Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Short History of California Poetry

This blog has dealt with 19th century California poets: Native American John Rollin Ridge who adapted 19th century British romanticism to demand racial equality in his poems about the frontier of California; Ambrose Bierce who uses traditional 18th century British poetics--wit, parody, epigrams--to satirize political corruption; and Edwin Markham, a late 19th century naturalist poet who wrote about suffering of farm workers.

I've also written about three modernist masters: Robinson Jeffers whose envirnomentalist defined 1920s California verse; Kenneth Rexroth who was California's leading poet in the 1930s and 1940s, and George Oppen whose best work was published in the 1960s. Jeffers and Rexroth were fierce environmentalists while Oppen and Rexroth were populists who brought a concern for the common person back again into California poetty. Rexroth led the way to the beats who dominated 1950s and 1960s poetry in the state and who brought innovations into American poetry. Snyder and Ferlinghetti continued in the tradition of writing of Jeffers and Rexroth in writing environmental poetry. Gary Snyder aso followed Rexroth in translating Japanese and Chinese poetry as well as exploring Asian cultures and relgions. Bob Kaufman contributed to the development of a jazz poetry. Lew Welch and Ginsberg contributed to a confessional poetry where poets described their mental breakdowns, suicidal impules, alchoholism, drug use etc.

During this same period American poetry was divided between rebels--Beats, New York school, and Black Mountain (North Carolina) poets--and the traditionalists who wrote a more polite, well-crafted poetry. A leading California traditionalist would be Ivor Winters at Stanford who left free verse for a tight neoclassical style in metered verse.

Ione Noguchi from Japan at the turn of the century came to California and published poetry books in Engish combining traditional Japanese poetry such as the haiku and American poetic influences such as Whitman. By the 1930s Japanese-American poets were writing modernist haiku in Japanese in haiku clubs in Fresno and Modesto. I also looked at such poets as Violet Kazu de Christoforo who developed the modernist haiku in Japanese to describe the internment experience in of Japanese-Americans in California.

In the early 1970s Lawson Inada also wrote brilliant poetry about the internment but in English free verse, and he joined with other Asian-American writers in the Bay Area to begin an Asian-American literary renaisance that continued for the next three decades. At the same time Ishamael Reed organized multi-cultural writers to produce Before Columbus Foundation, to give annual awards, and edit a number of mult-cultural antholgoies; he also wrote his brilliant poetry which had the translated black power into verse. Inada, Reed, and many others created the multi-cultural poetry of the last 35 years.

In the Bay Area women's poetry and gay poetry also flourished and intersected multi-cultural poetry, producing the most innovative poetry both in California and the United States. Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Thom Gunm all courageously created a gay male poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. The first important feminist poet, Judy Grahn, innovated a working class woman's voice in her splendid Common Woman poems as well as in lesbian poetry. The Bay Area produced brilliant multi-cultural poets: African-American Ntozake Shange, Filipino Jessica Hagedorn, and Japanese-American Janice Mirikatani. The working class feminists were also doing amazing work: the late Karen Brodine, Nelly Wong, and Carol Tarlen.

During the last 30 years the Bay Area, though still the leading poetry area in the state, was not the only one. Three other regions have developed distinctive poetries. In Los Angeles working class poet Charles Bukowski described the down-and-out of the flatlands of Los Angeles. His down home voice inspired Anglo vernacular poets such as Ron Koertge or Gerald Lockhlin. Wanda Coleman created a new gritty urban black feminist voice. Marisela Norte and Luis Rodriguez were the ambassadors from urban avant-garde in East Los Angeles while Aleida Rodriguez wrote elegantly of her exile from her home in Cuba. Asian-Americans Amy Uyematsu wrote a wonderful books 30 Miles from J-Town about growing up 3rd generation Japanese-American in the suburbs 30 miles from Japantown.

If Los Angeles poets were a multi-cultural stew reflecting that region, in San Diego an Chicano/Tijuana avant-garde led by poets Alurista and Ginza Valdez inhabited the same space with an Anglo avant-garde of such poets as Steve Kowit and Maggie Jaffee. The border was a dominating force in San Diego as well as the more repressive atmosphere of militarization along that border.

