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Merrill and Others: Studies in American Poetry James E.B.Breslin.From Modern to Contemporary: American PoettJ',1945-1965.Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1984.272 + xvipp. David Lehmanand Charles Berger, eds.James Merrill: Essai•s in Criticism.Ithaca: Cornell University Pres;, 1983.329pp. Anthony Libby.Mythologies of Nothing: Mystical Death inAmericanPoetly 1940-70.Urbana: University ofIllinois Press, 1984.225 + x pp. Judith Moffett.JamesMerrill: An Introduction tothePoetry.Columbia Introductions to TwentiethCentury AmericanPoetry. John Unterecker, Gen. ed. NewYork: Columbia UniversityPress, 1984.247 + xxivpp. Ronald Wallace.GodBe with the Clown: Humor inAmerican Poetry. Columbia: University ofMissouriPress, 1984.235 + x pp. D.L. Macdonald Inanearlier book, James E.B. Breslin traced the history of what he calls "the ModernRevolt" and of the role that William Carlos Williams played in it.1 In FromModern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965,he begins by tracingthe decline of that revolt and its replacement in the late 1940s by a new,double orthodoxy: the New Criticism and what he calls the New Rear Guardof poets (his chief examples are Richard Wilbur and Adrienne Rich) whoadhered to traditional metrics and symbolist esthetics. Breslin has chosen fivepoets to discuss as representatives of significant movements of renewed revolt:Allen Ginsberg, of the Beats; Robert Lowell, of the confessional poets; DeniseLevertov, of the Black Mountain group; James A. Wright, of the Deep Imagegroup that also included Louis Simpson and Robert Bly; and Frank O'Hara,of the New York group that also included John Ashbery. These five poets all started from positions within the New Rear GuardevenO 'Hara flirted with traditional meter and rhyme, though Breslin does notmention this- and in most cases Williams presided over their emergence fromit. He was polite even about Ginsberg's rhymed early poems, and enthusiasticabout his first attempts at free verse; he corresponded with Lowell duringthe composition of Life Studies, in which, Lowell told him, "I have crossedthe river into your world" (p. 111); he was a general inspiration to the BlackMountain poets and, in particular, his work suggested to Levertov !withwhom he also corresponded) the possibility of basing verse on the CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 1986, 381-393 382 D. L. Macdonald rhythms of American speech; he was described by O'Hara "as one of thethree American poets who is [sic] 'better than the movies"' (p. 223). The Deep Image poets rejected Williams' brand of imagism in order to develop dialectically from it. One of the achievements of ~reslin's book is to confirm and extend our growing sense of Williams as a central figure in recent American poetry. Breslin describes his method as "an historically informed formalist criticism" (p. xiv),in contrast to the ahistorical formalism of the New Critics. He believes that, since form in contemporary poetry has become "in theory, unique,itis best discussed in particular works by particular poets" (p. 60), and sohe devotes the bulk of his book to detailed analyses of particular poems, buthe also tries to locate poems within books (he gives especially interesting accounts of Lowell's Llfe Studies and Wright's The Branch Will Not Break as poetic sequences), books within the development of poets, poets within schoolsor movements, and poetic movements within larger social and political developments . He argues convincingly, for example, that the "basic assumptions"of the New Rear Guard "reflected the social and political consensus" of the early 1950s(p. 45): he quotes Norman Podhoretz as saying that "perhaps the most exciting thing about revisionist liberalism was its smooth compatibility with certain of the attitudes I had absorbed through the study of literature" (p. 51).The dominant ideology of the 1950s enforced itself partly by claiming not to be an ideology, to represent "the end of ideology" (p. 47); poetslike Wilbur followed suit by professing to avoid "reductive theories" (p. 37)andto engage instead in pure practice. By contrast, the oppositional poets whom Breslin discusses produceda plethora of ideological statements, from "Howl," which includes its ownpoetic manifesto or "helpful hints on how to read 'Howl'" (p. 100), through Olson's "Projective Verse" to O'Hara's semi-serious "Personism: A Manifesto."Most of these advocate immediacy and spontaneity against the formality and detachment endorsed by the New...


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