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Reading the Middle Generation Anew

Culture, Community, and Form in Twentieth-Century American Poetry

Eric Haralson

Publication Year: 2006

Ten original essays by advanced scholars and well-published poets address the middle generation of American poets, including the familiar---Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, and John Berryman---and various important contemporaries: Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Roethke, Robert Hayden, and Lorine Niedecker. This was a famously troubled cohort of writers, for reasons both personal and cultural, and collectively their poems give us powerful, moving insights into American social life in the transforming decades of the 1940s through the 1960s. In addition to having worked during the broad middle of the last century, these poets constitute the center of twentieth-century American poetry in the larger sense, refuting invidious connotations of “middle” as coming after the great moderns and being superseded by a proliferating postmodern experimentation. This middle generation mediates the so-called American century and its prodigious body of poetry, even as it complicates historical and aesthetic categorizations.Taking diverse formal and thematic angles on these poets---biographical-historical, deconstructionist, and more formalist accounts---this book re-examines their between-ness and ambivalence: their various positionings and repositionings in aesthetic, political, and personal matters. The essays study the interplay between these writers and such shifting formations as religious discourse, consumerism, militarism and war, the ideology of America as “nature's nation,” and U.S. race relations and ethnic conflicts. Reading the Middle Generation Anew also shows the legacy of the middle generation, the ways in which their lives and writings continue to be a shaping force in American poetry. This fresh and invigorating collection will be of great interest to literary scholars and poets.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. 1-21

In this collection of ten original essays by a team of stellar contributors, the middle generation of American poets is represented by what might be called the usual suspects — Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, and John Berryman — but also by several contemporaries juxta-posed for purposes of dialogue and contrast: Delmore Schwartz, Theodore ...

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1 Confession, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation in the Career of Robert Lowell

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pp. 22-41

At the end of his career, in the poem “Phillips House Revisited,” Robert Lowell reflects on the figure of his dead grandfather, the Yankee entrepreneur he had remembered in the early poem “In Memory of Arthur Winslow.” Now, checked into Phillips House with a chest complaint, his room in the same elite wing inhabited forty years before by the dying Arthur Winslow...

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2 Writing as a Child: Lowell’s Poetic Penmanship

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pp. 42-61

Robert Lowell’s contemporaries often recall the pathos of his handwriting: an “awkward printing” that did not seem to deserve the name of writing.1 Lowell’s sad and funny draft of a letter applying for a teaching position at Catholic University (fig. 1) is a fascinating example of this awkwardness, in which Lowell not only seems to have trouble writing, but initially misspells the word “write” (as “right”).2...

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3 Elizabeth Bishop’s Theater of War

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pp. 62-91

At this moment in the history of Elizabeth Bishop scholarship, it is a truism that one of Bishop’s greatest subjects was war — whether rendered explicitly, as in “Roosters,” or obliquely, through the effects of human aggression on what would seem to be far removed from war, a baby rabbit transformed, by the light of illegal fire balloons, into “a handful of intangible ash / with fixed, ignited eyes” (“The Armadillo”)...

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4 The Best Years of Our Lives: Randall Jarrell’s War Poetry

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pp. 92-121

When war wrenches the soldier away from home, his home stays with him; and when he returns home, the war returns with him. For Randall Jarrell, dislocation exemplifies the contradictory nature of loss. In “Thinking of the Lost World,” the last poem in his last book, he wrote, “All of them are gone / Except for me; and for me nothing is gone” — a succinct formula that captures well his characteristic distinction between empirical fact and psychological condition.1...

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5 Randall Jarrell and the Age of Consumer Culture

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pp. 122-141

The writing career of Randall Jarrell, like that of the other middle-generation poets, runs parallel with the golden age of modern consumer culture. Jarrell, however, was the only poet of his generation who engaged in extended, disciplined debate with social scientists and cultural critics about the effects of popular and consumer culture on art, artists, and the general populace. In A Troubled Feast: American Society since 1945 (1973)...

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6 Resistance, Sacrifice, and Historicity in the Elegies of Robert Hayden

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pp. 142-161

Robert Hayden is best known for his poems, such as “Middle Passage,” that draw upon African American history and link vivid scenes of brutality to an ongoing struggle for a greater humanity that might eclipse boundaries of race, class, gender, religion, and politics.1 During the late sixties, of course, Hayden was castigated by Melvin Tolson, Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, and other adherents of Ron Karenga’s “black cultural nationalism” precisely because of those so-called apolitical, antihistoricist, high modernist, and humanistic values.2 ...

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7 Delmore Schwartz’s Strange Times

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pp. 162-191

By the time his full-page obituary appeared in the New York Times on July 14, 1966, Delmore Schwartz’s body had lain unclaimed for three days at the Bellevue morgue.1 The poet’s name had only been noticed, in fact, by a Times journalist who regularly perused the morgue roster, and it would still be a matter of some time before Schwartz’s Aunt Clara, contacted by a family member who had read the Times...

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8 Theodore Roethke and the Poetics of Place

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pp. 192-211

Gary Snyder has recalled how hearing Theodore Roethke read his poems at Berkeley in the early 1950s furnished him, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and others with their first model of how to “give a poetry reading.”1 It appears that Roethke offered Snyder something more as well — a stylistic exemplar (as sociolinguist Ron Scollon has remarked),2 as well as a precedent...

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9 Paradoxes of Form in the Poetry of Lorine Niedecker

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pp. 212-241

In her essay “Format and Form,” Adrienne Rich distinguishes between mechanical adherence to an inherited form, whereby it degenerates into mere format, and vital engagement with and resistance to such a form, whereby it acquires new life. She further contrasts the form-shattering of the “avant-garde,”...

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10 My Name Is Henri: Contemporary Poets Discover John Berryman

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pp. 233-252

When John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs appeared in 1963, discerning readers recognized it not just as the fulfillment of talents promised in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) and The Dispossessed (1948) — nor as simply a brilliant response to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) — but as something so new it was hard to describe. Elizabeth Bishop wrote...


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pp. 253-254

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pp. 255-256

My fervent thanks to Melissa Solomon, for planting the seed so many years ago; Duncan Dobbelman, for helping to organize the collection and furnishing its title; Gretchen Knapp, for customary shrewdness and abundant good humor; Bill Pore, for scouting in the stacks and nailing down those elusive quotations. It has been a great pleasure to work with the University of Iowa Press...


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pp. 257-263

E-ISBN-13: 9781587296673
E-ISBN-10: 1587296675
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877459569
Print-ISBN-10: 0877459568

Page Count: 271
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 216935061
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reading the Middle Generation Anew

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Subject Headings

  • American poetry -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- United States -- Literature and the war.
  • War poetry, American -- History and criticism.
  • Culture in literature.
  • Literary form -- History -- 20th century.
  • Community in literature.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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