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Introduction to American Poetry

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Hello, we are moving into the eighth week today with American Poetry. We will briefly provide
a synoptic view of American Poetry with reference to the historical and literary context of
American Poetry. We will refer to the nineteenth century and before for some contextual
information otherwise we will focus more on the developments in American Poetry in twentieth
As we can see from these topics, these are the major movements, major poetic experiments in
American Poetry from American Modernism and Modernist, The Fugitives, The Beat Generation
African American Poetry, Confessional Poetry, Feminist Poetry, Ecopoetry, New York School of
Poets, Language Poetry and more importantly Native American Poetry.

(Refer Slide Time: 1:15)

Let us look into the historical context now. America is a country is actually a discovery of the
Europeans. Many European expeditions to various parts of the world led to the discovery of
different continents. One of them was this Americas and wherever they went, they discovered,
they colonized to those places. Initially, in the North America that we refer to as US, thirteen
colonies were established but later these colonies evolved into 50 different states making up the
United States that we know today. America got its political independence from Britain in 1776
but the cultural independence was not attained for a long time.
So, this country with people of different origins including native Americans, produced some
literature with a sense of its own literature only in the early nineteenth century. What we have to
notice is, the interaction with American soil and society which is a pre requisite to write truly
great American literature. As the base of all these experiences, what we have to emphasize is the
multi cultural experience which is central to American literature and culture.

(Refer Slide Time: 2:41)

Now let us move onto this literary context. We have listed a few poets here with a focus on how
this original American literature evolved in America. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson, that
transcendental thinker, who call a truly American poet in his essay on “The Poet.” We are
familiar with his essay on ‘The American Scholar’ which is considered to be the declaration of
cultural independence for America. The true poet appeared in the form of Walt Whitman with his
great poem “Leaves of Grass” in 1855.
During the same period in the nineteenth century, we have Edgar Allan Poe who also contributed
notable poems like “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” in addition to his contribution to short
stories. Another great poet we have to remember is Emily Dickinson. Her poetry is characterized
by profound observations of life with her metaphysical wit and precision. Most of her poems
were published after her death only.
During this period, poems of the British variety were also published in the nineteenth and even
early twentieth centuries. One example we have is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who is known
for many of his poems including his epic poem on ‘Hiawatha.’

(Refer Slide Time: 4:18)

It was in the early twentieth century the experiments began to take shape very serio usly. The
predominantly fast and materialistic American society did not have much interest in promoting
great poetry. The reading public was generally happy with many of those conservative traditional
poems written and published in the US.
With recognition from Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the US, a small poet E A Robinson
became a notable poet of the US. Because he was poor, he did not have access to resources.
Somehow, Theodore Roosevelt, the President happen to read one of his poems and then wrote a
letter to Robinson and provided him some job. We have poets like Masters, Lindsay, Sandburg
who were writing about the unique American experience in the early twentieth century. We also
have some women poets like Teasdale, Saint Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie expressing their
own feminine sensibility in their poems.
Now, we come to the great figure in American poetry that is, Robert Frost. He was a lone figure
following the romantic tradition and yet questioning it but he was generally neglected by th e
modernist movement although he was associated with Pound and Eliot for some time. Pound,
Frost, Eliot, actually these are American poets born in America but they had to move to Europe
for cultivating and promoting their poetry. While Frost returned to US, T S Eliot chose to stay
back and became a British citizen.

(Refer Slide Time: 6:12)

Here is the context of American modernism. As we can understand, British modernist poetry was
shaped by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot to a large extent. The Edwardian and Georgian poetry in
Britain was largely traditional. It was, T. S. Elliot and Pound who shaped up this modernist
movement in Britain and then, which came to the US. Pound helped American modernism
flourish from London, from Europe; 3 major literary magazines for the promotion of poetry were
established in the early period in American literary scene.
One of the most important magazines which is still published today is ‘Poetry,’ which was
founded by Harriet Monroe in Chicago in 1912. It is surprising that more than hundred years
have gone by but this magazine continues today with the donation, with the philanthropy of one
person called Ruth Lilly. Most of the poems are freely available to us through the Poetry
Foundation we have now.
Next magazine that we have to remember is Margaret Anderson’s ‘The Little Review.’ It was
started in Chicago then moved to San Francisco, then New York. Later on, it had to move out of
the country to Paris. Next, we have another important magazine of this period ‘The Dial’
established by Thayer and Watson from New York. It was this Dial magazine which published
Eliot’s epic poem ‘The Waste Land’ in 1922 and awarded him a rich prize of 2000 dollars.
Pound’s influential role in American modernist poetry is remarkable. It was he who was a link
between editors and poets in different parts of Europe. His recommendation of poets from

