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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

15. Poetry of Liberation

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- John Ashberry
- Amiri Baraka
- Lorna Dee Cervantes
- Allen Ginsberg
- Joy Harjo
- Audre Lorde
- Sylvia Plath
- Adrienne Rich
- Gary Snyder
- James Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Suggested Author Pairings

Lorna Dee Cervantes and Audre Lorde
Both these writers explode the notion that female identity is uniform and continuous. Cervantes's poetry is characterized by her dual heritage, and she frequently juxtaposes locations, languages, and imagery. Similarly, Lorde's poetry features candid speakers struggling with their experiences as outsiders because of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Comparing the way these poets use standard English alongside Spanish or black vernacular dialect also raises useful questions about what it means to connect two worlds and what it means to be an American. Both writers also recognize the political force behind poetry. Cervantes has been instrumental in creating and developing a Chicano aesthetic, just as Audre Lorde has been an important presence in Black Arts. Despite these similarities, these writers differ widely, particularly in the tone of their poems. Lorde's use of the first person creates an intimacy with the reader, whereas Cervantes's writing has a more narrative feel. How do these authors redefine what it means to be American? How does their ethnic heritage influence their ideas about America and its national values?

James Wright and Joy Harjo
Both of these poets share an affinity with nature, and both write in a meditative style. While Wright looks primarily to nature as an antidote to the modern, Harjo expresses a desire to unite the past (her Native American heritage) with the present (modern times), and she uses nature as a means to connect the two. Wright and Harjo, however, do share a desire for transcendence, and might be described as meditative poets. Both poets remember and long for nature and landscapes destroyed or threatened by civilization, and both poets write with a sense of loss and reverence. In what ways can their poems be read as elegies, not for people, but for landscapes and locations? How do the different backgrounds of these poets influence their views of nature? How do they complement and diverge from one another?

Amiri Baraka, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg
These poets recognize the political power behind their poetry, and they use words to shock audiences, critique government institutions, and question traditional American values. Although he later became a leader of the Black Arts movement, Baraka was connected to the early Beat movement, and he knew Ginsberg and the other New York-based writers of the movement. Like the Beats, Baraka was interested in living on the fringes of society, exploding conventional ways of thinking, and using poetry for political rebellion. By the mid-1950s, however, Baraka had separated from the Beats to pursue racial themes in his poetry, and his work became increasingly militant. He also began spending more time on drama and dedicated himself to bridging the gap between the community and artists. While the Beat poets considered themselves outsiders, they did write poetry that appealed to the masses. Just as Baraka shocked audiences with his dialect, obscenities, and violence, so the Beat poets shocked their readers with similar breaches of tradition, using obscenities, slang, and references to illegal drugs. Ginsberg became the voice for the Beat movement, and Baraka, in a similar fashion, became the figure most associated with Black Arts. Both poets had lifestyles that matched their vibrant, radical, and confrontational poetry. Gary Snyder, however, joined the Beat movement later, after many of the writers had moved to San Francisco. His interest in nature and ecology set him apart from Baraka and Ginsberg. Snyder's work is also decidedly more meditative. Still, he shares their radical use of diction and subject matter, and he, too, lives on the fringes of society. Like Ginsberg, who was interested in the Far East, and Baraka, whose poetry reflects a fascination with Africa, Snyder's work also shows some marks of primitivism. Interested in the Far East, particularly China, and Native American culture, Snyder explores transcendence and spirituality in his work. How do these poets deepen our understanding of the Beat movement and its complexity? How does each poet use politics differently in his work? How have these men changed our perception of the poet as a cultural figure?

Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich
These writers are considered among the most important feminist poets of our century. Both women struggle to represent female experience, and they shatter conventional notions of poetic subject matter in the process. They write openly about the female body, intimate relationships, sex, and motherhood. For both authors, questions of identity are central to their work, and readers are often struck by the conflicted sense of self represented by these poets. How do these authors challenge society's treatment of women and sexuality? What is experimental or innovative about their writing? Why are they so important to the feminist movement?
John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg
Both of these poets are interested in the discourse of popular culture and they both explore the boundaries between prose and verse. In addition, both Ginsberg and Ashbery avoid writing about specific events and people, choosing instead to concentrate on the workings of the mind or a representation of the creative process. But Ginsberg uses an authoritative, sweeping voice reminiscent of Whitman, whereas Ashbery's poetic voice seems detached, erudite, and witty. Ginsberg looks to jazz, Eastern religion, and drugs for poetic inspiration, whereas Ashbery draws on visual art and is particularly influenced by avant-garde painters like Jackson Pollock. Ginsberg's poetry is highly political, whereas Ashbery seems disconnected from the political turmoil of the 1960s. How do these poets represent American experience? How do they incorporate elements of popular culture? What do they envision as the goal of poetry and art?

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