The New American Project: The New American Poetry Anthology and The Arcades Project, Chapter 1 of 3

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The new American Poetry Anthology

In 1960, Donald Allen published The New American Poetry Anthology 1945-1960 in an attempt to capture the 3rd wave of modernist poetry that was active in the post-war years in the United States. This anthology included poets at the forefront of the poetic avant-garde that eventually became the canon of 20th century poetry. These poets included the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and their contemporaries. The importance of this collection cannot be overstated, as it serves as not only a collection of some of the most inventive and important poems of the mid-century, but as a time capsule for the mid-century culture. The attitudes and experiences presented in the collection represent a wide range of American ideals, lifestyles, and sub-cultures. The poetic cultures represented include the Black Mountain School, the San Francisco Renaissance, The Beat Generation, and The New York School. The geographical areas represented include New York, San Francisco, North Carolina, and other American regions. The collection introduced the reading public to the innovations of form from these various schools, like the Black Mountain’s composition by field, The New York School’s Personism, and the Beat’s Spontaneous Composition.

Though the Anthology is organised in separate groups, it represents a wider communal poetic community. While the creation of the anthology was headed by Donald Allen, typing the whole manuscript himself, there was a collective feeling in the selection of poets and formatting. Allen had regular correspondence regarding the selection of poets and poems with many that appear in the anthology, including, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Duncan. Each poet urged Allen to include specific poets or poems that increased the anthology’s inclusiveness and, thus, importance. These poets urged Allen to include a couple more female poets (the only female poet in Allen’s original vision was Denise Levertov), more poets from the San Francisco area, and more long poems. Duncan gave a healthy dose of resistance to the project to balance out the other poets’ helpfulness. Olson’s role was “crucial to the editing of The New American Poetry, and his advice seems to have played a significant role in the conceptualizing and shaping of the anthology”, according to Alan Golding.[i]  Olson also made the important decision not to include earlier modernist poets, thus excluding the option for a type of lineage section to start the anthology. This decision by Olson, agreed upon by Allen, solidified the anthology’s function as a time capsule that captured a precise, profound point in American poetics.

Robert Duncan put up the most resistance. To the point of withdrawing from the project for a year, during its coming together. Duncan harboured reservations on anthologies edited by non-poets. His fear was of a non-poet “arbitrating the art”[ii], and the canonising power of anthologies. Duncan believed that power should only come from the source itself: the poets. Though, he eventually did return to the project and is framed in it, rightfully, as one of the leading poets of the period. This does raise concerns as to what would constitute an authentic representation and what Allen was trying the represent in the first place. In including the leading and most inventive poetics of the period, Allen succeeds, as is evidence by the influence these poets exerted through the rest of the century, though, in no small part due to this anthology. Stephen Jonas, for example, is a poet that was excluded from the anthology and who died in relative obscurity and is just now receiving a revival of reputation almost fifty years after his death. Many of his contemporaries considered him a master of the craft and believed his life would have been very different, had he been included in the anthology. It is in the space given to each poet that one may find a skewed view, if there is one to be found in the anthology. The poet that is given the most item space is Frank O’Hara at 15 poems. This in itself is nothing unusual, for O’Hara is often included in lists of leading poetic voices, but when seen next to John Ashbery, arguably the poet with the larger impact on the poetics of the century, who is given only 3 poems, the power dynamic of the New York School is skewed. And poets that are far more well-known and whose work is more widely referenced get less space than O’Hara, such as Creeley, Duncan, and Olson. The legitimacy of the bias is sharpened when it is noted that Donald Allen also edited The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. This does suggest some favouritism.

The other potentially problematic framing of this anthology is the way the poets are grouped. For the most part they are group correctly according to style, geography, and personal relationships. Though there are some placements that change the identity to be formed around some of these poets in the decades after the anthology’s publication. Duncan is included in the Black Mountain section, despite having a style very different to a “typical” Black Mountain poet and having spent most of his life in San Francisco. Duncan himself wanted to be placed in this section, holding the belief that the term “San Francisco Renaissance” was a misnomer and that there was actually no such thing. While Duncan was very aware of the self-image he wanted portrayed, especially in this anthology, his work would fit better in the San Francisco Renaissance section based on form and geography, whether or not he accepted its existence. Duncan’s argument for wanting inclusion in the Black Mountain section was that of origin. Having had his early work publish in The Black Mountain Review, along with Creeley and Olson, he felt he deserved a spot in the Black Mountain section. Though to the casual reader, this removes Duncan from the city he worked so prolifically in and the society he worked so hard to improve. Similarly, Philip Whalen is included in a catchall section of “miscellaneous poets”, despite close ties to the Beats and even closer ties to the San Francisco Renaissance.  Michael McClure, a pure, albeit unique, Beat poet is also included in this “miscellaneous” section. Jack Kerouac, though he did write poetry, is included in the Beat section, despite being a more competent and well-known Beat novelist. These slight changes alter the identity of the multifaceted San Francisco poetic scene and the identity of the poets themselves in relation to their contemporaries and traditions.

