Literature, 20th-Century Poetry
modernist poets, John Berryman, Beat poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich
Modern themes and styles of poetry have been part of the American repertoire since the early part of the 20th century, especially in the work of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Their works were difficult, emotionally restrained, full of non-American allusions, and often inaccessible. After World War II, new poetic voices developed that were more exuberant and much more American in inspiration and language. The poets who wrote after the war often drew upon the work of William Carlos Williams and returned to the legacy of Walt Whitman, which was democratic in identification and free-form in style. These poets provided postwar poetry with a uniquely American voice.
The Beatnik, or Beat, poets of the 1950s notoriously followed in Whitman’s tradition. They adopted a radical ethic that included drugs, sex, art, and the freedom of the road. Jack Kerouac captured this vision in On the Road (1957), a quintessential book about Kerouac’s adventures wandering across the United States. The most significant poet in the group was Allen Ginsberg, whose sexually explicit poem Howl (1956) became the subject of a court battle after it was initially banned as obscene. The Beat poets spanned the country, but adopted San Francisco as their special outpost. The city continued to serve as an important arena for poetry and unconventional ideas, especially at the City Lights Bookstore co-owned by writer and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Other modernist poets included Gwendolyn Brooks, who retreated from the conventional forms of her early poetry to write about anger and protest among African Americans, and Adrienne Rich, who wrote poetry focused on women's rights, needs, and desires.
Because it is open to expressive forms and innovative speech, modern poetry is able to convey the deep personal anguish experienced by several of the most prominent poets of the postwar period, among them Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. Sometimes called confessional poets, they used poetry to express nightmarish images of self-destruction. As in painting, removing limits and conventions on form permitted an almost infinite capacity for conveying mood, feeling, pain, and inspiration. This personal poetry also brought American poetry closer to the European modernist tradition of emotional anguish and madness. Robert Frost, probably the most famous and beloved of modern American poets, wrote evocative and deeply felt poetry that conveyed some of these same qualities within a conventional pattern of meter and rhyme.
Another tradition of modern poetry moved toward playful engagement with language and the creative process. This tradition was most completely embodied in the brilliant poetry of Wallace Stevens, whose work dealt with the role of creative imagination. This tradition was later developed in the seemingly simple and prosaic poetry of John Ashbery, who created unconventional works that were sometimes records of their own creation. Thus, poetry after World War II, like the visual arts, expanded the possibilities of emotional expression and reflected an emphasis on the creative process. The idea of exploration and pleasure through unexpected associations and new ways of viewing reality connected poetry to the modernism of the visual arts.
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