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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation

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For many, the 1960s mark the true end of modern America. Whereas the modernists remained serious about the transcendent nature of art, the artists of the 1960s wanted an art that was relevant. They wanted an art that not only spoke about justice, but also helped create it. This program explores the innovations made in American poetry in the 1960s by Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Adrienne Rich.

Instructor Overview

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 the 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.

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. discuss the political, historical, and social contexts of postwar poetry, particularly the counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s;
  2. discuss several different schools of poetry represented by poets in the unit, namely the Beat movement, the New York school, confessional poetry, feminism, and the Black Arts movement;
  3. recognize and describe innovations in the poetry of the period;
  4. describe ways in which these poets differ from their modernist predecessors and how postwar poets continue to challenge and expand our notion of American poetry and the American idiom;
  5. describe postmodernism, discuss its causes and origins, and discuss ways in which the poetry in this unit responds to the postmodern condition.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka

Who’s Interviewed:
Michael Bibby, associate professor of English (Shippensburg University); Maria Damon, associate professor of English (University of Minnesota); Anne Waldman, poet and co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (Naropa University, Boulder); Crystal Williams, poet and assistant professor of creative writing (Reed College)

Points Covered:

  • Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and Amiri Baraka lived for many years in alternative communities, and their poetry often reflects this alternative or contrarian lifestyle. They viewed poetry as intensely political and believed that verse could contribute to moral awakening and social change.
  • The postwar period is characterized by a host of movements, including civil rights, antiwar and disarmament, Black Arts, drug legalization, and feminism. The spirit of protest that shaped the 1960s and 1970s deeply influenced these poets. Poetry often played a part in these protest movements, as Ginsberg’s performance in front of the Pentagon suggests.
  • In the wake of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, America embraced capitalism and conformity. This was the era of the Red Scare, when people not only were afraid of the spread of communism but were actually blacklisting one another for sympathizing with the Soviet cause. The Beat poets rebelled against what they saw as dangerous conformity; they denounced capitalism and distrusted the government.
  • Like other Beats, Ginsberg used his poetry and his lifestyle to rebel against the American status quo. In 1954, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco, where he became active in the counterculture based in Haight Ashbury. He also performed Howl for the first time, sparking public awareness of the Beat movement. Ginsberg shares Whitman’s penchant for lengthy lines, long lists, and authoritative voice. Like Whitman, Ginsberg wrote for the general public.
  • The Black Arts movement included a group of activist artists who used their work to evoke political change. Black Arts comes out of the civil rights and Black Power movements.
  • Amiri Baraka is the representative figure of Black Arts in this unit. Born Everett Leroy Jones, Baraka circulated with the Beats, but eventually left the circle to devote his attention to racial issues. After Malcolm X’s death, Baraka became a black nationalist, and in 1968 he became a Muslim, a conversion that resulted in the changing of his name. Much of Baraka’s work, including his important play Dutchman, is aggressively political and full of rage.
  • Adrienne Rich is an important figure in the women’s movement. Her poetry and prose explore her experiences as a woman and a lesbian, issues that until this time were socially taboo. Her work has challenged assumptions about women in North American society and given many women the vocabulary to talk about their oppression. Rich helped to popularize the idea that the personal is political, meaning that the way we live our personal lives has public consequences and social ramifications that affect and shape the world around us.


  • Preview the video: The 1960s and 1970s were characterized by political and social unrest in America. Protests became a part of 1960s culture. Various demonstrations and protest movements were motivated by the civil rights struggle, the war in Vietnam, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the deterioration of the environment, and a generalized fear that America was becoming a more conformist and materialist society. Poets like Ginsberg, Baraka, and Rich believed that poetry was intensely political, and they used literature to challenge the status quo.
  • What to think about while watching: How did American poets respond to the political and social experience of the 1960s and 1970s? How do the poetry and lifestyle of these writers challenge mainstream American values? What legacy have these poets left for later generations? How did poetry and the public figure of the poets change during this period?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 15 expands on the concepts explained in the video to explore further the changing social and literary traditions as they contributed to, and were affected by, the writings of the authors covered. The curriculum materials introduce students to many schools of poetry that emerged during this time, including the New York school, the Chicano movement, the feminists, Black Arts, Beats, meditative poets, and language poets. The unit also offers background on integral historical events, including the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and Black Arts, which shaped the literature and outlook of the postwar period.

