For anticommunist liberals American poetry in the 1950s had become a hold of freedom--a deep-seated separate peace; like the self itself (per then-dominant theories of the self), it was a site that could neither be pierced nor violated by nasty political force. Whereas other expressive forms might be more easily transgressed and overtaken by ideological coercion that threatened the world itself--like the novel, and drama, and film, and the lyrics of popular music for youth, and commerical advertisements, and comic books, and university scholarship, and book reviews, and all manner of journalistic discourse--on the other hand, poetry (by which these critics meant, almost inevitably, the short modern lyric that had become so formulaic) remained a sacred untouched and untouchable place. It was for a preserve for individualists and individuals, for quietness and reflection, like Frost's woods except that the setting need not at all be pastoral, and the rhetoric need not be natural--a haven where politics, so exhausting, could find no proper place. In 1951 Alfred Kazin wrote generally about drama that it does no less than to "concentrate for us those genuinely dialectical conflicts within society which in our pressing concern with survival we now tend to put at the back of our consciousness." But poetry? "[P]oetry," wrote Kazin, "reminds us of the inviolable dignity of contemplation once offered by the faithful practice of a religion"--a modernist formulation lifted unimaginatively from Santayana and Stevens. In the 1930s, as in the 1950s, this was the dominant conception of poetry's function in the United States, held by people, I mean, who did not think much about actual poems or themselves read much modern poetry written before the war. This is an attitude familiar to us generally- -poetry is fragile; a form of belief; don't touch it too rudely else it'll break--but my point here is that in the fifties, unlike the thirties, this was also to some degree the conception shared by a great many critics of poetry, by Americans who read and knew living poets, and in surprising measure by poets themselves. They implicitly called us to a bastion of "personal" liberty, which is to say implicitly were taking a political position about the way culture serves a nation, while also calling us to the spiritual settlement of home and to "maturity," which is to say, again, that they had political ideas about poetry's relation to public discourse. And so they provided a place untouched--sometimes so overtly that poetry seemed just another fall-out shelter, only without the kitschy trappings (cans of soup, Spam). This was not merely a way in which poets and poetry critics could claim to be again "in touch" with what Americans think and want, could reconcile with their culture, having repudiated it earlier. Many wanted to conform to official majority American opinion--which entailed, often, excoriating those modernists and radicals who during twenty or forty years of treason had willfully alienated "the average American" by antipathetic, unAmerican attitudes. Thus poetry's coming home in the fifties was also an effective way in which poetry could participate in the cold war by indeed creating a form uncontaminated by politics altogether. And then there were a number of poets, many now unread and some coming into prominence only four decades later, who resisted the trend. This book, then, describes and examines anticommunist and anti- anticommunist culture by way of claims made for and against what Kazin praised as the "inviolable dignity" of American poetry. It is also, thus, a book about how in the late forties and fifties poets and their readers, in order to preserve their inviolate place, had first to lump radicals and modernists together and then to repudiate the thirties and then to love the fifties as original and self-invented rather than constructed in reaction against the thirties--and how this thirties- bashing strategy, far from freeing them from cold war, only implicated them still further in nationalist rhetoric. One effect of this was to implicate aesthetic isms set up against the thirties, such as "modernism" as the fifties came conveniently to redefine it, in the same nationalist rhetoric. Thus both modernism and radicalism in modern poetry, as those literary-historical categories passed through the fifties, were altered in such a way as to make it difficult in the following thirty years to see back through the distorting lens of the cold war to an earlier period without merely repeating cold-war assumptions.
Who resisted this? Some avant gardists did and some left-wingers did. And, interestingly, some reactionaries did. Leaving reactionaries aside just for the moment (for I will have much to say about them), we see that avant gardists and leftists made a sufficiently odd pair, it might seem, but then again the pairing was made by their liberal and conservative anticommunist detractors. Some of the leftist poets during the late forties and fifties were themselves dedicated avant gardists, and many in the poetic avant garde were communists or anti-anticommunists. I am particularly, though by no means exclusively, interested in the convergence of these two thrown-together enemies of the state.