Poetry of the United States

Although Native American peoples have been creating poetry for thousands of years, the history of poetry in English begins with the establishment of the colony that was to become the United States of America. This article covers the history of English-language poetry in the United States from these colonial beginnings to the present day.

 This article is part of the
Culture of the United States series.
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Table of contents
1 Poetry in the Colonies
2 Postcolonial Poetry
3 An American Idiom
4 Modernism and After
5 War Poets
6 Post-war
7 American poetry now
8 External links
9 See also

Poetry in the Colonies

The one of first recorded poets of the English colony was Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). Bradstreet is, in fact, one of the earliest known women poets in English. Her poems are untypically tender evocations of home and family life and of her love for her husband. In marked contrast, Edward Taylor (1645-1729) wrote poems expounding Puritan virtues in a highly-wrought metaphysical style that can be seen as typical of the early colonial period. This narrow focus on the Puritan ethic was, understandably, the dominant note of most of the poetry written in the colonies during the 17th and early 18th centuries.

The eighteenth century saw an increasing emphasis on America as fit subject matter for its poets. This trend is most evident in the works of Philip Freneau (1752-1832), who is also notable for the unusually sympathetic attitude to Native Americans shown in his writings. However, as might be expected from what was essentially provincial writing, this late colonial poetry is generally technically somewhat old-fashioned, deploying the means and methods of Pope and Gray in the era of Blake and Burns.

On the whole, the development of poetry in the American colonies mirrors the development of the colonies themselves. The early poetry is dominated by the need to preserve the integrity of the Puritan ideals that created the settlement in the first place. As the colonists grew in confidence, the poetry they wrote increasingly reflected their drive towards independence. This shift in subject matter was in not reflected in the mode of writing which tended to be conservative, to say the least. This can be seen as a product of the physical remove at which American poets operated from the center of English-language poetic developments in London.

Another distinctly American lyric voice of the colonial period was Phillis Wheatley, a slave whose book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773. One of the most best-known poets of her day, at least in the colonies, her poems were typically New England, meditating on religious and classical ideas.

Postcolonial Poetry

The first significant poet of the independent United States was William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). Bryant's great contribution was to write rhapsodic poems on the grandeur of prairies and forests. Other notable poets to emerge in the early and middle 19th century include Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803- 1882), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and James Russell Lowell (1819-1891). As might be expected, the works of these writers are united by a common search for a distinctive American voice to distinguish them from their British counterparts. To this end, they explored the landscape and traditions of their native country as materials for their poetry.
The most significant example of this tendency may be The Song of Hiawatha by Longfellow. This poem uses Native American tales collected by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who was superintendent of Indian affairs for Michigan from 1836 to 1841. Longfellow also imitated the metre of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala, possibly to avoid British models. The resulting poem, while a popular success, did not provide a model for future U.S. poets. Another factor that distinguished these poets from their British contemporaries was the influence of the transcendentalism of the poet/philosophers Emerson and Thoreau. This attitude is in stark contrast to the empirical stance of Wordsworth, Coleridge and others, and not always to the benefit of the American writers.

An American Idiom

The final emergence of a truly indigenous English-language poetry in the United States was the work of two poets, Walt Whitman (1919-1892) and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). On the surface, these two poets could not have been less alike. Whitman's long lines, sweeping conversational tone and democratic inclusiveness are in stark contrast with the concentrated phrases and short lines and stanzas that Dickinson used. What links them is a remarkable to present things and ideas directly in their work, showing rather than telling, and the simple U.S. idiom in which they wrote. These two poets can be said to represent the birth of an American poetic idiom.
The development of this idiom can be traced through the works of poets like Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), Stephen Crane (1871-1900), Robert Frost (1874-1963) and Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). As a result, by the beginning of the 20th century the outlines of a distinctly new poetic tradition were clear to see.

Modernism and After

This new idiom, combined with a study of 19th century French poetry, formed the basis of the United States input into 20th century English language poetic modernism. Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) were the leading figures at the time, but numerous other poets made important contributions. These included Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Wallace Stevens ((1879-1955), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), H.D (1886-1961), Marianne Moore (1887-1972), e. e. cummings (1894-1962) and Hart Crane (1899-1932). Williams was to become exemplary for many later poets because he, more than any of his peers, contrived to marry spoken American English with free verse rhythms.

There were poets active in the United States in the first third of the 20th century who were not unambiguously aligned with high modernism. Among the most important of these poets were those who were associated with what came to be known as the New Criticism. These included John Crowe Ransome (1888-1974), Allen Tate (1899-1979), and Robert Penn Warren (1905-1898). Other poets of the era, such as Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), experimented with modernist techniques but were also drawn towards more traditional modes of writing.

The modernist torch was carried in the 1930 mainly by the group of poets known as the Objectivists. These included Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978), Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976), George Oppen (1908-1984) , Carl Rakosi (born November 6, 1903) and, later, Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970). Kenneth Rexroth, who was published in the Objectivist Anthology, was, along with Madeline Gleason (1909-1973), a forerunner of the San Francisco Renaissance.

Many of the Objectivists came from urban communities of new immigrants and this new vein of experience and language enriched the growing American idiom. Another source of enrichment was the emergence of African-American poets such as Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and Countee Cullen (1903-1946).

