgy; no more panic attacks at power lunches with book editors in which the lion’s share of power—and most of the lunch—flowed to the Brooks Brother manikin paying the tab; and headiest of all, no more having to sweat alimony payments while impecuniously dating the doe-eyed Venus (and/or Adonis) in the front row of lectures with titles like “The Incomprehensible Lyric Poet, from Dickinson to Berryman.” Phantasmagorical sums were thrown at the demanding who had not long before seen much smaller ones scoffed at when requested politely. Novelists and short story writers, long out of graduate school but able to make the grade as bestselling authors without academic connections, often discovered that their suddenly rising fortunes constituted a comeuppance of an unexpected kind. (Bean counters would go on viewing poets as drugs on the market until a handful of John Ashberys and Billy Collinses proved that dodos could at least produce, if not reproduce.) Meanwhile, on the back lot, on sound stages remote from the front office, the picture was anything but rosy. As ever more money poured into publishing, the significant others of any number of writers woke to see themselves demoted, sans warning, to insignificant others, with a variety of disaster sequences ensuing, in which geysering liquor bills and emergency appointments with therapists arced in symmetrical curves. The compulsion to double down on royalties obtainable only through the cranking out of more of what had earned them in the first place only served to quadruple untenables in which Edna St. Vincent Millay’s dual-flamed candle found its true objective correlative. For while the makers of Dexedrin were enjoying a brakeless and unstoppered run on their market, the producers of Valium were likewise seizing an opportunity as golden as their own little yellow gateway to calm.
But this dry run of the self-medicating ‘60s could have probably been phoned in, given the ever-present threat of nuclear war and the vertiginous pace of a U.S. economy determined to synthesize the American Dream into the most potent universal solvent this side of Ice-nine, unveiled in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1962 novel, Cat’s Cradle. By the early ‘50s, fear that human life itself might lack continuance on the planet began making itself felt in the work of writers young enough to be unafraid of the lying dog of McCarthyism, recumbent, though anything but supine, since its minimalist muzzling by the U.S. Senate in 1953. When Allen Ginsberg’s Howl entered the national consciousness in 1956, much of the groundwork for its reception (which, to its less friendly readers, matched the hysteria of the poem itself), had, like its unlikely author, been painstakingly laid. Attacks on Time and Life, the establishment’s major propaganda organs, for their blatant bias and ties to the hidden imperium of the Eisenhower administration’s Castor and Pollux, John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, had, for the first time since their founding, their Hearstwhile publisher, Henry Luce, if not on the run, then on the defensive. A judo chop to the windpipe of ‘50s conformism it most assuredly was; a declaration of independence from ceaseless oppression by narcs, FBI agents, sex police and sedation thugs it was not: though its publicists, both within and outside of the Beat movement, had a vested interest in putting down quietism while simultaneously copping a plea of nolo contendere.
Of course, it is also possible to read Howl against the grain of its own beveling, which is to say, as a declaration of dependence upon addiction as a visionary sponsor and even a muse. And not just to drugs like heroin or to sex pushed to the limits of passivity and impalement; but to hatred for the pseudo-Satanic (not to mention pseudo-Miltonic) beast, Moloch, who, from a pedestal as high as his friend and mentor Carl Solomon’s, commands his own vestibule of the Hell that is Ginsberg’s poem. Not content to merely rattle off a Burroughsesque bill of particulars, Ginsberg shrewdly compartmentalized his spontaneous mindburst to open out impossibly into a vision of karma that is like nothing so much as a navel orange home to pits as well as the regenerative omphalos. Succulent horrors (“who hiccupped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a / sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blonde & / naked angel came to pierce them with a sword”) appear back to back with assignations smarting with the sting of cacti (“Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! / Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and / manless in Moloch!”). There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Howl seized upon by a mass media eager to infuse the celèbre with the aura of a causerie and the Howl ideologically hijacked by antiformalist critics to ensure Ginsberg’s immortality, both as avatar of Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and as shoehorn most likely to smooth the entry of another wise guy named Karl into a Marxist brotherhood already boasting Harpo, Chico, and Groucho as members. All of which confirms, pace Heraclitus, that it is possible to step twice into the same poem, even if more than one pair of waders are required to do it.
