On Don Allen, 'The New American Poetry'

Fifty years should be easily perceptible, but open The New American Poetry and the shock is how ordinary it seems and thus how hard it is to sense the passage of what, after all, have been fifty very real years. When I read Donald Allen's list of great modernists at the beginning of his introduction, for a few seconds, it's as if I'm reading the present. I'll temporarily omit the opening phrase to further this temporal mirage:  “American poetry has entered upon a singularly rich period, [one which] has seen published William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, The Desert Music and Other Poems, and Journey to Love; Ezra Pound's The Pisan Cantos, Section: Rock-Drill, and Thrones; H.D.'s later work culminating in her long poem Helen in Egypt; and the recent verse of E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and the late Wallace Stevens.” [1] Such a list seems, in 2010, obvious: only one name, Cummings, would likely be omitted today. "The late Wallace Stevens" provides a glimmer of temporal shock, reminding us that, in 1960, Stevens would just have died and that Williams, Pound, H.D., Cummings, and Moore would still be alive. Allen's tone is so matter of fact that I have to remind myself of the implicit ruckus he is kicking up in the 1960 world – especially the 1960 academic world: starting with Williams; omitting Eliot; naming H.D. a modernist master. In 1960, to the average literate mind in the U.S., H.D., far from being a modernist master, was a subject best not lingered on, like some maiden aunt's ouija board. In 1960, to name Pound in such an unmarked way was polemical. It had only been two years, after all, since he'd gotten out of St. Elizabeth’s and given the fascist salute as he boarded the boat for Italy. In 1960 (to now quote the opening phrase I omitted above), "In the years since the war" would have meant “since 1945,” when it had only been with strenuous backstage maneuvering that the case of Ezra Pound was dissociated from those of Lord Haw Haw and Tokyo Rose.

But over fifty years, Allen's vision has become common sense. This is reinforced by the plethora of greatest hits scattered throughout the anthology – "Projective Verse," "Howl," "The Day Lady Died" – and names without which American poetry is hard to imagine: Creeley, Ashbery, Whalen, Schuyler. The inclusion of statements on poetics now seems normative, but back then it was not. Robert Frost's introduction to the 1958 Hall, Pack, Simpson anthology, New Poets of England and America – the anthology Allen must have been answering – explicitly bans "critical instruction." [2] In this alternate universe, the passage of time couldn't be more blatantly legible. Here's the first stanza of the opening poem, "Masters," by Kingsley Amis:


That horse whose rider fears to jump will fall,
Riflemen miss if orders sound unsure;
They only are secure who seem secure;
          Who lose their voice, lose all. [3]

That could have been written in the nineteenth century – possibly the eighteenth.

But lest we think that Allen's anthology was a juggernaut of inevitability, consider the list he picks to represent the second generation, after the great modernists and leading to his third generation (i.e., to the poets he's anthologizing). It's a list never to be seen anywhere else, not these particular five names together: Elizabeth Bishop, Edwin Denby, Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, and Louis Zukofsky. Bishop and Lowell would be obvious in 1960, but not Rexroth; Zukofsky and Denby would be outré names indeed. And those happy few who knew Zukofsky would not expect to see him linked with Denby and vice versa. Extrapolate the eccentricity of that list to the anthology as a whole, and its uniqueness becomes more apparent. It was a multiplicious and highly unlikely breakthrough. I say this even though its tremendous deficits of representation have long been glaringly obvious: only four women and one African American out of forty-four poets. If you want to sense the passage of fifty years, those absences are a first place to look. However, while The New American Poetry is nothing but backward in terms of gender and race, it still demonstrates a powerful dimension of poetic capaciousness that retains an enlivening force.

Our present tense common sense can too easily tell us, in its received wisdom, that Olson presides over the anthology, having the most pages of poetry and critical statement, and leading off each section. But Allen's laconic watchwords, that what all this new poetry has in common is "a total rejection [...] of academic verse" and that it is a continuation of "modern jazz and abstract expressionism," hardly apply to Olson himself. [4] Luckily for us, there really isn't much case for a unified reading of the poems and poetics of the anthology.

Yes, there is some anti-academicism, but really, there's not that much that is directly aimed at the academy. Olson writes in his biographical statement: "'Uneducated' at Wesleyan, Yale, and Harvard"; and Edward Dorn: "I was Educated at the University of Illinois, and somewhat corrected at Black Mountain College." [5] The one specimen of iambic pentameter is Kenneth Koch's "Mending Sump," e.g., "Something there is that doesn't hump a sump." At such a moment, The New American Poetry can be read as a polemic against what Frost and his coziness with the university represented.

But the far more striking facts are the varieties of approach to what poetry can do. Allen's capacious, nonstringent vision needs to be brought forward and given credit: breadth of class position; emotional, social, and aesthetic sophistication; the barbaric yawps that fill the book, discontinuously. Here's a small nosegay of this disparateness: "YIPPEE! I'm glad I'm alive! / 'I'm glad you're alive / too, baby, because I want to fuck you"; "Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher / Than this mid-air in which we tremble"; "Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!"; "But now my the main task of the day – wash my underwear – two months abused – what would the ants say about that?" [6]

Hats off to Donald Allen, without whom our present doesn't exist.


[1] The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen, ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1960) xi.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] New Poets of England and America, Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, editors, introduction by Robert Frost. (New York: Meridian Books, 1957) 13.
[4] Donald M. Allen, ed., New American Poetry 442.
[5] Ibid., 431.
[6] Ibid., 259.; Ibid., 216.;Ibid., 186.; Ibid., 214.