Introduction to the poetry and poetics of 1960

Jacket2: On Brion Gysin, ‘Minutes to Go’

“Two months before 1960 commenced, Stanley Kunitz in Harper’s Magazine redefined the word ‘experimental’ to mean the inevitable resistance to any prevailing style for the sake of ‘keep[ing] it supple.’ Yet at the time of his writing, the turn of this new decade, ‘the nature of that resistance is in effect a backward look.’ The recent Pulitzer Prize winner added: ‘This happens not to be a time of great innovation in poetic technique: it is rather a period in which the technical gains of past decades, particularly the twenties, are being tested and consolidated.’ By using the phrase ‘the twenties’ Kunitz was referring to modernism’s American heyday. He meant expatriation, avid rule-breaking, aesthetic hijinx coinciding with social high hilarity. The Sixties, starting now, he averred, would be a time of modest ‘consolidation’ rather than of experiment.  Kunitz’s historical generalization would make better sense, as a lament, if he had been seeking to position himself as an inheritor of modernism or had he been commending a contemporary avant-garde. But Stanley Kunitz was certainly not an experimenter; nor did he hope for the new ascendancy of heterodox verse. He gratefully noted widespread popular praise of Robert Frost. …  Instead, disappointingly, the new poets ‘have found it easier to raid [William Carlos] Williams.’ In short, modernism had become the new status quo, a false stand-in for politically relevant traditionalism. Faced with Kunitz’s impressionistic and unevidenced assertion that a ‘pivotal’ year was a time of ‘consolidat[ing]’ and standardizing the modern poetic mode, it remains for contemporary poets and literary historians to construct specific bibliographical and interpretive contexts for testing such claims, eschewing grand cross-generational generalizations (such as Kunitz’s own) that tend to follow the largest contours of aesthetic movements and thus subdue the unlikely convergences that occur at any given moment along the continuum of aesthetic ideologies maturing and then waning at different rates of speed. Whereas Kunitz contends that ‘resistance’ had by 1960 become retrospect, had become a longing rather than a looking forward, a literary history operating from such a constraint, preferring deep to wide (exactly as we prefer through tonight’s format), might serve as a resistance to such a sense of resistance. …”

Jacket2: On Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, ‘Hymns of St. Bridget’

About 1960s: Days of Rage

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