Thursday, August 12, 2010

A revaluation of the New American Poetry

My previous blog post mentioned the terrific new book, Robin Blaser, by Stan Persky and Brian Fawcett, and as promised... here's a look at Fawcett's interesting reassessment of "The New American Poetry." Not since the late Reginald Shepherd wrote on Harriet about its legacy (see here, here, and here) has there been such a detailed - and near-blasphemous! - critique of this enormously influential anthology.

In a section entitled "The New American Poetry and Us," Fawcett writes:

As influences go, the New American Poetry anthology and its principal poets [...] were compelling but not always sanguine. When I stopped publishing verse in 1983 and stopped calling myself a poet and stopped thinking of myself as one, I did so with a sense of having been hustled by The New American Poetry, if not quite betrayed. [...] It was a judgment I came to gradually and reluctantly, and almost without noticing. Yet by the mid-1980s, I'd come to distrust my artistic roots because they and the materials they deployed to construct meaning were unable to defend the particular and local - the very things they proposed to protect - against the new totality of the post-1960 era: the marketplace, corporatism and the cognitive prostheses those forces created to achieve their aims.

Fawcett goes on to conduct a lengthy "autopsy" of the NAP, starting with deep look at its roots in and indebtedness to Olson's "Projective Verse." (I won't comment on that part of Fawcett's essay, but it's fascinating: must reading for anyone who loves or is interested in Olson's work, as well as its influence: it's a great piece of criticism in its own right.) And what he has to say isn't merely a takedown. "Nothing I've argued," he makes clear, "undermines the fact that the New American Poetry in 1960, with its singularity of focus though Olson and its broad range of expressive dissidence, was a uniquely accurate response to the political/cultural tyrannies of the first half of the twentieth century..." He calls the poets of the NAP "a marvelous choir of dissidents singing wildly different songs in different keys," and says that anyone who reads their work alongside the "straight" work of the period "will discover how many good poets were part of it, and how much better their poetry" is. And he outlines at some length - in thirteen sections - what the influence of the NAP and Olson did accomplish, and why it remains compelling.

But his reservations are interesting. It is, he says, very hard

... not to assign a measure of opprobrium to the New American Poetry for the things it missed and for the contemptuous attitudes toward readers it more or less openly encouraged. By itself, that contempt has to bear some responsibility for the intellectual and cultural catastrophe that has reduced literature to the status of cultural craft activity - not that every other genre and movement can't be tarred with the same brush.

He claims that their revolution, when it materialized, was misunderstood by those poets who were on the leading edge of the NAP:

The deep thinkers of the New American Poetry thought that the enterprise of postmodernism was about the extension of private consciousness and thus an occasion for writing about poetry. In the real world, postmodernism has been about the superimposition of economic and fiscal models upon all human activities and the substitution of commodity consumption for meaning and for human solidarity. In this error, the bright lights of the New American Poetry were monumentally self-serving, and their errors seeded my generation with a self-absorption and arrogance that runs so deep only a tiny minority of us to this day recognizes the humiliation of what has transpired in the shift over the last thirty years from political and cultural models based on democracy and equality of opportunity to an oligarchy of Darwinian entrepreneurs modeling all human activities on the marketplace.

The NAP and Projective Verse (the latter grounded in the idea that collective understandings are the basis of democratic politics), Fawcett says, "have become cages and shackles not much better or worse than the cage and shackles they set out to free poets from." Strong words! But there's more. He connects the NAP to the "ostentatious failure" of totalitarian ideologies and their entrepreneurs; and accuses the successors of the NAP of being silent on, or "stupidly partisan" about the imposition of the marketplace "as the sole arbiter of culture and politics." Strikingly, he says that "a less recognized mistake of the New American Poetry is that it didn't recognize that the technical genius of one generation is automatically built into the next generation's operating system." Emphasis, as they say, mine.

Of his NAP mentors, Fawcett says that "their technical fist-pounding was no substitute for competent global politics, or for having a working sense of how and why different eras constructed verse, or learning to practice an open-minded phenomenology in the heart of a projective poem, something that was dead easy for Olson... [...] In the end, the New American Poetry foundered on its ill-conceived prejudice for spontaneity, which is what, when attentions lag, you get when you jettison the Aristotelian toolbox."

All this strikes me as quite a bombshell, embedded as it is, in the context of Robin Blaser's own life and work, which stand out from that of his NAP colleagues and friends Duncan and Spicer, et al. As Fawcett points out, the great thing about Blaser was that his pedagogy was open.