The time in which these poets were writing, and this anthology was being put together, was a time of great conservatism in America. most of the decade was happening under the republican Eisenhower administration, a conservative administration. The beginnings of the Cold War were taking place with the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Many, if not most of these poets, identified with left leaning or extreme left-wing politics in direct opposition to conservatism, like Allen Ginsberg, who was raised as a communist and held no regrets about being so. Many poets lived alternative lifestyles that were punishable by law, like Duncan, Ginsberg, and O’Hara, all openly gay men. But most of these poets gravitated towards the coasts, either to San Francisco or New York City, for part, if not all, of their writing careers. San Francisco and New York City have both been bastions of left-leaning beliefs and centres for counterculture ideals. In san Francisco at the mid-century Ginsberg helped to lead the city in consciousness liberation be it through the Beat philosophies of spontaneity in the 50s or the hippie mind expansion of the 60s. Duncan helped lead San Francisco in its gay rights campaign in the pre-stonewall era of the cause. New York fostered the counterculture that gave rise to the likes of Bob Dylan in the 60s and the Stonewall Riots that gave the gay rights movement a jolt of energy. New York also housed a more intellectual, high art counterculture the likes of O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Jackson Pollock inhabited.  Both cities since the 50s have remained places for liberal minded artists to find peace in times of conservatism. Black Mountain College is an anomaly that drew the most radical artist from many artforms to an otherwise historically conservative region. Instructors there included John Cage, William Carlos Williams (as a guest lecturer), and Buckminster Fuller.  The whole of the Black Mountain section of the anthology taught, studied, or both at its North Carolina campus. The three main geographical locations act as both political and physical locations that help pinpoint the context of these poets and their work.

The creative explosion that happened after the chaos of the second world war and the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt is reflected in this anthology. The decades after the war were the most prosperous years in American history at the time and that flourishing extended to the creative arts. Poets in response to various factors of their youth became more experimental with their art and took more risks than their predecessors, while keeping the utmost respect for them. Their predecessors being the likes of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and H.D. of the first wave of modernism, and Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Patchen, and Kenneth Rexroth of the second wave. This explosion allowed for a national poetic community made up of distinct, developed, and influential ideas and poets, the likes of which the country had never seen before. This creatively prolific atmosphere is one of the major aspects behind both the need for and success of The New American Poetry Anthology. This changed the mood from having two poetic communities: the mainstream and the Avant-garde, to having a community made up of multiple Avant-garde circles. These circles act as essential “subcultures [that] challenge post-war consensus and [have] ‘open’ forms [that] reinvigorate a poetry dulled by New Criticism”,[iii] as Benjamin Lee suggests. These poetic subcultures fragment the literary world more than it had been up until that point, resulting in 44 poets being included in the anthology, many more than found in a typical anthology before publication. 

This wide-ranging collection of poets producing an even wider ranging collection of poems allows for a rich understanding of the mid-century and the experiences of these poets. The collection acts as a window into the collective mind of these poets and allows for a nuanced portrait to be painted not only of the poetic scene of the mid-century, but the wider national scene, including politics, economics, and entertainment. The poems in this collection capture the various portraits found within American society in the post war period leading into the second half of the 20th century. Poets that represent multiple economic classes, geographical locations, sexual orientations, and intellectual levels are presented side by side for a collective view into what Donald Allen thought to be a worthy portrait of American poetics at the mid-century. In The New American Poetry Anthology one can find a “new, avant-garde cultural response to a repressive and desperately repressed historical moment: a rebellious, violent, creative, orgasmic, and individualist response” that captures America’s intellectual and creative subconscious in the post war years, as Lee, again, suggests.[iv] This response is one that shocked the poetic and academic establishment and resulted in a fresh poetic tradition that influences multiple generations of writer and readers in America and abroad, while carrying forward the traditions of pre-war and inter-war modernist ideas and practices. The collage of these ideas made up from the orgasmic Beats, the individualistic New York School, the creative San Francisco Renaissance, or the violent Black Mountain School results in a relatively well-rounded creative exploration of the third wave modernists. This collection is full of rich and detailed material that deals with many aspects of life and the human experience.


