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watch video on Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”

Course video 51 of 106

We conclude ModPo week 5 with chapter 6. There are several ways of looking generally at U.S. poetry in the postwar (post-World War II) period, 1945-60. No single generalization will do, but our course implies two main trends. First, there was a retrenchment, a “coming home,” a consolidation — a mainstreaming of modernism and for some, a new formalist (or "neo-formalist") reaction against what was deemed to be modernist experimental excess. This consolidation coincided with a general renewed cultural conservatism or quietism, generally understood as caused or aided by several factors: fears of communism, concerns about women who had entered the wartime workplace and were now expected to resume domestic life, the apparent ease of daily life during a time of economic growth, the "massification" of university education, the flight from cities, and the suburbanization of values and lifestyle. For some, this meant assuming modernist gains — free verse, wide choice of subject matter, everyday diction — while suppressing radical experiment. For others, it meant an outright antimodernism, though it was now more conservative than the antimodernism of poets in chapters 3 and 5. The latter impulse expressed itself in a neo-classicist use of satire and irony — a kind of new Augustan poetics. Chapter 6 gives us a very brief look at this postwar neo-formalism. [] A second, very different, trend was the explosion of a new poetic radicalism fueled by a sometimes ecstatic and often antic negative response to the above-mentioned quietism and poetic conservatism. Drawing on the experimental spirit of modernism and sometimes celebrating the influence of individual modernist poets, this trend generally came to be known as the “New American” poetry. The Beats of chapter 7 and the New York School poets of chapter 8 are instances of this trend. There are other New American approaches and groupings, to be sure, but we will not have time to consider them except in passing references. First, let us quickly end week 5 — our rapid tour through the doubters and troublers of chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 — with a glance at two neo-formalists: Richard Wilbur and X. J. Kennedy.

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