Now look, don't flame me for writing up what Fawcett has to say: I haven't made up my mind about all of this, and I'm not endorsing it, just reporting it. Nor have I done justice to what Fawcett says for, let alone against, the NAP - if I kept quoting all the things I'd like to, I'd be a copyright violator! I certainly cut quite a few teeth, like so many others, on the NAP anthology, and love much of it to this day. There is no more worn book on my bookshelves. Yet it's healthy and right to critique what we love... and the world is very different now than it was in 1960. Fawcett is right, whatever one thinks, to raise the question of how much substance and structure must underpin writing. And he's certainly right to question - as a Canadian - "the political and cultural physics" of the New American Poetry's "dissident American epic concerns" and its impositions on poets around the globe.

Losing Robin Blaser occasioned Fawcett's revaluation of the NAP. I'm sure Blaser would have endorsed this kind of serious soul-searching.

Addendum: Read comments for a response by Brian Fawcett

Pictured: New American painting; the term "revaluation" was put on the litcrit map by F.R. Leavis


Steven Fama said...

The New American Poetry was a book ,an anthology. Those poets never collectively met, never voted on what to do, who to like, etc. They mostly went there own ways. There was no single dominant paradigm or way to write.

There was plenty that happened after publication, and out of the mainstream (think: Aram Saroyan / Clark Coolidge, the Languagers).

When I read Fawcett connect his own stopping of writing to a "sense of being hustled" by The New American Poetry (remove italics if you want), it raises in me the question of whether he's displacing his anger at his own inability to find his creative way, and his guilt at that ("self-absorption" / "arrogance") he apparently doesn't like in himself.

I mean, it didn't stop Blaser, or effect him in that way. Or hundreds (thousands) of others who published, and published all kinds of poetry, in the fifty years since...

I pronounce these these kind of sweeping canards, the pointing at "deep thinkers" and "bright lights" that doesn't name specific people and specific statements, entirely unpersuasive, at the least.

Henry Gould said...

" In the real world, postmodernism has been about the superimposition of economic and fiscal models upon all human activities and the substitution of commodity consumption for meaning and for human solidarity. In this error, the bright lights of the New American Poetry were monumentally self-serving, and their errors seeded my generation with a self-absorption and arrogance that runs so deep only a tiny minority of us to this day recognizes the humiliation of what has transpired in the shift over the last thirty years from political and cultural models based on democracy and equality of opportunity to an oligarchy of Darwinian entrepreneurs modeling all human activities on the marketplace."

God, this sounds elitist ("only a tiny minority of us") & neo-puritanical. It seems to me part of the liberating & humorous spirit of much NAP poetry was its freedom from these kinds of sweeping polemical generalizations.

Don Share said...


Fawcett really does, and I didn't have the space to make this clear, distinguish between NAP the book-on-italics and NAP as a rubric for the poets published in the book and those influenced. But part of his point is that the viewpoint - though not the poetry itself, which he makes clear, even in my quoted bits - is more monolithic than the rhetoric about it leads us to believe.

As for his anger, which, again, he discusses in parts I didn't quote: it's not displaced at all, but, I'd say, PLACED: you describe very aptly what he characterizes himself, hence, his quitting poetry.

So - this is not to disagree or be disagreeable, but to clarify; and as always any misunderstanding arises from my selective quoting, the solution to which would be... read the book, if you can!!

Thanks as always, Steven.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks for the clarifications, Don. And let me make clear, I've njoyed -- learned -- from the Fawcett 'n Persky book on Blaser.

(I've just read from it while browsing in bookstores the last week or two. I can't buy it, due to a stubborn predilection of mine: I can't justify buying a book about Blaser when -- while I've read his poetry, I haven't read his Collected Essays -- know what I mean -- it's hard to justify buying a book about a poet when I haven't done the first step, which is read everything the poet has written!).

the following doesn't argue with any of your clarifications, but maybe puts things into sharper relief: Helen Adam was a New American! How off-beat, different, far from Projective Verse or any other tendency or way of seeing poetry/the world can there be?!

Don Share said...

It's a cool book, isn't it!! I hear re the essays: a must have. I'd say Blaser's essays had quite an effect on me; and no doubt, more essential than the book about him.

The Helen Adam reader was my book of the year thingy back when it came out. I think you're right, though she did get something, it seems to me, from Duncan: the mystico-mythico-historical stuff, maybe; and something of her sound is also in Spicer and Duncan, though who knows what came first. I do know that they all hung out together, at least for a while. But nobody saw the world quite the way Helen Adam did, and she's really one-of-a-kind!

Thanks again, Steven!

Steven Fama said...