The Arcades Project

Walter Benjamin’s unfinished epic philosophical masterpiece, The Arcades Project, is a study of 19th century Paris and its seemingly infinite aspects. Benjamin’s goal was to use the collage technique he noticed in literature to weave a rich tapestry of Parisian life, in hopes to illuminate the present (1927-1940 for him). In his massive work, he breaks up each concept, ranging from mirrors to Baudelaire, into convolutes. Within each convolute he uses original thoughts, quotes, literary excerpts, social and philosophical theory, newspaper clippings, common phrases, and more to accomplish the deeply rich portrait of each concept he examines. What results is a phantasmagoria of capitalistic questioning that compares “the combined material and psychic dissonance of advanced industrial capitalism against the larger ideal of humanity”, according to Kenneth Michael Panfilio.[v] This analysis of capitalism spirals into a grand collage of every aspect of experience.

An individual convolute is made up of multiple pieces of information, sometimes hundreds of pages long. Multiple convolutes together in this work that is over 1,000 pages long become an overwhelming source of stimulation and information. In that moment, the reader becomes a “flaneur…that is starved and exhausted by the endless wandering through the labyrinthine passageways of the larger phantasmagoric, capitalist world”[vi] and participates in the experience that Benjamin conveys of Paris. This “Capitalistic world” is one that wipes out any source of intimacy, due to its overwhelming nature. The text itself is a city with infinite possibilities and one can easily become lost. The Arcades Project is a city on pages. It is as close an experience to the real thing that ever existed on a page. It is this transformative feature that helps the reader navigate the complexity of the issues discussed.

The Arcades Project was written in the chaotic years before and during both world wars, in Paris. Benjamin looks back to a Paris of the 19th century to help make sense of the Paris of the 20th century he was experiencing. His own radical socialist politics found comfort in the revolutionary Paris of the French Revolution. His awe of capitalistic excess finds kin in the opulence of the arcades themselves and in the flaneur. His own search for truth is pre-empted by that of Baudelaire and Victor Hugo. The wide spanning collection of knowledge and theory is on the same level as that found in The New American Poetry Anthology. Benjamin seeks to understand the city he lives in through multiple angles and world views. The same process can be found in the poetry of the mid-twentieth century.

Benjamin touches on many capitalistic things that many of the poets in the anthology would be as equally disgusted as he; such as the Flaneur who surveys the market, or the prostitute that symbolises exploitative work conditions pressed upon the working by the bourgeoisie. He also touches upon the obsessive quest for power through money of the bourgeoisie in the figure of the gambler. Benjamin’s Gambler is always seeking omnipotence in trying to control the acquisition of money and the use of that money. This is a figure that poets like Ginsberg and Duncan would outright reject. Panfilio suggests that this use of money is a way for people to get away from “organic experience”.[vii] This is like the Black Mountain belief that poetry should return to the body for a more organic experience, that resulted in a poetry that was composed straight from the poet’s lungs. These poets recognise the limits of the poet and that poetic power cannot extend past the human form. Benjamin’s Gambler would disagree and say that power, in the form of cash, could extend far beyond the human form and provide infinite power.

A relevant theory in the arcades project is one of collection. Panfilio suggest that Benjamin believes collecting to be “something like a quixotic search to reach out to a place beyond the heavens where the perfect form of things lay unknown to the world of human beings”[viii]. In the case of Donald Allen, it might be more accurate to use Benjamin’s definition of collection as “a form of practical memory”.[ix] Allen wanted more of a showcase of the leading voices of the mid-century, rather than find a perfect form unknown to humans. In this way Allen and Benjamin serve similar functions in collection nuanced portraits to capture a certain time and place.

The work in The Arcades Project was left unfinished due to Benjamin’s suicide in 1940 on the French-Spanish border, five years before the earliest poem in The New American Poetry Anthology was written. Though they are still separate, the worlds of the two texts came very close to becoming one. Many of the New American poets did grow up during the inter-war years. There is an overlap, though not a professional one. Where Benjamin was trying to make sense of a world pre- and inter-war, the poetry in the anthology was a reaction to a world that had recently become post-war.


