You and the House of Poetry

This little bit of writing is meant to a brief guide the Poetry Mind Map. The Poetry Mind Map is meant to be my little enticement and perhaps even overbearing, parent-ish jib to emphasize what a large and exciting decision it is to become a poet. The minute you declare yourself a poet or even a wanna-be-poet, or part-time poet, you have taken a step into a history. This is really nothing special or singular about being a poet. If you had decided to be physicist, then there is that long history before and after Einstein. Or to become a lawyer, there is the history of the Supreme Court and everything else. To be a doctor, there is Galen and Hippocrates looking over your shoulder, in addition to Pasteur. You get the picture, I hope. I say this, because there are some people who think that “The Poet” is the most individual of the individuals and that one just writes what one writes and is either a genius (I hope) or not (I fear.) But being a poet is just like being anything else; it is being part of a particular history and culture. You can either be aware of it or unaware of it, but you are part of it nonetheless. To my way of thinking, you might as well be aware of it.

So you are a poet. Most likely, in this class, you are an American Poet of the early 21st Century. What have the previous 150 years given you?


The Nineteenth Century:

Our chart begins with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. They are the two halves of the tradition that the 19th Century gave us. Whitman is sprawling, enthusiastic, pagan (though perhaps not officially so). Dickinson is tight, generally polite, Protestant. Both are strong individuals, both balance an outward and inward concern, the world and the self. Whitman is both an urban man and a person of the wilderness; Dickinson is small town and suburbs. But both were outsiders; neither were the darlings of the establishment. Whitman was too wild and self-taught. Dickinson was too shy, withdrawn, and private. Whitman is holistic and wholistic; Dickinson is fragmented and singular.

In the middle of the chart, I have placed the mainstream tradition as it develops—often from outsiders being added into it, but eventually many become mainstream, as Whitman and Dickinson become mainstream by the 1920’s or so. But this tradition is that of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Johnson, Pope, Blake, the English Romantics and the English Victorians, the Americans Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant, Lanier, and so on. These writers and a few more make up “The tradition” of verse in English. At the end of the 19th Century, Whitman and Dickinson were not part of the tradition yet. Whitman’s lines and meters were too free; Dickinson’s too clipped and broken.


Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century:

There were two influences that came to the writers of the early 20th Century that were, in themselves, reactions to The Tradition. First, the Symbolists writers of late 19th Century France—Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme—wished to push poetry beyond mere description and more toward an use of language that express large abstract concepts in images and symbolic gestures. Second, the Surreal and Dada writers that worked in dreamlike, beyond-reality images and in nonsense and randomization and other confrontations with conformity.


The 1920’s and 30’s:

In America, we have the great writers that came of age in the 20’s and 30’s.

  • Sandburg, Masters, Lindsay: The Midwestern Poets,
  • William Carlos Williams: New Jersey and Greenwich Village
  • Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Hilda Doolittle: The Imagists
  • S. Eliot: St Louis and England
  • e cummings: Harvard
  • Wallace Stevens: New England
  • Robert Frost and E. A. Robinson: New England
  • Robinson Jeffers: California
  • Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and others: The Harlem Renaissance
  • Allen Tate and John Crowe Ranson: The Fugitive Poets in the South

All of these writers had to, in some way, confront the legacies of The Tradition, and the challenges that Surrealism, Dadaism, and Symbolism. Each of the poets are unique in the ways they reacted to the past, but they also have various and overlapping similarities. For instance, Sandburg, Williams, Frost, Jeffers and Langston Hughes all remained very loyal to their American roots. But Williams furthered the goals of free verse and the focus on the image, while Frost remained committed to traditional verse. Stevens, Eliot, and cummings were all greatly influenced by the European traditions, but Stevens’ work is forward thinking and more philosophical, Eliot’s influenced by a nostalgia for a passing culture and Christianity, and cummings is both lyrical and experimental.

And, of course, there are a hundred more poets of this time period that I am not mentioning. Many writers simply took the tradition they received and wrote within it. Some read Whitman and wrote more poems that are just like his. And I suppose the same is true for Emily Dickinson’s fans. Ezra Pound wrote that the one imperative for poets is: Make It New. Notice that the advice isn’t “Make it up.” Simply as advice—if you want to be a famous poet, the most successful poets—in terms of lasting fame—have taken the tradition they received and in some way twisted, subverted, added to it—they kept it but made it new.

