A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...


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Feeding creative explosions.

For many centuries, poetry movements and communities have served as the most provocative, creative, vital, engaging, and oft-underground elements of regional and national literary trends. The simple joy of gathering for a single or group reading, listening to verse, hearing background stories, and discussing poesy has joined and empowered poets from ancient Athens to the streets of San Francisco. The assemblies launched social and political discourse while feeding creative explosions that, in nearly all cases, involved the arts and music as well.

Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore
Poetic communities launched social and political discourse, and are vital to working poets. Bob Donlin, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Robert LaVinge, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (left to right) stand outside Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California.

Stepping into community.

Despite the popular view of most poets as solitary, hermetic people, communities are vital to most working poets – which is why, in any given week, thousands of open-mic and guest poetry readings take place in the United States. Whether we’re studying the history of poetry or listening to an individual poet, it’s enticing to make connections between two poetic periods, or between a poet and his or her influences. In doing so, we invariably set foot inside a poetic movement or community.

Movements through history.

Throughout history, there have been hundreds of major and minor poetic movements and communities. Major community-based movements – such as the Ancient Greek poetry schools, Provencal literature, Sicilian court poets, Elizabethan and Romantic poets, American Transcendentalists, Paris expatriate (Surrealist), and Beat poets – changed the course of poetry during and after their respective eras.

Claude McKay
Claude McKay’s book of poetry, Harlem Shadows, was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. McKay was part of a literary community with widespread influence.
Sylvia Plath
Confessionalists, such as Sylvia Plath, were a part of a tributary movement that contributed to the body of poetics.
While not as well known, tributary movements have been equally rife with provocative thought and contributions to the body of poetics. For example, in the past 50 years in the U.S., poetry has been fed by the Beats (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Anne Waldman), San Francisco Renaissance (Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Madeline Gleason), Confessionalists (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell), New York School (Ed Sanders), Black Mountain Poets (Mary Caroline Richards), and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E avant garde poets (Bob Perelman, Rae Armantrout). All responded or reacted to the three major movements of the first half of the 20th century: Imagism (Ezra Pound, h.d.), Objectivism (Lorine Niedecker, Charles Reznikoff) and the American contribution to France’s Surrealism (Marianne Moore). This pattern has permeated the wide-rooted, long-branched family tree of community-based poetry.

Insight into ten great movements.

By taking a closer look at ten great community-based movements in Western poetry, we can glean greater insight into their genesis, their contributions to world poetry and literature, and their cultural influences.

Ancient Greek poetry (7th to 4th centuries B.C.)

The pinnacle of ancient Greek poetry lasted three centuries, making it one of the few multi-generational poetic movements and communities. Ancient Greek poets were also unique because they were the first large group to commit their poetry to writing; prior civilizations preferred the oral tradition, though some written poems date back to the 25th century B.C.

Greece’s poetic movement was part of the greatest cultural and intellectual community in world history. Poets were often dramatists who wrote for choirs, or courtly muses who entertained regional kings. Hundreds of dramas were performed, each of them featuring exquisite lyric poetry within its three-act structure. The Greeks developed nearly all of the classic forms that formed the underpinnings of later literature, drama, music and poetry, including the ode, epic, lyric, tragedy, and comedy. Among the great poets who passed developing forms to succeeding generations were Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Pindar, Aeschylus, Anacreon, and Euripides.

Ancient Greece’s cultural explosion ended when it was conquered first by Alexander the Great and then by Rome. The Romans borrowed from Greek works to develop their own dramatic, literary, and poetic movements. As Greek works became disseminated through the Western world, they created the basis for modern literature.

The Inquisition
The Inquisition doomed the Provencal movement in the 13th century, and most troubadours fled to Spain and Italy. (Pedro Berruguente, Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe, c. 1495)

Provencal literature (11th to 13th centuries)

Like a giant iron cloud, the popes of the Holy Roman Empire – the purveyors of the Middle Ages – clamped down and extinguished creative and artistic expression. However, as the 11th century reached its midpoint, a group of troubadour musicians in southern France began to sing and write striking lyrics. They were influenced by the Arabic civilization and its leading denizens, Omar Khayyam and Rumi, inspired by Latin and Greek poets, and guided by Christian precepts. Three concepts stood above all others: the spiritualization of passion, imagery, and secret love. With a gift for rhythm, meter, and form, the musicians and poets created a masterful style by the 13th century.