This Series

This series will aim to demonstrate related ideas between the theories presented in The Arcades Project with the poetry found in The New American Poetry Anthology 1945-1960. In order to do so, five convolutes and five poets have been chosen for discussion. The poets chosen are John Ashbery, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. The first three of these poets appear in chapter 2, and the last two appear in chapter 3. They were chosen because of their importance within the anthology and because they represent a wide range of poetic experience. Ashbery for the New York School, Ginsberg for the Beats, Whelan for his connection to the San Francisco Renaissance and the more unaffiliated poets. Creeley and Duncan were chosen for their unique situation of having equal experience in multiple poetic communities, mainly the Black Mountain School and the San Francisco Renaissance. Both poets present an idiosyncratic style that keeps them from fully integrating into any single poetic community, though both are found in the Black Mountain section of the anthology. The five convolutes chosen are “The streets of Paris”, “Mirrors, “Modes of Lighting”, “Social Movement”, and “idleness”. Again, the first three appear in chapter 2, and the last two appear in chapter 3. These were chosen for their relevance to the content and context of the poets and poems.  

Chapter 2 will explore “The Instruction Manual” by John Ashbery, “For C.” by Philip Whalen, and part 1 of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg; and their relationship to the convolutes that invoke the spirit of the automobile: “The Streets”, “Mirrors”, and Lighting”. The subheading of “The Streets” will deal with Ashbery’s interaction with the sensuality of the streets and how the city streets and an individual can affect one another’s identity. It traces the beginnings of young love to illustrate the need for protection and intimacy between persons and between a person’s environment. An analysis of “For C.” will explore the street as a place for authentic expression and how one’s mental image can shape the environment, a more one-sided experience than is seen in Ashbery’s symbiotic identity forming. And Ginsberg’s “Howl” will illustrate how the streets function as a place for dissent and a flourishing counterculture. It will demonstrate how a city is diverse enough to accommodate even opposing viewpoints in the same physical space and how many layers of one place can represent a universe in miniature. 

The second subsection in chapter 2: lighting and mirrors, deals with the poems themselves as refocusing and emphasising alternate view of the mainstream, from the foreign, to the personal, to the twisted.  This subsection will deal less with the content of the poems and more with the poems conceptually and how they open readers to a potentially new culture or viewpoint. In exploring how these poems can expose readers to new cultures, the interweaving nature of mankind becomes apparent. Through these poems, an international understand emerges and connects the already varied poetic community at the mid-century with a growing world. It refocuses the lights and brings the outside into the café, as Benjamin suggests a good mirror should.

Chapter 3: Social Movement and Idleness, deals with the stereotypical dichotomy of a poet’s life. The social motivator and the societal idler. Here, Duncan’s poem “This Place Rumord to have Been Sodom” explores, in the chapter’s first subheading, “Social Movement”, sites of past revolution and how that effects the present. Its biblical connections are no less important than its connection to social change when discussing its prophetic visions. Creeley’s “The Door” in the context of social movement, deals with the event of failure when attempting to move socially and economically upward. This failure turns into a “forced Idleness” when the chapter shifts into its second subsection of “Idleness”. “The Door” then deals with the isolation and obstacle put upon working people by the upper classes and the demonization those upper classes put upon the working people. “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom” deals with, in the chapter’s second subheading, the idler as omniscient and how that play into the prophetic nature of the poem.

The Goal of This series is to demonstrate the relationship between Benjaminian theories found in The Arcades Project and the poetry of The New American Poetry Anthology. This series will explore the link between radical thinking of 19th century Paris and radical thinking of 20th century America through the lens of Benjamin and the Mid-Century poets, respectively. Whether this relationship is cohesive or non-cohesive, or has elements of both, it is the goal of This series to present all aspects of the relationship if there is one to present. The nuanced nature of both texts will lead to a nuanced and rich discussion that will reveal more about both The Arcades Project and The New American Poetry Anthology. 


[For part 2, click here]

[i] Golding, Alan, “‘The New American Poetry’ Revisited, Again” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 39, No. 2 (summer 1998) p. 185

[ii] Ibid. p. 189

[iii] Benjamin Lee, “Avant-garde Poetry as Subcultural Practice” in New Literary History, Vol. 41, No. 4, (Autumn 2010) p. 776

[iv] Ibid. p. 782

[v] Kenneth Michael Panfilio, “Awakening from the Nightmarish Slumber of Phantasmagoria: Meditations on Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project” in Philosophy and Social Criticism, Volume 39, issue 3, (January 2013) p. 243

[vi] Ibid. p. 250

[vii] Ibid. p. 248

[viii] Ibid, p. 252

[ix] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) pp. 205 [H1a, 2]

Ryan De Leon was born and raised in Southern California before moving to the UK and earning his BA English Literature and Music and his MA in English Literature, both at Newcastle University. He is now back in California and is the founder of Sons and Daughters.

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