The first group to develop out of and separate themselves from these influences were the Objectivist poets of the 1930’s. They were influenced by William Carlos Williams, or rather had many of the same influences as he did. This group included Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen and Carl Rakosi, and Lorine Niedecker. Since “schools of poetry” are made of people and since various people have and develop separate ideas, it is difficult to say exactly what these poets were after except perhaps a clear-eyed, objective view of the world—to pull the poet and poetizing back a bit. In this way, they took what the imagists were doing, and tried to describe the world in simple direct language, that had a cooler, objective tone. If you look at the emotional excesses of, say, e e Cummings, St. Vincent Millay, or even TS Eliot and compare them to Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” you can begin to see the trend.


The 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s:

Most of the poets I have mentioned—those who came of age in the teens and twenties—continued to write and publish until the early sixties. So by the time the fifties rolled around a new generation of poets were coming of age. The most famous group of poets to come out of the fifties were The Beats—a kind of loose group whose most famous members were Ginsberg, Kerouac, Diane Di Prima, Philip Whalen, and Gregory Corso, but included many others. It is not inaccurate to say that this group definitely learned much from Walt Whitman but they grafted his lines on to jazz, with influences from the symbolists and surrealists.

Another group of poets gathered around Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a liberal arts colleges that through the thirties to fifties attracted some of America’s pioneering painters, dancers, and writers. Writers such as Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley and others gathered around the head of the school, Charles Olsen. The poetry of this group is sort of difficult to describe as a group because they varied so. But they focused on free verse, greatly influenced by William Carlos Williams, and some included a great deal of esoteric or mythological knowledge.

In New York another disparate group of writers came to be known as the New York School. These writers include John Ashberry, who has probably become the most highly regarded poet for intellectual types, and is famous for his playful language which is not so easily understood—if it can be understood in a traditional way. Others in the group include Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch.   There is a Beat quality to some of these writers, but there is also a mainstream, even academic quality to them.   I am not sure if Wallace Stevens is an influence, say on Ashberry, but I sense it.   Many of these writers were influenced by the great world of New York painting in the fifties.

Then there was sort of the center of the poetry world in the fifties in the US made up of folks like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Louis Simpson, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, and a few others. As time moved on, they died young or kind of morph into the school called The Confessional Poets. Generally, but not every person in the same way, they abandoned form, moved to free verse, and began to write from a more personal place about their personal lives and the tragedies and troubles of those lives. Writers such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath learned from these poets and joined them. There is a sort of TS Eliot/Robert Frost/Emily Dickinson vibe to their early work, but they move past that.

And there is another group gathered around and influenced by Robert Bly, William Stafford, James Wright, who also began their work in a conservative, traditional way—certainly similar to Frost in is concern for nature and the personal life. As the fifties waned and the sixties began, they too adopted free verse and were greatly influenced by non-English speaking writers. They translated a great number of Latin American and Spanish writers, but also in Bly’s case, Norwegian writers. The influence of fairy tales and other qualities associated with depth psychologist Carl Jung entered their work, and they adapted a quality called “the deep image” which term was actually coined by someone not necessarily closely associated with them. These poets, along with the Black Mountain School and Beats were among the most active in the Anti-Vietnam War movement. I also want to say that these writers picked up something from Robinson Jeffers, but I have no proof of that.

I should also point out a group of writers, whom I do not have on my chart, and these are writers such as Jackson MacLow and John Cage, who, influenced by 12-tone classical music and abstract expressionist painting, created works that leave a great deal up to chance and randomness. Also influenced by Dadaists, their work can be pictographic, or “concrete,” or randomized sounds and words arranged without sense.

Finally, I guess, I should acknowledge the growth of serious pop, folk, and rock music. Much has been said and can still be said about the influence of Bob Dylan and all the “singer-songwriters” that appeared around and because of him. They brought a seriousness, political awareness, depth of personal attachment and conviction to pop songs that had not been there before. I should defend the great song writers of the thirties to fifties—Cole Porter, Gershwin, Carmichael, and others, who were great and clever lyricists. However, there was lack of immediacy to their work that Dylan, Simon, Mitchell, Cohen, Taylor, and so many others brought to their music. Dylan has been clear about the importance of the French Symbolists and the Beats on his lyrics. Paul Simon references A. E. Robinson in one song. I think we would find that almost all of these writers were readers of poetry.


