Fieldwork in New American Poetry

Lytle Shaw

in The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry

Published in print January 2012 | ISBN: 9780195398779
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Fieldwork in New American Poetry

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  • Literary Studies (20th Century onwards)
  • Literary Studies (Poetry and Poets)



Often in close dialogue with the place-based poetries of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson, the New American poets of the 1950s and 1960s sought to dismantle and reinvent the concept of history both by reorienting it toward notions of temporality borrowed from anthropology and by grounding it within concrete spatial locations. This reinvention at once mobilized previously excluded versions of the cultural past and authorized new modes of lived experience in the present, especially in the place-based rural social formations poets increasingly constructed. To frame these emergent models of living, poets reinvented themselves as “fieldworkers” in the dual sense of working with spatially specific locations and with the authority of the disciplinary fields that might explain or contextualize those literal spaces. Over the course of the 1960s the poetry of a lone researcher offering his results to futurity was no longer seen as sufficient. Poets sought, instead, to live the experimental polis now, to enact it in daily life. As they did so, they externalized many features of Olson's practice in particular—turning his personal cosmology into a range of more public discourses. This article traces this process by charting how transformative readings of Olson were crucial to two seemingly opposite discourses that emerged in the 1960s: the back-to-the-land ecopoetics of Gary Snyder, grounded in part in his familial compound, Kitkitdizze, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains; and the Black Nationalism of Amiri Baraka, grounded in the city of Newark, New Jersey.

Keywords: American poets; modern poets; Charles Olson; history; Gary Synder; Amiri Baraka

Article.  15505 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (20th Century onwards) ; Literary Studies (Poetry and Poets)

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