The Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945 edited by Jennifer Ashton (Cambridge University Press 2013) offers a useful guide to post-war and late twentieth century American poetry. It covers a broad range of poetries, although says little about non-institutional poets, with each essay providing a valuable list of further reading.
The editor, Jennifer Ashton, opens with an essay ‘Periodizing Poetic Practice since 1945’, which eschews socio-historical grounding in the materiality of poetic endeavour in favour of an approach based on poetry movements linked to aesthetic and philosophical questions. It thus omits the impact of War and violence on the one hand and developments in publishing on the other and does not show how the movements worked and gained dominance in cultural terms. The approach, whilst attempting to link to questions of the poem’s relationship to meaning, intentionality, materiality, response, value, experience and ordinary language, cuts off a set of deeper questions and divides, such as between print and voice, who bestows critical ascendancy, how the judgement process operates and thus hides alternatives. The Chronology of Publications and Events is highly selective and omits a number of national poetry award winners.
Mark Scroggins’ essay ‘From Late Modernism of the Objectivists to the Proto-postmodernism of Projective Verse’ shows the roots of Projective Verse in Objectivism and delineates the far-reaching impact of Olson on Ginsberg and the Beats, Robert Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance, Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts movement, and some of the Language poets. There is another way of looking at this that might see open-field poetics as more of a development that stemmed from William Carlos Williams and the connections around Black Mountain staff and the Black Mountain Review. Certainly the Olson-Creeley correspondence, the work of Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan’s attempts to bring mythology into the poetic field are pivotal. The essay, whilst brilliant on Zukofsky’s relevance, ignores Ed Dorn and Olson’s impact on English poetry. Nevertheless it is a very useful and important essay.
I found Deborah Nelson’s ‘Confessional School’ essay curiously limited. It provides a social-political background stemming from the Cold War and the Supreme Court battles for privacy but fails to fully reference the historical moment with more local and wider connections between the select few poets that it highlights. In contrast, Charles Altieri’s ‘Surrealism as a Living Modernism’, illuminates the relationship between three New York School poets and two schools of painting, figurative and surrealistic, and shows how their concerns fused, has a stronger sense of the social-historical specifics and brings its connections more alive.
Michael Davidson on the San Francisco Renaissance, Ronna Johnson on Three Generations of Beat Poetics, Margo Natalie Crawford on The Black Arts Movement, Steve McCaffrey on the political background to Language Writing, Nick Selby on Ecopoetries in America and Lisa Sewell on Feminist Poetries are all strong on radical thought and offer well-written introductions. I found Oren Izenberg’s essay on the plight of the scholar poet to be particularly perceptive. Hank Lazar provides a sociological reading of American poetry and its institutions, with plenty of useful statistics, and a sense that there is debate around the institutionalisation of poetry and differing interpretations of what a poet is. I missed an essay on non-academic poets, such as, Charles Bukowski, Edward Field, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc, who are completely ignored. The essay on Rap, Hip Hop and Spoken Word, whilst referencing slam competitions as non-academic, is insufficient in terms of grasping the wider non-academic field. Similarly an essay on the geography of American poetry would have also offered more balance and width as well as producing a more sociological insights. Jennifer Ashton’s essay on the poetry of the first decade of the twenty first century concludes that the poem’s forms and the world’s formal structures are what matters most.
‘The force of the work is to remind us that neither it nor the world it inhabits can be altered by our responses to it or by its effects on us – by, say, our feeling “complete”; they can only be altered by a change to their form. In this respect, we may well have arrived at a crucial dialectical shift in the social and aesthetic history of poetry: a new modernism: post-postmodernism.’