Closed-Form (Formalists, Romantics) Poetry VS. Open-Form (Moderns, Beats) Poetry

Characteristics of Formalism:
  • Value of the work is in its form; [rhyme scheme, iambs, number of lines, etc.]
  • Everything needed to understand the work of art is IN the work of art itself
  • The artist and his or her reasons are of secondary importance to the piece of art itself.

Characteristics of Modernism:
  • A rebuttal to the previous age; that the tradition of standard "forms" is outdated.
  • It is OUR responsibility to understand a piece of art, NOT the artist's responsibility.
  • The artist and their motives are just as important as the art itself.

[Via Wikipedia]
  1. Allen, Donald. (ed.) The New American Poets: 1945–1960. University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 0520209532
  2. Hall, Donald et al. (ed.)New Poets of England and America.Meridian Books, 1957.ASIN: B000CKJ8M4

One way of understanding why the Beat Generation was considered radical, as well as measuring its impact on later writers, is to compare the literary establishment of the 1950s, especially as it involved poetry, with that of the 1960s to see how it had changed. Poetry in the 1950s was under the heavy influence of T. S. Eliot's often misinterpreted idea of poetry being an escape from self and the Modernist focus on objectivity. Similar to this, and perhaps an even more pervasive influence, were the ideas of the New Critics, including their conception of a poem as a perfectible object. In particular, the poetry of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren was highly influential at this time. The focus of these poets on the formal aspects of poetry and their celebration of the short, ironic lyric led to a rise in formalist poetry and a preference for the short lyric. When the Beat poets came to prominence during this time, they were decried as sloppy libertines, and the Beat movement was characterized as at best only a passing fad which had been largely fueled by media-attention.

This antagonism between literary camps was framed by two rival anthologies. Three champions of formalist poetry, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall, and Robert Pack, were putting together an anthology of young poets called New Poets of England and America. Allen Ginsberg – who was a relentless promoter of the work of his friends and the work of those he admired – believing at the time that the Beat poets would be accepted by the literary establishment, brought Simpson, his old Columbia classmate, a packet of poetry including works by Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, and Charles Olsen in hopes that these poets would be included in this new anthology. Simpson rejected every one of them. The introduction for the anthology was written by formalist hero Robert Frost. The anthology included poetry by Robert Bly, Donald Justice, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Howard Nemerov, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, and James Wright and many others. There is not a strict demarcation here between conservative and avant-garde poetry.

The anthology also included a number of English poets who were associated with a movement that, chronologically at least, ran parallel with the Beat Generation, the "Angry Young Men." These included poets such as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Thom Gunn. However, the anthology did set a trend for who would become poets acceptable to academia and the literary establishment. For example, Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass would be seminal in the creation of what later became known as confessional poetry, which helped finally overturn the strict focus on objectivity (Lowell, according to some accounts, was inspired to write more personal poetry by Ginsberg and the Beats).

Donald Allen of Grove Press accepted many of the manuscripts Ginsberg gave him for his rival anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Poets in that anthology included John Ashbery, Paul Blackburn, Ray Bremser, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Kirby Doyle, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Koch, Philip Lamantia, Howard Hart (1927–2002), Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, Frank O'Hara, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer, Peter Orlovsky, James Schuyler, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, John Wieners, and Jonathan Williams. Don Allen framed the debate as "Open Form" (his anthology) vs. "Closed Form" (the other anthology). Though seeing it as a rivalry is overly simplistic (for example, many poets in New Poets of England and America were not strict formalists or have since moved away from formalism), the development of U.S. poetry in the later half of the 20th century is framed in these two anthologies.

Arguably, these poets have had equal impact on literature, and it can be said that Beat literature has changed the establishment so that academia is now more open to more radical forms of literature. For example, of the poets listed in this section, ten from New Poets of England and America and nine from The New American Poetry have been included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. But Jack Kerouac, despite his impact on American culture and his status as an American icon, has only just been included in the 7th Edition of the Norton. Also, three poets from New Poets of England and America have served as Poets Laureate of the U.S. No Beat poet has ever served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.[26][27]