London and Paris was considered to be crucial for promoting American poets, even other poets.
We may remember even Rabindranath Tagore’s poem was published in the first issue of poetry
magazine. His mentorship of poets like Eliot, Frost and William Carlos Williams is enormous.
Something truly remarkable service to poetry we find in the case of Pound.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:45)

Although, American modernism was shaped from Britain, poets writing in the US shaped their
own modernist version. Different poets practiced American modernism in various ways. We
have the case of 3 poets here; Hart Crane, he was influenced by Emerson, Whitman, Browning,
Rimbaud, Eliot and many others. He was an extraordinary genius but died very early due to
depression. It was he who absorbed the futuristic focus of technology into his poem called ‘The
Bridge,’ considered to be a very important poem for American poetry.
Next, we have Wallace Stevens, he was basically a lawyer and chose to write poetry out of
passion for poetry. He was concerned with the interplay of reality and imagination in all of his
poems. In his well-known poem called “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” he says ‘poetry is a
supreme fiction.’ Then we have William Carlos Williams, again a very interesting case of
devoted doctor, medical practitioner turning out to be a very well-known poet. He was initially
mentored by Pound and his movement called ‘imagistic movement’ but then Carlos Williams
became an independent poet of open forms. He became enormously influential in American
poetry and he is known for his epic poem ‘Paterson.’

(Refer Slide Time: 10:18)

Many developments happened in American poetry out of this modernist movement in America.
This Objectivist Poetry is one of them. This term was used by Zukofsky to describe a group of
poets in 1930s. These poets were represented in an anthology called an Objectivist Anthology
edited by Zukofsky in 1932. This is a further development of Ezra Pound’s and Amy Lowell’s
imagism giving importance to objective presentation of experience in modern life.
These poets were considered to be a second generation of modernist. They used concise and free
verse. They also treated poetry as a process and an object. They focused more on everyday life,
sincerity, simplicity and clarity in their poems. Here we have some examples of these poets and
their poems. Louis Zukofsky’s poem called “A,” then George Oppen’s poem “From a
Photograph.” Next, Charles Reznikoff’s poem “Depression” and lastly, we have Lorine
Niedecker whose poem is called “Darwin.” We also have the case of Basil Bunting who is
essentially a British poet but followed this objectivist poetry group.

(Refer Slide Time: 11:49)

Then we have another group of poets called Fugitives. These are a group of poets from
Vanderbilt University located in Tennessee. They published a poetry magazine called “The
Fugitive.” It was short lived from 1922 to 1925. They wrote a kind of traditional poetry about the
south, about the American South. They regarded the poet as a Fugitive trying to escape from
some society or materialistic world.
Some of the notable members of this group are Allen Tate, J. C. Ransom, Robert Penn Warren.
These 3 were also connected with another group of poets called Agrarian Poets because they
were writing about the Agrarian movement in the south. They contributed immensely to their
Southern Renaissance which was flourishing in the early twentieth century. As poet critics, th ey
promoted new criticism as well. Cleanth Brooks and R. P. Warren published one of the most
influential textbooks of understanding poetry in the twentieth century.
Some poems from this group we have here, Tate is known for “Edges,” Ransom for “Janet
Walking” and Warren for “Evening Hawk.” These are poems which we can easily locate on the
poetry magazine page from Poetry Foundation.