War Poets

The Second World War saw the emergence of a new generation of poets, many of whom were influenced by Wallace Stevens. Richard Eberhart (born 1904), Karl Shapiro (1913-2000) and Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) all wrote poetry that sprang from experience of active service. Together with Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) and Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), they formed a generation of poets that wrote well without impacting the U.S. poetic tradition in a major way.


After the war, a number of new poets and poetic movements emerged. John Berryman (1914-1972) and Robert Lowell (1917-1977) were the leading lights in what was to become known as the confessional movement which was to have a strong influence on later poets like Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). Both were closely acquainted with modernism, but were mainly interested in exploring their own experiences as subject matter and a style that Lowell referred to as "cooked", that is consciously and carefully crafted.

In contrast, the Beat poets, who included such figures as Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), Gregory Corso (1930-2001), Joanne Kyger (born 1934), Gary Snyder (born 1930), Diane Di Prima (born 1934), Denise Levertov (1923-1997), Amiri Baraka (born 1934) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born 1919), were distinctly raw. Reflecting, sometimes in an extreme form, the more open, relaxed and searching society of the 1950s and 1960s, the Beats pushed the boundaries of the American idiom in the direction of demotic speech perhaps further than any other group.

Around the same time, the Black Mountain poets, under the leadership of Charles Olson (1910-1970), were working at Black Mountain College. Somewhere between raw and cooked, these poets were exploring the possibilities of open form but in a much more programmatic way than the Beats. The main poets involved were Robert Creeley (born 1926), Robert Duncan (1919-1988), Ed Dorn (1929-1999), Paul Blackburn (1926-1971), Hilda Morley (1919-1998), John Wieners (1934-2002), and Larry Eigner (1927-1996). They based their approach to poetry on Olson's 1950 essay Projective Verse, in which he called for a form based on the line, a line based on human breath and a mode of writing based on perceptions juxtaposed so that one perception leads directly to another. Cid Corman (born 1924) and Ted Enslin (born 1924) are often associated with this group but are perhaps more correctly viewed as direct descendants of the Objectivists.

The Beats and some of the Black Mountain poets are often considered to have been responsible for the San Francisco Renaissance. However, as has already been mentioned, San Francisco had become a hub of experimental activity from the 1930s thanks to Rexroth and Gleason. Other poets involved in this scene included Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) and Jack Spicer (1925-1965). These poets sought to combine a contemporary spoken idiom with inventive formal experiment.

Jerome Rothenberg (born 1931) is well-known for his work in ethnopoetics, but he was also the coiner of the term "deep image". Deep image poetry is inspired by the symbolist theory of correspondences. Other poets who worked with deep image include Robert Kelly (born 1935), Diane Wakoski (born 1937) and Clayton Eshleman (born 1935).

Just as the West Coast had the San Francisco Renaissance, the East Cost produced the New York School. This group aimed to write poetry that spoke directly of everyday experience in everyday language and produced a poetry of urbane wit and elegance that contrasts strongly with the work of their Beat contemporaries. Leading members of the group include John Ashbery (born 1927), Frank O'Hara (1926-1966), Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), James Schuyler (1923-1991), Ted Berrigan (1934-1983), Anne Waldman (born 1945) and Bernadette Mayer (1958-1996).

John Cage (1912-1992), one-time Black Mountain College resident and composer, and Jackson Mac Low (born 1922) both wrote poetry based on chance or aleatory techniques. Inspired by Zen, Dada and scientific theories of indeterminacy, they were to prove to be important influences on the 1970s U.S avant garde.

American poetry now

The last thirty years in United States poetry has seem the emergence of a number of groups and trends. It is probably too soon to judge the long-term importance of these, and what follows is merely a brief outline sketch.

The 1970s saw a revival of interest in surrealism, with the most prominent poets working in this field being Andrei Cordrescu (born 1946), Russell Edson (born 1935)and Maxine Chernoff (born 1952. Performance poetry also emerged from the Beat and hippy happenings, and the talk-poems of David Antin (born 1932) and ritual events performed by Rothenberg, to become a serious poetic stance which embraces multiculturalism and a range of poets from a multiplicity of cultures. This mirrored a general growth of interest in poetry by African Americans including Gwendolyn Brooks (born 1917), Maya Angelou (born 1928), Ishmael Reed (born 1938) and Nikki Giovanni (born 1943 ).

The most coherent avant garde grouping during this period has been the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is extremely writerly, discounting speech as the basis for verse, and dedicated to questioning the referentiality of language and the dominance of the sentence as the basic unit of syntax.

This group includes a very high proportion of women, which mirrors another general trend; the rediscovery and promotion of poetry written both by earlier and contemporary women poets. In addition to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a number of the most prominent African American poets to emerge are women, and other prominent women writers include Adrienne Rich (born 1929) and Amy Gerstlar (born 1956).

The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group also contained an unusually high proportion of academics. Poetry has tended to move more and more into the campus, with a growth in creative writing and poetics programs providing an equal growth in the number of teaching posts available to practising poets. This increased professionalisation is one of the clearest developments and one which seems likely to have unpredictable consequences for the future of poetry in the United States.

The 1980s saw the emergence of a group of poets who became known as the New Formalists. These poets, who included Molly Peacock, Brad Leithauser, Dana Gioia and Marilyn Hacker, write in traditional forms and have declared that this return to rhyme and more fixed metres is the new avant-garde. However, critics of the group have compared thair traditionalism with the conservative politics of the Reagan era.

External links

These sites provide biographical and bibliographical information and some original texts.

See also

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