After the 60’s:

Generally these schools, beginning in the late forties (post World War II) and lasting into the Seventies (post Vietnam), were those that dominated American poetry. Perhaps the most important generalized group that grew from these various but somehow connected movements are the so-called identity poets: Chicano, African Americans, Women, Asian, Gay, Lesbian, and so forth. It is not a coincidence that these poets appeared at a time when the political movements also began. Obviously, the African American poetry scene is quiet varied and has roots in the Harlem Renaissance, and further back to 19th Century Spirituals, and further back to Africa. The Chicano poetry world goes back to Spanish poetry and to the poetry of the North American Native populations. But somehow, to my thinking, the confessionals and the Beats, in particular, gave permission for everyone to begin expressing their personal lives, experiences, and truths. In addition, women writers began, through the feminist movement to discover and share centuries of poetry that had been hidden from mainstream culture, and writers began to discover through Plath, Sexton, Rich, Bishop, Levertov, Moore, St. Vincent Millay, and many others, to Dickinson and back to Anne Bradstreet, the United States’ first poet of the “New World.”

Another school of poetics—wildly unorganized yet somehow potently unified on his assault of traditional poetry—is the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school. It traces its influences through the French Symbolists, Surrealists, and Dadists, through Wallace Stevens perhaps, the Objectivists, Black Mountain and the New York School, but in some ways rejects each of those origins. I think of them in the following way. The Beats, the Confessionals, the deep image, and the Identity poets all wish to highlight the “poet,” “the writer,” the “aren’t I a sensitive human being with amazing talents for describing things in startling language.” The Language Poets want to toss aside that kind of poetry and make poetry a more intellectual (less emotional) exercise and a process in which the reader must also be part of the meaning making. Why should, they might say, the writer do all the work—and anyway, since readers do, in fact, create and change meaning of what they read, why not admit that and make that part of the process.



Now we have basically gotten to the world that we live in now. We live in a very international culture—we are very aware of Arabic, Asian, Eastern European poetries, each coming to us with their own poetries. We have kind of the falling away of the singer-songwriter influence in music which is being, has been, replaced by rap and hip hop lyrics and rhythms. We have a great rise in oral poetry/performance poetry to balance the page orientation of so much poetry, perhaps especially Language poetry.  We have the rise of so many undergraduate and graduate programs in writing and we not yet know the influence of these schools. Will they make all young emerging poets sound alike? Will there be the MFA poem?

And perhaps one of the most ironic, but really totally predictable, developments is the return, the rebirth, of Formal Poetry, poetry with rhyme, meters, and traditional forms. There were a few poets in the fifties who continued to write formally when everyone else abandoned it for free verse. They kept at it and by the eighties began to attract significant numbers of fellow poets as fans, supporters and fellow formalists. In my opinion, poetry benefitted both from the abandonment of formal poetry in the forties and fifties, and is benefiting by the return. Just place a formal poem from the turn of the 20th Century next to a formal poem of the 21st Century and, at their best, you see a new idiom and cleverness and musicality. Formal verse had gotten dull and predictable, and now it can be argued that free verse, after sixty to eighty years has gotten predictable and dull.

Now, why did I write all this for you? Because I think that now that you have entered the House of Poetry it would be good for you to know how that house has been constructed. You may have discovered your love of poetry, but poetry has been here a long, long time. Poetry isn’t new. You are new. So it will definitely help you if you discover the layout of the house. You may want to rearrange the furniture, knock out a few walls, recarpet the floors, repaint the cabinets. Great. It’s yours to do with as you want. But it may be good, as you get started, to explore how others before you have done so already. They may have completed your vision before you even had it.. They may have made mistakes that you can avoid. But most of all, all that previous remodeling was pretty cool and the people who did it were amazing and original people and you will probably like them. They are your fellow makers, your community through time. Maybe they will understand you and the things you love even better than some of your friends and family.

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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.