(Refer Slide Time: 13:16)

Then, we go to another influential moment in American poetry, The Beat Generation. In the
1940s and 1950s, a group of poets wrote about a new kind of experience. They were
experimental, they were rebelling against the society, they were rebelling against traditions, they
were disillusioned by the mass destruction of people during the Second World War and the Cold
War. They drew inspiration from drugs, sexual freedom, eastern religion, nature, jazz music,
surrealism, metaphysical poetry, visionary poetry, haiku poetic form and Zen poetry.
We can see a mix of many traditions, east and west, trying to find a new experience through
these poets called Beat generation poets, they are called Beat, because they expressed a sense of
being beaten and being weary. Some of the well-known poets of this group are Allen Ginsberg,
Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Garry Snyder, Diana De Prima and many others.
Some examples of poems from this group, we have Ginsberg’s “Hown” Kerouac’s “Useless,
Useless,” Ferlinghetti’s “Dog,” Snyder’s “About Pat Valley” and Di Prima’s “Buddhist New
Year Song.” The poem “Useless, Useless” may tell us about the kind of useless life they were
talking about in this group.

(Refer Slide Time 14:51)

Another major strand of American poetry that we have to understand is African American
poetry. It is a stream; it is a river by itself. So we have two sections to discuss African American
poetry. Almost again we have a synoptic view of entire African American poetry here. Of
course, some representative poets we mentioned, there are many others. In the early American
context, we see African American poets writing poems.
Some examples are Lucy Terry Prince, Jupiter Hammon, George Moses Horton, Phillis
Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Wheatley is known for one poem called “On Being
Brought from Africa to America.” Paul Dunbar is known for many poems. This one is very
interesting, “The Poet and His Song” and another poem also he has on “The Poet.” These are
traditional poems. They touch our heart if you read them.
Then we have a movement called Harlem Renaissance and those who were associated with this
movement are called Harlem Renaissance poets. We have W. E. B. Du Bois, Carl Sandburg,
Claude Mackay, Jessie Fauset and Langston Hughes. Some examples of poems from this group,
we have here Sandburg’s “Chicago” is well known like Ginsberg’s poem called “Howl.” Next,
we have Hughes who wrote this poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Among many other
poems, this particular poem can be a reference to a kind of the river of humanity and civilization.
They are also equally part of this movement, that is what many of this African American poets
are trying to convey to the world.

(Refer Slide Time: 16:39)

We another moment called Black Arts Movement in part of this African American literature in
general and poetry in particular. This movement began with the assassination of an influential
thinker called Malcolm X in 1965. This movement later on asserted the black power more
aggressively than the previous groups. We have some examples of poets like Amiri Baraka,
Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Haki R Madhubuti. Two examples of
poems we have from Baraka whose “Legacy” is known. Then we have Giovanni, let us pay
attention to the title “I wrote a Good Omelet,” more experimental than the previous African
American poets.
Then we have a group of African American feminist poets. They may be connected with many
other groups but specifically these are identified as African American feminist poets. Margaret
Walker, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove. Some examples are Clifton’s “homage to
my hips,” see the title of the poem in lawyer case. Then we have Dove, “Banneker” and the
important poem is “Ars Poetica.” African American poets also could write about the art of
One of the major elements of this black arts movement or Harlem Renaissance was this to prove
that African Americans also can culturally be as important as the rest of the world, particularly
the white Americans.

(Refer Slide Time: 18:15)

A major phenomenon of American poetry is Confessional poetry. This term was coined by M. L.
Rosenthal in his review of Robert Lowell’s poem “Life Studies” in 1959. This was an anti
modernist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. These poets explored the poet’s personal life
frankly, openly focusing on the mental, marital and social problems they faced in their own lives.
They removed the poet’s mask from personal poetry. They did not have much of the difference
between the poet and the person. They expressed themselves openly. Thus, they revolutionized
poetic subject and style.
Now, we can recall Eliot’s Objective theory of poetry but then these poets were writing against
the grain the modernism. Some examples we have Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Expatriates,”
Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” W D Snodgrass’s “Heart’s Needle.”
This title is very interesting to see how the heart was bleeding openly in front of the public. Then
John Berryman’s “Dream Song,” it is a sequence, we have mentioned only one poem “Dream
Song 14.”