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?


alienation – The experience of feeling outside mainstream culture. Most of the poets and movements in this unit explore a sense of alienation from society that has compelled them to search elsewhere for meaning. The emphasis on Eastern religion, alternative states of reality, hedonism, and nature suggests that these poets were seeking to redefine themselves and their generation through art.

free verse – Poetry that does not have a regular rhyme scheme or meter. Some of the features of free verse include enjambment, visual patterning, and varying line lengths. Most poets in this unit write in free verse.

protest poetry – Poetry that strives to undermine established values and ideals, particularly those associated with the government and other bodies of authority. Protest poetry often aims to shock readers into political action by discussing taboo subject matter, using unconventional and often profane language, criticizing popular beliefs, and shunning formal poetic conventions.

removal – A term that refers to the American policy, spearheaded by President Andrew Jackson, which forcibly relocated major southeastern Indian tribes to Oklahoma. The Creek Indians, along with most of the other large southern tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw, were removed to Oklahoma during the 1830s. The Cherokee were forced to march to Oklahoma along what became known as the Trail of Tears, as over one-third of the tribe died en route.

Roe v. Wade – A controversial Supreme Court case from 1973, in which the Court ruled that abortion was legal. This was a turning point in American history because it gave women more authority over their bodies. The decision met with immediate resistance from Catholic groups and Christian fundamentalists. As the decade progressed, the courts gradually qualified the decision, making more stringent rules about the time frame and circumstances under which abortions can be performed.

sex(uality) – The sexual revolution was characterized not only by openness about the body and sex, but also by a willingness to engage in sexual activity outside marriage. Suddenly, the moral constraints placed on sexual activity were challenged, and sex became not just a more accepted and talked-about part of life, but also an area of experimentation and a symbol of the counterculture’s rejection of mainstream values. The attitude towards sex in the 1960s revolutionized American culture and illustrates another example of the body being used as a site of radicalism and protest. This new candor about sex also ushered in the gay rights movement, which took off in the 1970s.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Bibby, Michael. Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry, and Resistance in the Vietnam Era. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1996.

Charters, Ann. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

Lee, A. Robert, ed. The Beat Generation Writers. Chicago: Pluto Press, 1996.

McMahon, Mary Sheila. “The American State and the Vietnam War: A Genealogy of Power.” In The Sixties: From Memory to History. Ed. by David Farber. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994.

Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry, vol. II. Boston: Harvard UP, 1987.

Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Steigerwald, David. The Sixties and the End of Modern America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Further Resources
The Academy of American Poets

America’s War on Poverty [videorecording]. Producer Terry Kay Rockefeller. Alexandria: PBS Video, 1995.

Brooks, Charles. Best Editorial Cartoons of 1972: A Pictorial History of the Year. Gretna: Pelican, 1973.

A Century of Recorded Poetry [sound recording]. Los Angeles: Rhino Records, 1996.

Greenberg, Jan, ed. Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance [sound recording]. Berkeley: Fantasy Records, 1993.

Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work [sound recording]. Los Angeles: Rhino/World Beat, 2000.

Palabra: A Sampling of Contemporary Latino Writers [videorecording]. San Francisco: The Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives, SFSU, 1994.

Reflections on the Wall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1987.

Sullivan, James D. On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1997.

Young, Al. Color: A Sampling of Contemporary African American Writers [videorecording]. San Francisco: The Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives, SFSU, 1994.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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