The Provencal troubadours began as court singer-poets, among them William X, Duke of Aquitaine, Eleanor Aquitaine, and King Richard I of England. They practiced the art, but its undisputed masters were Bertrand de Born, Arnaud Daniel, Guillame de Machant, Christine di Pisan, and Marie de France. During their heyday, these and other poets routinely traveled to communities to deliver poems, news, songs, and dramatic sketches in their masterful lyrical styles. Among those deeply influenced were Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Forms like the sestina, rondeau, triolet, canso, and ballata originated with the Provencal poets.

The Inquisition doomed the Provencal movement in the 13th century, though a few poets continued to produce into the mid-14th century. Most troubadours fled to Spain and Italy, where two new movements flourished – including the Sicilian School.

Frederick II
Frederick II required poets to write about courtly love, and hundreds of beautiful canzone were written between 1230 and 1266.

Sicilian School (mid-13th to early 14th centuries)

Emboldened by the passionate poetics of the Provencal troubadours, a small group of Sicilian poets in the court of Frederick II turned verses of heartfelt love into the first spiritual heartbeat of the Renaissance – and the ancestral work that would explode in England during the Elizabethan and Shakespearean eras.

In the twelfth century, Sicily integrated three distinct languages and cultural influences: Arabic, Byzantine Greek, and Latin. The small society was well read in both ancient Greek and Latin, and women were viewed more kindly and tenderly than in other medieval cultures. When Sicilian poets interacted with the Provencal troubadours, they found the perfect verse form for their utterances of the heart: lyric poetry.

Beginning with Cielo of Alcamo, the court poets developed a series of lyrical styles that used standard vernacular to make art of poetry. They were aided by Frederick II, who required poets to stick to one subject: courtly love. Between 1230 and 1266, court poets wrote hundreds of love poems. They worked with a beautiful derivative of canso, the canzone, which became the most popular verse form until Giacomo de Lentini further developed it into the sonnet. Besides writing sonnets, de Lentini continuously invented new words in what became a new language – Italian. Among the best-known poets were de Lentini, Pier delle Vigne, Renaldo d'Aquino, Giacomo Pugliese, and Mazzeo Ricco.

The Sicilian poets made several changes to Provencal structure, including the discontinuation of repetitive and interchangeable lines. They also wrote poetry to be read, rather than accompanied by music, and created the 14-line sonnet structure, broken into an octet and sestet, which stands to this day.

As the 14th century dawned, the Sicilian poets’ canzones, balladas and sonnets came to the attention of Dante and Petrarch, who spread them throughout Bologna, Florence, and other emerging literary centers. By the time the Renaissance arrived, nearly 100 poets were plying their trade throughout the culturally awakening country–and scholars from England, France, Spain, and Germany were watching.

Elizabethan and Shakespearean
The socially open Elizabethan era enabled poets to write about humanistic as well as religious subjects.

Elizabethan and Shakespearean eras

By the time the Italian Renaissance waned, its greatest poetic exports–the ballad and the sonnet–found their way to England through Sir Thomas Wyatt. He introduced the forms to a countryside attuned to lyrical and narrative poetry by the great Geoffrey Chaucer, whose experiences with latter Provencal poets influenced the style credited with modernizing English literature.

Sonnets swept through late 16th and early 17th century England, primarily through the works of Wyatt, Sir Philip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. Spenser and Shakespeare took the Petrarchan form that Wyatt introduced to the literary landscape and added their individual touches, forming the three principal sonnet styles: Petrarchan, Spenserian, and Shakespearean. The other fixed verse influence – Provencal and French forms – added to the poetic mix, creating a vast community of poets who recited their works in various forums. In the theater, their verse often preceded Shakespeare and Marlowe dramas – a practice followed nearly four centuries later by many of San Francisco’s 1960s rock musicians, who preceded their concerts with readings from Beat poets.

The socially open Elizabethan era enabled poets to write about humanistic as well as religious subjects. The dramatic rise in academic study and literacy during the late 16th century created large audiences for the new poetry, which was also introduced into the educational system. In many ways, the Elizabethan era more closely resembled the expressionism of the Ancient Greeks than the Sicilian and Italian Renaissance schools from which it derived its base poetry.

Metaphysical poets

A century after the height of the Elizabethan era, a subtler, provocative lyric poetry movement crept through an English literary countryside that sought greater depth in its verse. The metaphysical poets defined and compared their subjects through nature, philosophy, love, and musings about the hereafter – a great departure from the primarily religious poetry that had immediately followed the wane of the Elizabethan era. Poets shared an interest in metaphysical subjects and practiced similar means of investigating them.

Beginning with John Dryden, the metaphysical movement was a loosely woven string of poetic works that continued through the often-bellicose 18th century, and concluded when William Blake bridged the gap between metaphysical and romantic poetry. The poets sought to minimize their place within the poem and to look beyond the obvious – a style that greatly informed American transcendentalism and the Romantics who followed. Among the greatest adherents were Samuel Cowley, John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley, Henry Vaughan, George Chapman, Edward Herbert, and Katherine Philips.

