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Poets and Audiences: The Evolution of Poetry in America
(Released July 2012)

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  by Beth Dwoskin  


Key Citations




20th Century


Yet modernist poetry was still part of the national discourse in the post-war years. More accessible works such as Carl Sandburg’s simple poem, “Fog” were still taught in schools. Women such as Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton wrote daring, personal poetry. Robert Frost was so successful that he actually made his living as a poet. Lines from his poems entered our national literate consciousness: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by”; “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep”; “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. Frost may be the iconic twentieth century American poet, as Whitman was in the nineteenth century. Unlike many other modernists though, Frost was not averse to using rhyme and meter, and his formal poems are probably his most popular works. In terms of style and personal characteristics, Whitman’s twentieth century heir was Allen Ginsberg.

Robert Frost
Robert Frost reciting "Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening," YouTube

Allen Ginsberg advanced American poetry with his masterpiece, “Howl”. The controversy that the poem engendered over its supposed obscenity elevated poetry to a free speech issue and made it a subject of national discussion. Ginsberg and his Beat compatriots defined poetry readings at coffeehouses as an American institution and during their time, poetry again became an oral art. These readings became the last examples of oral performances of poetry in the twentieth century, as the tradition of reading poetry aloud in the classroom fell out of use in favor of written analysis of poetry to enhance student performance on standardized tests. Through a gradual process, Beat poetry readings retreated to universities and bookstores as the coffeehouse culture waned.

Allen Ginsberg Howl
Allen Ginsberg recites a portion of his groundbreaking poem, "Howl," YouTube

Also in the post-war years, the literary world finally acknowledged talented African American poets. Gwendolyn Brooks, writer of the riveting poem, “We real cool”, was a poet laureate of the state of Illinois, and of the United States. Detroiter Robert Hayden was also a poet laureate in 1976. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights era, poets of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes gained new attention, and there was a gradual recognition that poets could be female, Hispanic, or Native American. The political turmoil of the sixties and seventies affected the work of poets such as Adrienne Rich and Robert Lowell.

Twentieth century poets eagerly embraced the new technology of radio, which seemed to be the ideal medium for poetic expression. Poetry was briefly able to return to its roots as an oral art outside of the coffeehouse. Radio actors were delighted to hone their craft by reading poetry, and radio could be heard locally, allowing homegrown poets to find a voice on community radio programs. Education magazine stated: ‘Radio is the technological Moses that will lead poets out of their house of bondage … ‘ (qtd in Spaulding, 150) Even television flirted briefly with poetry, especially on PBS, which has dedicated some special programs to poetry.

It’s not too difficult to understand why these performance media ultimately turned away from poetry. With the rise of rock and roll, radio became primarily a music medium, geared to the playlist and the hit-making apparatus of the record industry. Television is a visual medium, essentially antithetical in its nature to a verbal art form that is best experienced without images. Why the printed periodical market has dropped poetry is another question.

Gwendolyn Brooks
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks on the back steps of her home in Chicago in 1960.

Magazines and newspapers found that demand for poetry was decreasing, as the post-war generations grew up learning poetry not as a narrative art but as something to be read and analyzed. Children were taught to try and “understand” poetry before they could experience it. The musical quality of poetry was just another element to be analyzed, with students subjected to lessons on the different kinds of poetic meters, the distinctions between a Shakespearian and a Petrarchan sonnet, and the definitions of “caesura” and “enjambment.” In the process, poetry became threatening to people. Modern poetry can be ambiguous and subtle, and typically improves after several readings. Somewhere along the way, people came to resent the fact that they might not grasp a poem’s meaning at first reading, or that it might not have one obvious meaning. We are now at the point where educated people are indifferent or even hostile to poetry.

Go To Change in Millennium, Changes in Poetry

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