(Refer Slide Time: 19:35)

A very important dimension of American poetry is Ecopoetry. They were always concerned with
nature in some form or other. American Ecopoetry is known for realistic, cautionary, accusative
and apocalyptic vision as against the traditional nature poetry. It raises the political question of
the survival of the earth. It examines the complex interrelationships between human beings and
nature. One of the most important points that we have to remember is, we are all interconnected
in some way. Some virus came out from somewhere but now you can see the whole world is
affected by Covid 19. This proves the ecocritical principle or ecological principle that we are all
interconnected. If one suffers, all of us will suffer, this is the basic dharma of Eco-poetry or
dharma of life that we find in life in general.
Numerous poets from various positions like African American feminist, native Americans and
all that write, continue to write Ecopoetry in American’s context. We have some examples here.
W. S. Merwin’s “For a Coming Extinction,” A. R. Ammons’s “World,” William E Stafford’s
“The Well Rising,” Jay Parini’s “Anthracite Country.” Lastly, we have Stephanie Butt whose
poem is “Advice from Rock Creek Park.” Are we listening to nature? Are we really able to
understand the kind of extinction that we are going to face? That is what these nature poets
though not like romantic nature poets, they are writing, they are drawing attention to our own

(Refer Slide Time: 21:23)

Another major dimension of American poetry is specifically feminist poetry. It is very strong in
American literature. The poets of this group deal with the themes of sexuality, authorship,
motherhood, gender, nature, language, power, sisterhood, love, death and everything else. We
have some feminist poets in the modernist group like Gertrude Stein, Hilda Doolittle, Marianne
Moore and Amy Lowell. While writing about life in general, according to modernist movement,
they were also writing about feminist concerns.
Then we have African American poets but they are also part of this feminist movement what we
have in Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton are all poems about not only black
people but also black women, that is why we have these racial and gender issues in African
American feminist poetry.
Then we saw these confessional poets, they were talking about themselves like Anne Sexton,
Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds. They were also dealing with women’s concerns. We have another
group from this feminist poetry, that is radical feminists. Two of the notable examples from this
group are Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. They have presented the ways of dignified living for
Some examples of poems we have here now. Stein’s “A Substance in a Cushion,” Gwendolyn
Brooks’s “the mother,” Sexton’s “All My Pretty Ones,” Adrianne Rich’s “What Kind of Times
Are These? And lastly Aurde Lorde’s “A Woman Speaks.” Does a man listen? That is a big

question. Does a black man listen? Does a white man listen? Does a man from any other place
listen to a woman? That is a huge problem for this feminist poetry.
(Refer Slide Time: 23:23)

Here is another group of poets called Black Mountain Poets. These are a group of poets
associated with the short-lived Black Mountain College in Asheville that is North Carolina State.
They were called labeled or called Black Mountain Poets by David Allen in his anthology of The
New American Poetry published in 1960. These poets were guided by the theory of Projective
Verse advanced by one of the leaders Charles Olson. They believed in breath or syllable as a unit
of composition. They used the whole page as a field of composition to write their poems.
They were to attempting to remove the individual ego from their poetry and emphasized the
community. Here we have some examples, Charles Olson’s “Maximus, to himself,” Robert
Creeley’s “The Door,’ Robert Duncan’s “Food for Fire, Food for Thought,” Hilda Morely’s
“Winter Solstice” and Denise Levertov’s “The Communion.”

(Refer Slide Time: 24:29)

One of the groups from this American Poetry is New York School of Poets. Basically, they were
all experimental painter poets that means, they were painting and also writing poems. This term
was coined by Robert Motherwell, a painter to identify these poets as a group. It is a divergent
group of people sharing a few common features of wit, urbanity and conversational tone. These
poets were influenced by literary surrealism and abstract expressionism from painting. These
painters themselves were poets. They also were collaborating with other well-known painters
like Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning.
Well known examples of this group are John Ashbery’s “The Painter,” Frank O’Hara’s
“Meditations in an Emergency,” James Schuyler’s “A Stone Knife,” Kenneth Koch’s “The
Circus” and Barbara Guest’s “The Blue Stairs.” We also have a second generation of New York
School of Poets in Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan, who are known for two poems we have
mentioned here Notley for “No World is intact,” Berrigan for “A Certain Slant of Sunlight.”

