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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
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
- Glossary
- Learning
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
After World War II, a complex and dynamic new chapter of American cultural history began, a chapter that in many ways is neither completed nor easily describable. After the worldwide depression and violence of the 1930s and 1940s, millions of people hoped for some kind of respite, a period of peace, prosperity, and stability. Forty million people had died in places whose very names, to the generation of the 1950s and 1960s, became a litany of massacre and catastrophe: Nanking, Coventry, Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Stalingrad, Omaha Beach, Guadalcanal, Cassino, Dresden, Tokyo, Berlin, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But the peace treaties and agreements worked out among the Allies soon gave way to a forty-year "Cold War," as the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, contended with each other for ideological control of the world.

Sorting out the various literary experiments, coteries, and insurgencies of the years between 1950 and the present would be a vast enterprise in itself, complicated by the interventions of commercialism, pop culture, fads and fashion, and the enormous expansion of the college and university system as a focus for youthful energy and as an arbiter of taste. If students are confused by the cacophony of monikers, slogans, and short-lived obsessions that can be lifted from the pages of postwar history, you might encourage them to think about long-term and conflicting characteristics of those decades. The American middle and upper classes experienced unprecedented comfort and prosperity, along with an unprecedented threat of apocalypse--that this new life of ease and gadgetry could be obliterated in a matter of minutes. Intercontinental nuclear weapons made the threat of annihilation very real from the late fifties onward. And even as the technological innovations and daily comforts of democracy seem to have eclipsed the potential enemy of the Cold War U.S.S.R., plenty of controversy remains as to whether the threat of nuclear war has subsided.

Television proliferated in the West during the 1950s and 1960s; a virtual explosion of loud, fast, and lurid media brought news and spectacle into every corner of the United States, transforming nearly every aspect of American public life--including the social impact of the writer, and the nature and duration of literary celebrity.

The works in Unit 15 reflect numerous literary groups that responded to the vast social changes taking place, including the Beats (Ginsberg, Snyder), confessional poets (Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton), the Black Mountain poets (Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley), Black Arts (Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka), the New York school (Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler), feminist poets (Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde), Chicano nationalists (Lorna Dee Cervantes), and latter-day transcendental and pastoral poets (Gary Snyder, Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kennell, and W. S. Merwin). To help situate students with respect to this multitude of literary movements, you might present the Beats as a wellspring of many other movements, the first widely celebrated "bohemian" experiment after World War II. Centered in Greenwich Village and San Francisco, the Beats became known for many traits and preoccupations that showed remarkable durability. New communities of artists came together with an alternative lifestyle that included drug experimentation, a fascination with Eastern religions and personal spirituality, open homosexuality, and an "antiestablishment" demeanor. Beat poetry tends to blur the line between prose and poetry, mixes registers, draws copiously on popular culture, sounds both authoritative and hip, and glorifies the experience of living on the fringes of society.

Confessional poets, like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, also sought to astonish readers by exploring deeply personal experience such as mental illness, sexuality, and hostility within the immediate family. Poets who associated with American feminist thought, including Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Audre Lorde, are often linked to other schools of poetry as well but are distinguished by verse fiercely dedicated to expressing the predicament of modern American women. The Black Arts movement was also ignited by political struggles, specifically those linked to the civil rights and black nationalist movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The Black Mountain poets, including Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, are remembered for the short-lived experimental college in North Carolina where they taught for a while. These poets favored open forms, sudden, unexpected imagery and diction and remarkable freedom in prosody. Theirs was a verse in celebration of spontaneity. The New York school, including Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, distinguished itself by its close association with the experimental painting underway in the city and its environs. From abstract expressionism, these poets learned to perceive the work of art as what critic David Perkins calls a "chronicle of the creative act that produces it." These writers were also influenced by composers dedicated to similar values, including John Cage and Igor Stravinsky.

This search for identity gave rise to the belief that the personal is political, a notion that formed in the 1960s as artists, poets, and activists used their personal lives to make political statements. In questioning American identity, these authors confront the problem of the divided self, whether it be Lorna Dee Cervantes's division between her Chicana heritage and her American life, Adrienne Rich's identification as both a lesbian and a mother, Amiri Baraka's personal variation upon doctrines of Black nationalism and American identity, or Joy Harjo's Native American heritage that highlights the tension between a native worldview and dominant American culture. The poetry of this time is also characterized by open form, conversational diction, candid subject matter, corporeal imagery and symbolism, political and social critique, and radicalism in both thought and lifestyle. Much of the poetry, with the exception of the meditative poets, also depends upon the belief that words and art should be used as political tools. The importance of poetry to so many of the political movements of this time illustrates a direct link between social environment and artistic creation.

The video, archive, and curriculum in this unit highlight intersections among art, politics, and culture. The key historical events and cultural upheavals include protest poetry, free verse, and sexual revolution. The materials also suggest ways that students might relate the authors and works to one another. Students should also be encouraged to consider the contemporary legacy of postwar poetry, including hip-hop, poetry slams, performance art, contemporary jazz, and experimental rock.

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