It helped that the dynamic Gothamite duo of Lionel and Diana Trilling were involved on both sides of the issue around which the not entirely popular investiture of Ginsberg as heir to the throne of Whitman pointedly revolved. Lionel Trilling, critical biographer of Matthew Arnold and a Columbia University professor of English, had endured a contretemps with the student who would later write Howl and lived to complain about it in a short story orotundly titled “Of This Time, Of That Place.” His wife Diana, editor of The Portable D. H. Lawrence (1947), on the other hand, had felt obliged to soften her husband’s cover-blown assassination of Ginsberg with an ambivalent account of a poetry reading at which the poet did his inimitable thing before an appreciative New York crowd. As often with the Trillings, they looked best when appearing to have it both ways while making sure to offend no one by claiming victory for one side or the other. He, prone to agonizing over his apostasy from the radical left and, before it was conferred upon him, over being a Jew without tenure on a faculty prickly with W.A.S.P.s uncut and gentlemen’s agreements tout court, felt that to be human and intellectual meant being unrelievedly under siege. She, the Partisan Review’s answer to Q. D. Leavis, had little to atone for beyond having been born female and thrown into a den filled to incapacity with over-lionized males. She seemed to have exempted her own spouse from the rogue’s gallery to which all the masculine overachievers deemed to be in her way were consigned, though not without some loss of sheen to his veneer. As his polestar waxed over academia, hers constellated about it luminaries well outside the scholarly orbit, like Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy.
Under cover of fiction, and herself a refugee from a Pharaonic league of notions, McCarthy archly attacked the ingrowing of elites in Birds of America (1971), a novel whose congruency to Candide allowed the whole of the incestuous American educational establishment to be cleverly indicted as a Panglossian nightmare envisioning not the best, but the worst of all possible worlds. Its underslung (and un-Voltaireanly Jewish) hero, Peter Levi, flees the New World, only to find ‘60s Paris living out Rimbaud’s temps des assassins, with Nature rather than God in its crosshairs. Her book’s subtext was as clear as it was disturbing: not just the New World but the Old also, was succumbing to a metastasis of paved-over academe, which in its way resembled a plague of strip malls more than the gymnasia of Plato and Aristotle. And the promise of its malling strippers, to submit, under a Nietzschean eye that never closed, all three of Bacon’s idols to riveting deshabille, had merely managed to eviscerate the Aphroditean body of Truth, and with a flourish of Houdini-esque audience distraction, flogged the spectacle to tout Paris as a light show as triumphantly erotic as it was daringly deconstructive. To turn Camus’s well known axiom on its head, if everyone is fooled, then no one is: the grandfathering out of old illusions will proceed apace, regardless of diversions designed to keep the rabble amused. History has a way of having its way with dissenters, with no favors being withheld. Would the univers concentrationaire-as-modern multiversity—not quite what was foreseen by its architect and founder, the president of the University of California, Clark Kerr—prove a liberal Inferno, a Western mutation of the Soviets’ gulag archipelago? McCarthy’s conclusion to Birds of America sounds an ominous “stay tuned,” but is mostly content to let undogged sleepers lie.
