American Poetry in the 1960's Summary


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

U.S. literary history has followed two essentially separate approaches to poetry. Poets such as Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, and William Cullen Bryant followed a dominant tradition that was based on the British masters of conventional forms and assumed that poetic art depended on formal diction and specific structures; however, at the same time, many poets pursued a countercurrent based on Henry David Thoreau’s contention that “Poetry is nothing but healthy speech” and Walt Whitman’s declaration that the old British poetic forms had no place in the New World. As with many other social and cultural movements, the seeds of the poetry of the 1960’s were planted in previous decades. The artists who spearheaded the Beat scene, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, met in New York in the 1940’s, and by the time Ginsberg’s landmark poem “Howl” was published in 1956, their work was already making an impact on a growing counterculture, preparing the ground for a full-scale transformation in perceptions about poetry and the other arts. Although the work of poets who continued to write in the fashion approved by academic arbiters was not necessarily diminished, an “opening of the field” (as poet Robert Duncan put it) was taking place. Instead of gradually polishing a poem, Ginsberg suggested as a principle of composition termed “first thought, best thought.” He called attention to the work of “young minstrels” who “think not only in words but in music simultaneously,” insisting that the lyrics of songwriters such as Bob...

(The entire section is 641 words.)