Introduction to the poetry and poetics of 1960

Two months before 1960 commenced, Stanley Kunitz in Harper’s Magazine redefined the word “experimental” to mean the inevitable resistance to any prevailing style for the sake of “keep[ing] it supple.” Yet at the time of his writing, the turn of this new decade, “the nature of that resistance is in effect a backward look.” The recent Pulitzer Prize winner added: “This happens not to be a time of great innovation in poetic technique: it is rather a period in which the technical gains of past decades, particularly the twenties, are being tested and consolidated.”

By using the phrase “the twenties” Kunitz was referring to modernism’s American heyday. He meant expatriation, avid rule-breaking, aesthetic hijinx coinciding with social high hilarity. The Sixties, starting now, he averred, would be a time of modest “consolidation” rather than of experiment.  Kunitz’s historical generalization would make better sense, as a lament, if he had been seeking to position himself as an inheritor of modernism or had he been commending a contemporary avant-garde. But Stanley Kunitz was certainly not an experimenter; nor did he hope for the new ascendancy of heterodox verse. He gratefully noted widespread popular praise of Robert Frost. On January 20, 1961, that genuine conservative would somewhat confusingly conclude the year in question, traveling to Washington to help inaugurate a supposedly Make It New sort of US president. Poetry took political center stage momentarily at the culmination of the election year we celebrate tonight, and yet, as Kunitz lamented at the beginning of the same year, “I don’t detect many signs of [Frost’s] influence” among the young writers of 1960.  Instead, disappointingly, the new poets “have found it easier to raid [William Carlos] Williams.” In short, modernism had become the new status quo, a false stand-in for politically relevant traditionalism. [1]

Faced with Kunitz’s impressionistic and unevidenced assertion that a “pivotal” year was a time of “consolidat[ing]” and standardizing the modern poetic mode, it remains for contemporary poets and literary historians to construct specific bibliographical and interpretive contexts for testing such claims, eschewing grand cross-generational generalizations (such as Kunitz’s own) that tend to follow the largest contours of aesthetic movements and thus subdue the unlikely convergences that occur at any given moment along the continuum of aesthetic ideologies maturing and then waning at different rates of speed. Whereas Kunitz contends that “resistance” had by 1960 become retrospect, had become a longing rather than a looking forward, a literary history operating from such a constraint, preferring deep to wide (exactly as we prefer through tonight’s format), might serve as a resistance to such a sense of resistance. To be sure, listeners, viewers and readers of tonight’s presentations will hardly be shocked to learn, through consideration of actual lines and stanzas of poetry written and published that year, that Kunitz was plainly wrong when he contended that experimentalism had become static and had reached a dead end.  But they might be surprised by the extraordinary degree to which he was misguided by an antimodernist ideology, which held that it had to be, and should be celebrated as, a dull and derivative time. Our listeners and readers might be startled, too, by — conversely — the remarkable dynamism and ardent heresy in new poetry; by the freshness of the late work, just then, of aging High Modernists (such as Ezra Pound who was making a sort of comeback with Thrones and by Marianne Moore who put out a great book in 1959); by the subtle mix (as opposed to rejection or exhaustion) of modernist modes in emergent works of postmodernism; and by the unshy awareness and progressive consciousness with which young poets defied gloomy and “mature” predictions of the coming “end of ideology” — the title of sociologist Daniel Bell’s book arguing that “among the intellectuals, the old passions are spent” (also published in 1960).  Bell’s titular phrase had already moved quickly into common use by those affirming political centrism and rejecting as immature all forms of “apocalyptic and chiliastic visions.” At the dead-end of ideology, no longer does social reform have “any unifying appeal”; nor does it “give a younger generation the outlet for ‘self-expression’ and ‘self-definition’ that it wants.”

From roughly 1945 (some would argue 1939) to the end of the 1950s, modernism’s association with cultural and political heterodoxy in the 1930s had been condemned, sometimes with an hysteria borrowed from (or the same as) McCarthyism, and a fantasized cleaner, purer, prepolitical modernism was sought (in, for instance, 1920s writing) to redress the alleged imbalance.  In 1960 we see, I think, a surprisingly sudden turn against the logic of that Cold War-era separation, against the designation of advocates of “the old passions” as “terrible simplifiers” (in Bell’s terms) and, concurrently, an explosion of poetic activity — and, rather than a culture war between modernists and emergent postmodernists (“New American” poets; beats; New York School writers; latter-day Dadaists and surrealists; post-Duchampian conceptual poets; and others), we discover a disorganized but nonetheless effective collaboration of historically distinct avant-gardes now prepared, seemingly, to restate cultural and political terms that after fifteen postwar years of “consolidation” had become idiomatic, naturalized—in the air poets were supposed to breathe. [2]

I asked a group of today’s poets to breathe again some of that air.  They were each assigned to re-read a book of poetry published in 1960 — and to write, in effect, a retrospective review.  A brief critical reassessment fifty years later.  A short one, too — no more than 750 words.  I will not introduce them in turn, nor in any detail — but will identify them along with the book each reconsidered — and then will leave it to them each to take a turn at the podium.  After these eleven mini-talks I will moderate a discussion.  You are invited to make comments both general and specific, or to ask questions of the group or of individuals.  The commentaries themselves, but also a selected and edited transcript of the discussion will be published later in Jacket2 — as will a set of responses I will commission from others who are not here in the room with us tonight but who will have listened to the event when it is posted on PennSound.

Now here are our poets:

— Bob Perelman on The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen
— Ron Silliman on The Opening of the Field by Robert Duncan
— Rachel Blau DuPlessis on Second Avenue by Frank O'Hara
— Chris Funkhouser on Stanzas for Iris Lezak by Jackson Mac Low
— Erica Kaufman on The Location of Things by Barbara Guest
— Judith Goldman on The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks 

— Kristen Gallagher on Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones
— Danny Snelson on Cartridge Music by John Cage
— Michael S. Hennessey on A New Folder edited by Daisy Aldan
— Charles Bernstein on On My Eyes by Larry Eigner
— Mel Nichols on Hymns of St. Bridget by Bill Berkson & Frank O'Hara
— and Kenneth Goldsmith, who could not be here tonight, has written and sent us a retrospective review of Brion Gysin & William Burroughs’s Minutes to Go



[1] Stanley Kunitz. “American Poetry’s Silver Age.” Harper’s Magazine, October 1959, 17379.
[2] Daniel Bell, “The End of Ideology in the West,” The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (New York: Collier Books, 1961), 404405.