Adam was more with Duncan (those two, plus Jess Collins, Broughton, and (the forgotten one) Eve Triem were "The Maidens" in mid-1950s / early 1960s in SF (Blaser was a sometime honorary guest!). (Next time you are out in SF please come on over I have a nice old black and white photo of the group!) And there's an overlap to the "Spicer circle" via RD and Adam was among the first ten published by White Rabbit in 1958. Maybe the Magic Workshop too.

Adam and her poetics predate Duncan et al., I'd say, if only because her first books (three of them), published in the 1920s when she was a teenager, suggest that she'd been thinking about things poetic for some time (although it take take "The Maidens" and all the rest in the SF Poetry Renaissance to get her publishing again as there was nothing else from her until the 1958 White Rabbit).

Patrick Durgin said...


I'm now very curious to read this book, especially as I think of myself as going through something very similar to Fawcett circa 83.

But something's already bugging me: Can we really hold any real or imagined polemic of a moment/movement as a measure of its relevance? Did language writing, for instance, actually alter consciousness of the linguistic underpinnings of late capitalist subjectivity on a sociologically quantifiable scale? It seems like the complaint is that an ideal didn't become the norm, except in its original domain, aesthetics. (Meaning, yes, it can be distasteful when outlaw becomes classic. But capital absorbs all--everything! William Burroughs for Nike, that was also 83, no?) I can feel it, but it doesn't really have a bearing on the original logic, which sees itself as (tautology) necessary.


Don Share said...

Well put, and I'm with you 100%, Patrick.

Steve Fellner said...


Thanks, Don, for this post--you sold me on the book with your fun, engaged, repectful summary. Off to Amazon....

Jordan said...

Confused by this: "the technical genius of one generation is automatically built into the next generation's operating system."

Shouldn't that be is not?

Anonymous said...

To me (a poetry-reading Brit), these critiques sound a little silly. Fawcett's not, surely, implying that if only the New Poetry had been a little different, the world might be a better place? You know, a bit more hippy, a little less greedy? Because, honestly, the world didn't actually care, and still doesn't.

I know this sounds flippant, but isn't it actually the case?

And quite apart from that, Fawcett seems to assume that all poets find the globalised marketplace manifestly evil and somehow un-poetic, and that it it is their duty to undermine it. That ain't critique, it's crude politiking, as far as I can see. 'Stupidly partisan'? - yep, that too.


Shelley said...

"Cognitive prostheses"! Love that.

Those of us who write need to be discussing these things so we don't die of despair....

Brian said...

Mark (who is both flippant and a little patronizing) suggests I might not recognize that the world doesn't give a crap about what poets think, and that maybe the globalised marketplace is a nicer thing than I understand.

Yes, I've understood that the world hasn't given a crap about poetry for at least a half century. My critique of the New American Poetry (not the "New Poetry", which is an infinitely renewable resource) or at least the early Olson, seemed to want to find ways to make it readable again. Most of those who followed him and built on his insights, then went in precisely the opposite direction.

My argument against the globalized marketplace begins when it becomes the arbiter of ALL human interactions, not simply the economic ones. Even morons and poets recognize--or should--that the development of a global market for commodities and services was both inevitable and in many ways corrective.

Mark should read the full text before shooting off his mouth.

Brian Fawcett/Toronto

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Brian: thanks for dipping into the fray. In regards to the world caring about poets: isn't O'Hara one of the most widely-read poets today? Maybe that is just my impression.

I'm also curious to know whether you intended to gloss the Jameson critique of Postmodernism in your analysis here? I wrote at my blog that it seemed so, but there I found some key distinctions.

I wrote about the mythic narrative of cultural decline that I think the passage here exhibits as well — whether indicative of the rest of your analysis, I can't say and won't try to predict.

- Daniel -

Anonymous said...


Hm. Didn't think you'd be reading this. I was reacting, of course, to Don's post - not to your book. which I've not read. Call it the blogger's prerogative. Sorry if I caused offence.

However, I think, with regards to your reply, that my point stands: why should your opinion (or anyone's opinion) of the globalised marketplace have any bearing upon the aesthetic value of a poem (which, I suppose, includes 'readability')?

I've never really liked the idea that writers have a duty to write in a particular way, or according to any rules, or about any particular thing - which, from the extracts, appears to be what you're getting at.

I just can't see beyond what seems to me to be a political argument standing in for aesthetic critique - but I'm probably coming at this in a wrongheaded way.


Brian said...


I wasn't really offended, but if you're suggesting that the "blogger's prerogative" is to be able to make bitchy commentaries without having to read what they're commenting on, or otherwise do the work, well...

I think writers have to want to communicate with others. If they don't care, and just enjoy flapping their lips or flogging their doodles in public, they're something else, although I'm very hesitant to make a diagnosis.

And surely you're aware that the stance that has politics and aesthetics isolated from one another is a fairly famous political stance.