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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
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

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.

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