(Refer Slide Time: 25:50)

One more group of poets we have in a movement called Language Poetry. It was an
experimental poetry movement in 1970s. The term was derived from the poetry magazine edited

by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews called Language hyphenated like this L-A-N-G-U-A-
G-E with hyphens. This kind of poetry pays attention to how language constructs meaning. It

involves the reader the construction of meaning. This is connected with the contemporary literary
theories of deconstruction and post-structuralism because this group shares their questions about
language, meaning, construction, social construction and things like that.
This group is further associated with the objectivist poetry of Louis Zukofsky. We have Michael
Palmer’s “Eighth Sky,” Lyn Hejinman’s “The Water Was Rising,” Ron Silliman’s “You, Part 1,”
Rae Armantrout’s “The Fold,” Charles Bernstein’s “Questionnaire.” For those of you who are
interested in how to prepare a questionnaire? What is the structure of question? and all that can
see how this poem called Questionnaire is written in the form of a questionnaire. It is interesting
to see this, again available on Poetry Foundation page.
A key theoretical text of this group is Silliman’s “The New Sentence.” They were concerned
with how language is used, how words mean, how the interconnections exist between words and
sentence structures and the society as well.

(Refer Slide Time: 27:30)

Now we come to the last group of poets in Native American Poetry but this is not the last, this is
the first. America was a land of native people and these native people were not able to get any
voice but recently they have got some attention. So, we have brought here to draw our attention
to the kind of poetry, that is written by Native Americans. Almost 560 indigenous nations are
there in the US alone. Then we have other Americas like Canada and South America. Here alone
we have 560 indigenous nations. That means, we have a very rich diversity but these poets and
writers are not represented as they ought to be.
We have few anthologies of poems by these native Americans. One is, “New Poets of Native
Nations” edited by Heid Erdrich, published by Graywolf Press in 2018. This editor Erdrich is
from Ojibwe tribe. This collection includes 21 poets writing since 2000, that means lot of poets
are there before some other anthologies are there but we have chosen to pay attention to this
volume. Well known poets are Sherman Alexie and Joy Harjo. Alexie’s poem “How to Write the
Great American Indian Novel” is interesting in its title itself.
Then we have Joy Harjo’s poem, “Eagle Poem.” Quite strangely, we have Joy Harjo as a poet
Laureate now. All those poets who were neglected so far, now they have got some representation
through Harjo as Poet Laureate of the US, the first one from this native American community.
They have got some voice now. Let us hope they will be able to write more poems and they will
be able to get more attention from the American public and the rest of the world.

(Refer Slide Time: 29:42)

To end this lecture on American Poetry, we have chosen an extract from Joy Harjo’s poem
“Eagle.” A poem, the title itself Eagle Poem. It tells us about the kind of spirit these native
Americans have. Let us read it.

“To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon,
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like Eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River, Circled in blue sky

In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.”

There is always an attempt of great poets to reach silence, to go beyond language, to go beyond
words. That is what we find in the circles of motion by this eagle through this poem Eagle Poem.
The kind of native interest in spirituality, nature, community and a greater understanding of life
than what we have in western civilization that is something remarkable. To read the whole poem,
please visit Poetry Foundation web page.
(Refer Slide Time: 31:08)

We have a summary of the whole presentation now. We have seen the historical and literary
context of American poetry from nineteenth century to twentieth century. We first looked at
early twentieth century American poetry where we found this modernism and modernist along
with the traditionalists. Then different groups of poets like The Fugitives, The Beat Generation,
African American Poetry, Confessional Poetry, Feminist Poetry, Ecopoetry, New York School of
poets, Language Poetry and then, Native American Poetry.
All these poets from different groups have contributed to the topic that we have American
Poetry. In the subsequent lectures, we will see some sample poems by well-known poets.

(Refer Slide Time: 31:57)

Here are some references. From one of the references by Philip Young, it is interesting to see
that Indian literature, our own Sahitya Akademi Journal was published in 1957. And the first
issue of Indian literature carried an article on American Poetry by an American. That is a cross
cultural interaction through literature and poetry. Thank you.