“Rebel Poets of the 1950s”
“America demands a poetry that is bold, modern and all-surrounding and kosmical, as she is herself.” Although Walt Whitman wrote that prescription shortly after the Civil War, it also vividly describes the generation of American poets who came of age after World War II. Particularly during moments of cultural change, poets have joined artists on the front lines of expanding consciousness by forging a vernacular language that gives expression to contemporary life. One such shift in poetry occurred at the time of World War I, and another major shift took place during the decade after the Second World War. The 1950s are stereotypically represented as a time of conformity and unclouded prosperity–a mixture of Ozzie and Harriet, hula hoops, suburban tract homes, and shopping malls–along with the political anxiety imposed by McCarthyism. During such a period of apparent hegemony, the poets presented in this exhibition became a collective force that stood outside of these larger societal trends. “The avant-garde is never anything but a community of particular sympathy,” observed poet Jonathan Williams. “It is the total locale of America that produces the culture.”
The “Rebel Poets of the 1950s” have been grouped into four overlapping constellations: the Beat Generation, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Black Mountain poets, and the New York School poets. Together they formed, in Allen Ginsberg’s words, “the united phalanx,” whose unity owed more to a collective feeling of embattlement than it did to unified poetics. At the time, many of these writers were called anti-intellectuals, “destroyers of language,” and literary juvenile delinquents. These writers actually read voraciously–both classical and modern literature–and pursued the perennial avant-garde imperative to reinvigorate literary culture by destroying the hackneyed and moribund. Ironically, the reigning tradition that now seemed ripe for attack was modernism, along with the strictly formalist New Criticism that had become entrenched in the universities and in literary journals. In an attempt to widen the range of modern poetry, the rebel poets of the 1950s emphasized many elements that were new or had been previously excised: the bardic spoken voice, links to jazz and spontaneous composition, open verse forms and rhythms, derangement of the senses as a stimulus to creativity, confessional candor, and content that embraced political issues, Buddhism, and the natural environment.
Perhaps as important as their loosely shared poetics was a sense of personal friendship that transcended geography. Frank O’Hara called it “hands-across-the Rockies for perhaps the first time in American history.” A tightly knit community arose out of necessity, for these poets depended on the little magazines, small presses, and public readings that they jointly organized. They often were associated with visual artists, not only in the watering spots in which they gathered (New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach), but in the books and magazines they jointly produced to celebrate the conjoined word and image.
The Beat Generation
The writers most frequently associated with the Beat Generation are Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Diane DiPrima. The first three met one another around Columbia University in the mid-1940s, and forged relationships that would prove central to their lives. The three shared an apartment for several months and became midwives–as collaborators, agents, typists, and readers–to each other’s literary careers. Neither Kerouac nor Burroughs are primarily poets, but their experimentation with language–the revolution of the word–paralleled that of the poets. Ginsberg was the first to become widely known, following his public reading of “Howl” in 1955, and its obscenity trial in 1957. Kerouac’s most famous book, On the Road, was largely written in a three-week marathon in 1951 but was not published until 1957. It became not only a best-seller, but the enduring testament of a generation. That same year, Ginsberg and Kerouac traveled to Tangier to help Burroughs type and organize the manuscript that would be published as Naked Lunch a few years later; it, too, was tried for obscenity. The Beats’ literary careers crossed over into the arena of popular culture, and now, decades later, these writers are celebrated in advertisements, movies, and songs. Their identity as poets-as-rock-stars sometimes obscures their contribution to American literature. Psychological candor, enshrinement of the commonplace, and the writing of “spontaneous prose” are some of their key contributions. Following in the tradition of William Carlos Williams and Thomas Wolfe, they created works that spoke in the native vernacular, shorn of highbrow pretension. They introduced the speech of the marginal and musical into American literature.
The San Francisco Renaissance
Allen Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” in October 1955 marks the beginning of the San Francisco Renaissance. But the city had its own literary community long before that time, dominated in the 1940s by three poets–Kenneth Rexroth, Brother Antoninus, and Robert Duncan. In the mid-1950s a younger generation joined them, including Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, Lew Welch and Bob Kaufman. Together, these disparate writers created a vital and productive artistic community, whose identity was strengthened by their geographical distance from New York. Kenneth Rexroth identified some of the elements that made it a center for art and poetry: the city was the most livable city in America, tolerant of many lifestyles, and independent of the forces represented by New York’s commercial gallery and publishing combines. The San Francisco poets looked to nature and to Asia for inspiration, and they spawned the fashion of reading poetry in coffeehouses to the accompaniment of jazz. “A reading is a kind of communion,” observed Gary Snyder. “The poet articulates the semi-known for the tribe.”
