Rebel Poets of 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...