American Poetry of the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

A Let's Talk About It series developed by Baron Wormser

  • Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (J.D. McClatchy, editor)
  • Nineteenth-Century American Poet (Penguin Classics)


Contemporary American poetry as defined by J.D. McClatchy’s Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry is a diverse and powerful endeavor. Any reader coming to the volume may wonder where all this poetry comes from, for as a new nation in 1786 the United States did not have any traditions it could call its own. The oral/aural culture of the American Indians who already lived on the continent and of the Africans who were brought as slaves to the colonies and then the nation was denigrated. As for England, it became progressively further and further away from the American experience. The United States was going to need its own poetry.

Among the welter of poets in the nineteenth century there are three who may be taken as progenitors of the poets of the twentieth century. They are Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The first two are the major figures of nineteenth century American poetry; the last, in the words of a sympathetic reader such as poet Richard Wilbur, is “a good minor poet.” Although any categorical approach is bound to be somewhat generalized, it is fair to say that each of these poets stands for strong tendencies, concerns, attitudes, aesthetic outlooks, and passions that have come to mark latter-day American poetry as distinctly American.

The series American Traditions/ American Innovations: American Poetry of the Second Half of the Twentieth Century offers an opportunity to explore the depth and range of contemporary American poetry. The first session of the program will be devoted to a consideration of the three American poets listed above. Accordingly, the free verse, expansive, vatic impulses of Whitman will be considered along with the metaphysical, homemade, intense designs of Dickinson and the socialized, fluent, lyric manners of Longfellow. It is a rare American poet who could not speak at length about his or her relationship to Whitman and Dickinson. While many poets might not recognize Longfellow, he is important as a representative of a poetry that continues to be written, a poetry using traditional meters and forms and conversant with the social mores of a given time and place. Whereas Whitman thrived on oratory and Dickinson on an incredibly alert inner voice, Longfellow (in Richard Wilbur’s words) submitted “his will to the matter at hand.” He bowed to social reality where Whitman saluted it in all its multitudinous vigor and Dickinson thought it a small thing beside the workings of individual human imagination and conscience.

Following weeks will focus on contemporary poets. Weeks two through four will look, respectively, at poets who have followed some of the proclivities displayed in the work of Whitman, Dickinson, and Longfellow. Although poets invariably are synthesizers as artists, it would be fair to align, for instance, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell with Whitman or Robert Creeley and Sylvia Plath with Dickinson or Howard Moss and Richard Wilbur with Longfellow. Week five will offer each participant a chance to bring in a poem by a contemporary American poet who is not in the anthology, for the anthology while large is by no means definitive.

While the recognition that poems do not spring out of thin air is important, what matters most in reading these contemporary poets is the vitality of the work in its own right. Whatever its lineage may be, a poem remains a construct of words that has to do its work with those very finite words. Every word choice in a poem is a major decision. Every word choice enacts how poetry is composed simultaneously in three dimensions — meanings of words (connotation and denotation), sound, and rhythm. The joy of poetry lies in feeling how rich that mix can be as well as attending to words as entities in their own right. The challenge of responding to poetry lies in articulating how poems do their work, how they differ from one another, how some poems can be so utterly original. American poetry of the latter half of the twentieth century is full of such original poems, poems that honor traditions but, as genuine art always must do, pursue innovations.

Questions to Consider

Though the poets who comprise The Vintage Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry are very much their own persons, they evince attitudes and inclinations in their poems that are part and parcel of what they were bequeathed by American poetry of the nineteenth century. In order to consider how they differ from their predecessors, it is valuable to consider what they share with them. It goes without saying that no compartments are airtight when referring to poets, that a poet can be, for instance, profoundly influenced by both Dickinson and Longfellow or Whitman and Dickinson, for instance. Here are some possible questions to consider:

Do they favor free verse? (Whitman)

Do they use conventional forms such as sonnets and rhymed quatrains? (Longfellow, to a lesser degree Dickinson)

Do they honor the individual self as the center of human experience? (Whitman and Dickinson in their different ways)

How much of the socialized, workaday, daily world enters into their poems? (Whitman and Longfellow in masculine ways; Dickinson using women’s routines and environments)

Does the poem feel like a quest for insight or does it feel more like a consideration of an experience? (Dickinson on one hand and Longfellow on the other)

How much does the principle of surprise enter into the poem? (Dickinson)

Do they favor long lines or terse ones? (Whitman on one hand and Dickinson on the other)

Do they tell stories for the sake of telling stories? (Longfellow) If so, how they do they do this? Is there a difference between a story and an anecdote?

What sorts of vocabulary do they favor?

Do they avow large ambitions as to scope? (Whitman)

Are there discernible political dimensions to their poems? (Whitman)

Do they acknowledge God and/or the Judeo-Christian tradition in their poems? (Dickinson) Would you characterize the poems as spiritual in unique ways? (Whitman)

Do the poems feel explicitly American? How so in light of the poetry of the nineteenth century?

What innovations do you note that distinguish a given poet from his or her nineteenth century predecessors?

Sample Weekly Facilitation Plan

(for use after an initial introductory session exploring Whitman, Dickinson, and Longffellow)

Week Two: Whitman, Bly, Ginsberg, Kinnell,

Some points to consider:

Does the poet use the long Whitman line?
Does the poet specifically embrace the democratic experience?
Is there a visionary aspect present?
Does the poet use the catalogs and inventories Whitman favored?
How does the poet praise the physical world?

Week Three: Dickinson, Creeley, Plath,

Does the poet’s take on form echo Dickinson?
Is there much disjunction from line to line?
How is inwardness represented?
In what ways does the poem seem an active exploration of a situation?
Does concision of language matter especially?

Week Four: Longfellow, Moss, Wilbur,

How formal is the poetry in the sense of meter, stanza and rhyme?
Is the poet’s personal presence felt in the poem?
What sorts of topics does the poet choose?
What virtues does the poet find in form?
Does the use of form seem memorable?

Week Five: Contemporary Poems

Each participant should be ready to read aloud a favorite contemporary poem. (It would be good if copies of each poem could be made available to the entire group.) Also, each participant should bring in a few questions to ask that are based on issues raised in the prior weeks. Along these lines, each participant should be ready to venture an opinion about the American traditions—Whitman, Dickinson, Longfellow—that the poem hearkens to.