By William Packard

Our perplexing 20th century began with a safe poesy brimming with pieties of the Victorian era -and the official canon of Longfellow and Whittier and Holmes and James Russell Lowell was still being taught in almost all our American schools. Walt Whitman emerged only gradually as the great major voice in American poetry, while Poe and Dickinson still awaited widespread recognition. Masters and Robinson and Lindsay and Carl Sandburg were considered modern onjh our home soil.

But then something extraordinary happened. In the 1920's, the later poems of Yeats and the CANTOS of Pound and THE WASTE LAND of Eliot caused an international sensation, and incidentally effected a wholesale revolution in prosody and poetics. Poetry could no longer be seen as a purveyor of pieties or even as some quaint cultural artifact, but insisted on being seen as living embodiment of civilization itself. And this modernist revolution gave rise to the New Criticism in America, which elevated the teaching of poetry to a rigorous hybrid explication of the text.

During this period, the genius of American poetry was being explored by 7 major figures--Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, E.E.Cummings, Marianne Moore, and Robert Frost. These poets all celebrated American speech cadences and used local imagery and idioms.

In the late 1950's, two major figures--Allen Ginsberg in HOWL and Robert Lowell in LIFE STUDIES--ripped the veil off American literature in order to write directly about the awfulness of living daily life in America. Poetry took on a desperate immediacy and existential risk it had never had before--and Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and dozens of others continued on with this legacy.

In the 1960's the creation of the National Endowments gave official status to American poetry and incidentally helped to disperse it into a myriad of styles and voices--there was confessional poetry, open field composition poetry, concrete poetry, deep image poetry--and these different techniques were all exacerbated by the electronic media and made public by a growing cult of poetry readings and slam dunk performance of poetry.

In the 1990's, poetry is now so polarized into such a bevy of special interests--there is black and Chicano and Native American Indian poetry, and feminist poetry, and gay poetry, and academic poetry--and the subject matter of this contemporary poetry is open to all types of experience: there are mother/daughter poems, childhood molestation poems, rape poems, lesbian love poems, incest poems, divorce poems, child custody poems, drug poems, care for the aging poems, race poems, AIDS poems, and poems about the writing of poems.

It is this polarization and diversity of voices and visions today that needs a comprehensive overview, so we can begin to reclaim our intuitive coordinates of who and what we are.

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