Myths ought not to be tampered with, and every man’s Candide—even Leonard Bernstein’s—must go out on the prescribed homiletic note. Everyman must be assured that, within nourriture terrestre’s grand design, boardings, mountings and general ravishment will cease, come earthquake or inquisition, and that in the dispensation to come, starter shitloads of manure will grace all gardens indiscriminately. Which is not to say the old mythical shirts of flame can’t be resized on contemporary blocks, or that the Augean smell of stables changes with every new generation of horse’s ass. It’s just that the more things remain the same, the more change adapts to altered circumstances, asserting its presence only where it can make itself scarce. This is coterminous with Derridean doubletalk only in part. What here offers itself to hand, if glances be earnest, is lode, not load. The undeconstructable vein thought mineable by the writers included in New Poets is sluice-rich and assay-poor, the bald sense of which is that its uses of myth are more parvenu than flush with inherited wealth. Classical borrowings are rarer than might be supposed; many titles betray instead a preference for myth’s first cousins: folklore (often medieval) and Old World sites reclaimed from adventitious wartime visitation. When archetypal venues are selected, they more often than not seize upon biblical themes and conundrums designed to make poetically nettlesome what is already a crown of thorns to the faithful. Thus, Louis Simpson’s “The Man Who Married Magdalene” and “John the Baptist” each add a Yeatsian coagulant to a hemophiliac biblical crux, leaving the reader to ponder whether Christian understanding as a result is more liable to suffer a crippling stroke, or less. Similarly, in “Adam’s Footprint,” by the even more up-tight Vassar Miller, original sin figures as a broken-backed sentence weighed down by human, not divine, hypotaxis. The child may indeed, as Wordsworth claimed, be father to the man, but each prefigures the other’s sin in roly-poly bugs scrunched or “crooked steps wrenched straight to kill”:
Once as a child I loved to hop
Only a poem retrofitted with the sort of rigor-mortised casuistry summonable by John Crowe Ransom in one theoturgically skewed poem after another could table its motion of evil with anything like the Beau Brummelesque torpor with which these stanzas of Simpson’s float their illusion of weightiness. Even allowing for those precautions ‘50s poets “under the influence” of Auden took to avoid seeming sermonically impertinent to the point of endorsing a Kierkegaardian “I” not specifically dotted by the Master, the reader of “Adam’s Footprint” can only watch helplessly as the many-mansioned home truths on which the poem rests coagulates into the ersatz spirituality routinely dispensed by televangelists. (In such pseudo-biblical rant, the curdled milk of Pauline kindness overwhelms the genuine gospeller’s way with Truth and Life.) Thus, flying blind into the continental fog bank of the New Criticism, these poets found it difficult to resist the temptation to wax theological about, among other things, the contemporary waning of good manners. With ardor rather more tortuous than required, they spin paradox upon paradox that without being bidden convolute into Job-lot howlers like Archibald MacLeish’s revenge on things biblical, J. B., writ small. Simpson’s scrabblings (the term being more context-friendly here than in Miller’s poem) raise clouds of safe-house dust out of a fear of raising hackles. In the end there is as little redeeming madness to Simpson’s method (and Methodism) as there is in unsurprising conversion of dream to barren exemplum. The twenty-one quatrains seeking to recapitate this “John the Baptist” bring nothing to the hubris of “platter and sword” that was not there before. In the demoralized pantheon broached by Simpson’s poem, gods may wreak but true havoc is mortal in its dream of latterliness. Are we really so posthumous (pace Nietzsche) that we need the Liebestod sung in parabolic in order to sacralize our own démarche with casuistry?
Or with uneventfulness and boredom, which weigh more heavily on most of the poets included in this anthology than spiritual dryness or the fading flickers of lumen siccum. Over and over the fact is driven home that, whatever their aesthetic liens, the wreakers of these temporizations, craft-ridden as they are, need a life—if not for themselves, then surely for their poetry. What, after all, is likely to spark such rhyming automata as, say, Elizabeth B. Harrod’s “Sonnet Against the Too-Facile Mystic”? Well, in the case of this poem at least we haven’t too far to look to have our curiosity quenched. “[After reading After Many a Summer Dies the Swan]” appears just beneath the poem’s title, and now we know: the poet has polished off (out of boredom? to fuel a research project?) one of Aldous Huxley’s lesser novels (only Time Must Have a Stop, Island, and The Genius and the Goddess are of grosser import in the Huxley canon) and was led? moved? driven? to sum up her response to it in of all things a sonnet. But how respond to this response?
Secret in bed the lustful with soft cries
novel of 1939 is, like so many of his other books, about much and little.
What is uniquely disconcerting about his fiction is that it’s about much
and little simultaneously. Read enough of Huxley’s prose and you soon realize
that the generalist who lucubrates on everything from the psychology of
altered states to Wordsworth in the tropics writes about everything in a
way that transcends the generics of both fiction and non-fiction. After Many a Summer is about Southern California, the quest for
immortality, good and evil angels, history and historicide, or the willed
death of time and its circumlocution, eternity. But it is also about what
remains of us in the wake of a cosmic madness whose on-again, off-again
affair with reason has made a persona
non grata of the human soul, and about the little, blown up to a
technologizing muchness, that by the ‘30s had landed “Now you see a
Nazi, now you don’t” recidivists like Martin Heidegger adrift after
the War in his own Jewless slough of despond.
End of Part One: Part Two Will Appear Next Month