The fourth area of California poetry is the central valley literature collected in the anthology Highway 99: A Literary Jouranal through California's Great Central Valley. Detroit poet Phillip Levine taught at California State University at Fresno from the 1960s through the 1990s inspiring a generation of poets. One of the earliest Fresno poet was Anglo poet Larry Leavis whose family owned a ranch and who developed a social conscience like Steinbeck's. Valley poets include self-taught Okie farmworker Wilma Elizabeth McDaniels who became The poet of Okie culture.

Multi-cultural poets grew up in or were educated Fresno including Lawson Inada; AfroAmerican Sherely Anne Williams; and Chicano Gary Soto and Omar Salinas. Nearby Jose Montoya taught for many years at Sacramento State University while Alan Chong Lau grew up in Oroville not far away. Of course, many of these poets left the Central Valley as their careers developed, but whether they stayed or left they created a disinctive poetry describing this area. California poetry in the last three decades of the 20th century grew in these four distinct regional centers--Bay Area, Central Valley, Los Angeles, and San Diego/Tiajuana.

In California there were also distinct divisions and quarrels among poetry schools in California reflecting national quarrels. In the 1970s besides having multi-cultural poetry, Bay Area poets also developed post-modernist poetry called Language School. Language poets were influenced by French post-modernist philosophy as well as were in rebellion against political repression in the United States. These poets rebeled against meaning as coercive, so they produce a poetry of non-meaning. During the 1980s Language poets enganged in sharp polemics against other poets in the Bay Area Poets and Writers newsletter. Leading California language school poets are Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer etc.

Another quarrel devloped in the East Coast. Every year a volume called Best American Poetry is published showcasing the well-behaved poets who follow early 20th century modernists. In 1996 Adrienne Rich, the country's leading feminist poet, was appointed editor and instead of chosing the usual suspects instead including many black, Hispanic, Asian, women--straight and gay etc. In 1997 Yale professor Harold Bloom wrote an essay introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997 attacking Rich's selection of poets of color, women, gays etc as a betrayal of the Western tradition and as unfit to be included in these volumes. Bloom, who adhered to European-American classics from Ancient Greeks through early 20th century modernism modernism, rejected multi-cultural/women's poetry as well as Language School.
In spring 1998 poets responded with lively letters in the Boston Review.

In California there have been many academic modernists including Robert Haas, a fine poet, elegant translator, and former poet laureate of the United States. Haas himself has sidestepped the whole debate but Steve Kowit responded from California with a polemical essay against Bloom criticizng difficulty in poetry and asking for an engaged poetry that enlarges the spirit of its readers.

A fourth poetry school in California was the development of a New Formalism. In Los Angeles, California State University professor Timothy Steele published in 1989 his Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems written in traditional poetic forms and meters. Steele argued that form helps one live with one's emotions, and he also argued for a return to 18th British poets use of wit and reason. In Steele's critical work Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990) Steele argued for a return to using meter in poetry. New Formalists have produced anthlogies of their verse and more critical work. Steele has taught and encouraged the work of Leslie Monsour, anotherfine Los Angeles New Formalist.

While most poets--multi-cultural modernists, post-modernism, academic modernists--together refused to follow New Formalism's return to pre-modernist poetry, a more rhymed verse did occur in the streets of big cities of California: rap/hip-hop/slam poetry. Rap poets like Tupac Shakur combined the tradition of African-American boasting street talk with a creative use of rhymed couplets they developed. Rap poetry, issued on CDs through record companies, was the only truly popular American poetry in this period, having international influence. Rap poetry also give voice to those locked into big city poor neighborhods like Compton in Los Angeles. By 2005 academic critics at both the Western American Literature conference in Los Angeles and the MLA in Washington D.C. had panels on the poetry of Tupac Shakur, the first sign of mainstream literary recognition of rap poetry.

California poetry of the last part of the 20th century has diversified, both geographically across the state and also in terms of ethnicity, race and gender. Competing schools of poets have argued with each other: multi-cultural and women's/gay poetry, Language School, New Formalists, hip-hop, and traditional academics. The latter part of the 20th century has seen great growth and diversification in California poetry. In the later part of the 20th century California has become a hotbed of innovation in American poetry.

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