The Black Mountain Poets
The Black Mountain poets shared perhaps the most intimate community of any group of writers, for they lived together, ate together, and wrote together in a remote spot in rural North Carolina. Founded in 1933, Black Mountain College became one of America’s most fertile training grounds for musicians, writers, visual artists, and performers. (Among the students and teachers at this outpost were Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Cy Twombly.) It was during the school’s final years in the 1950s that poets dominated the campus; their strong presence owed a great deal to Charles Olson, who served as the college’s rector. The shadow he cast was both literal and figurative; he was a towering, charismatic figure, and his seminal essay, “Projective Verse,” influenced a generation to expand the possibilities of poetic rhythm. Robert Creeley, who came to Black Mountain College in its last years, not only taught and wrote direct, stripped-down poems, but also edited the Black Mountain Review, one of the most influential little magazines of the era. Two of the college’s students during its final years, Jonathan Williams and John Wieners, became not only prominent poets, but also edited little magazines and ran small presses that continued long after the school closed. Other poets who came out of BMC were the following: Ed Dorn, Robert Rumaker and Joel Oppenheimer.
The New York School
The New York School of poets took its name from the group of painters portrayed in the “Rebel Painters” exhibition. The connections between these poets and the painters were strong–in friendship, professional associations, and artistic collaborations. Avowedly unprogrammatic, the New York poets were devoted to the belief that “every moment has its validity” and that, in the process of creation, one should try “to be the work yourself.” New York’s environment provided a brilliant backdrop for their poetry, alive with odd juxtapositions, shuttling at top speed between high culture and pop culture. The quotidian details of life and the social activities of friends provided the basis for elegant, witty riffs on modern urban life. The New York poets often looked to non-American or non-literary artists_notably the Abstract Expressionist painters, the Surrealists and Dadaists, and the composer John Cage for their inspiration. Frank O’Hara wrote a manifesto, “Person-ism,” that mockingly declared “the death of poetry as we know it”; focusing on the essence of poetry as the expression between two people, O’Hara said he could use a telephone instead of writing a poem.
O’Hara, a prolific poet as well as an energetic social organizer, curator, and critic, became the group’s ringleader; his premature death at the age of forty was widely mourned. Edwin Denby was introduced to the circle in 1952, although he was a generation older and was best known for his dance criticism. LeRoi Jones (who changed his name to Amiri Baraka in the 1970s) wrote ground-breaking works about African American identity, and he also edited a magazine, Yugen, that linked the New York School poets, the Black Mountain poets, and the Beat Generation. Describing himself, John Ashbery observed that he uses words as an abstract painter uses paint, creating in his poems a sense of the conscious mind as it processes the world. This attention to the details and juxtaposition of urban modern life also inflects the poetry of James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and Kenward Elmslie.
Just as the Beat Generation’s social constellation was rooted in Columbia University, the New York School’s roots are in Harvard, where O’Hara, Ashbery, Elmslie, and Koch spent their undergraduate years in the late 1940s. After graduating, they immigrated to New York, where their common haunts included art museums and galleries, the ballet, and summer cocktail parties on eastern Long Island.
The portraits in this exhibition have been selected to reflect the wide range of these writers–they include paintings, photographs, woodcuts, drawings, prints, a caricature, and a sculpture. Some of the artists knew these poets as intimate friends; Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank, and Jonathan Williams, for example, photographed their close associates to create a behind-the-scenes portrait of the Beat Generation and the Black Mountain poets. Other photographers, notably Fred W. McDarrah, Harry Redl, and John Cohen, captured the art and poetry world in which they lived for publication in magazines. Stylized portraits by Alex Katz, Alice Neel, and Larry Rivers reflect the close links between the poets and the New York art world, while Peter LeBlanc’s woodcuts, inspired by sumi ink drawings, evoke the San Francisco poets’ ties to Asia. Prints by American-born British citizen R. B. Kitaj and by the English caricaturist Ralph Steadman suggest the international importance accorded these writers.
This cornucopia of images of poets is anchored by their words. The written word is represented by the poets’ publications from the period. Ranging from informal, mimeographed little magazines to elegant books that resulted from collaborations with artists, these publications were essential for disseminating the poetry that eluded the mainstream publishing industry. The spoken word is represented by audiotapes of several poets reading from their own works. These tapes–some recorded in pristine studio conditions, others recorded live against the makeshift backdrop of group readings- -reflect the vocal contributions in a group that valued the tradition of the troubadour. As these poets eloquently demonstrate, now, when television and movie images dominate America, the individual voice still retains its power to enlighten and to enchant.