John Dryden
The Romantic movement lasted about 25 years, until Lord Byron’s death in 1824, and was one of the greatest movements in literary history.
Lord Byron
John Dryden epitomized the metaphysical movement, which looked beyond the obvious and minimized the author’s place within the poem.

Romantic poets

The third of England’s "big three" movements completed a three-century period during which the British Isles took the Western poetic mantle from Italy and molded the forms, styles, and poems that fill school classrooms to this day. The Romantic period, or Romanticism, is regarded as one of the greatest and most illustrious movements in literary history, which is all the more amazing considering that it primarily consisted of just seven poets and lasted approximately 25 years – from William Blake’s rise in the late 1790s to Lord Byron’s death in 1824.

Romantic poets
The Romantics felt that the relationships we build with nature and others defines our lives.
In between, the group of poets lived as mighty flames of poetic production who were extinguished well before their time. The core group included Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a magnificent trio of friends: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. While history did not treat Robert Southey so kindly, Byron considered him a key member of the movement. Keats, who wrote "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode to a Grecian Urn," only lived to the age of 26. Shelley died at 30, while Byron succumbed at 36. They wrote together, traveled together–even renting a house at the base of Rome’s Spanish Steps–and commiserated with foreign writers, most notably the older Johann Wolfgang Goethe, whose genius and versatility they idolized.

Ironically, the poets held distinctly different religious beliefs and led divergent lifestyles. Blake was a Christian who followed the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenbourg (who also influenced Goethe). Wordsworth was a naturalist, Byron urbane, Keats a free spirit, Shelley an atheist, and Coleridge a card-carrying member of the Church of England.

The romantics made nature even more central to their work than the metaphysical poets, treating it as an elusive metaphor in their work. They sought a freer, more personal expression of passion, pathos, and personal feelings, and challenged their readers to open their minds and imaginations. Through their voluminous output, the romantics’ message was clear: life is centered in the heart, and the relationships we build with nature and others through our hearts defines our lives. They anticipated and planted the seeds for free verse, transcendentalism, the Beat movement, and countless other artistic, musical, and poetic expressions.

The Romantic movement would have likely extended further into the 19th century, but the premature deaths of the younger poets, followed in 1832 by the death of their elderly German admirer, Goethe, brought the period to an end.

American Transcendentalists (1836-1860)

Of all the great communities and movements, the American Transcendentalists might be the first to have an intentional, chronicled starting date: September 8, 1836, when a group of prominent New England intellectuals led by poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson met at the Transcendental Club in Boston. They gathered to discuss Emerson’s essay, "Nature" and developed "The American Soul," which stated, "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds ... A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."

Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Transcendentalist Movement began when New England intellectuals gathered to discuss Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, "Nature."
Louisa May Alcott
Many literary giants, including Louisa May Alcott, considered themselves Transcendentalists.
The Transcendentalists grew from that mission statement, which was inspired by Emerson’s love of Hinduism, Swedenbourg’s mystical Christianity, and Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy. They created a shadow society that espoused utopian values, spiritual exploration, and full development of the arts. They revolted against a culture they thought was becoming too puritanical, and an educational system they thought overly intellectual. Like the Romantics, heart-centered, personal expression was their aim – and so was the development of socialized community. They even had a commune, Brook Farm. These sentiments informed their gatherings, discussions, public meetings, essays, and poetry. Unlike the Romantics, who often clashed because of their personal differences, the Transcendentalists sought commonalities, no doubt influenced by Emerson’s adherence to Hinduism.

A number of great authors, poets, artists, social leaders, and intellectuals called themselves Transcendentalists. They included Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, William Ellery Channing, Sophia Peabody, and her husband, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Beat movement (1948-1963)

It only lasted 15 years and was known by the masses only in the last six, but the combination of disenfranchisement, wanderlust, and creative expression that inflicted a handful of New York and San Francisco students and young intellectuals resulted in the most influential movement of the past 100 years – the Beat movement.

The Beats formed from a wide variety of characters and interests, but were linked by a common thread: a desire to live life as they defined it. The mixture of academia, be-bop jazz, the liberating free verse of William Carlos Williams, and the influence of budding author Jack Kerouac (who coined the term "Beat Generation" in 1948 at a meeting with Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, and William S. Burroughs) inspired a young Ginsberg to change everything he’d learned about poetry. He wrote throughout the early 1950s in a narrative free verse, joined by the young Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky, and the older Burroughs, who, like Kerouac, opted for fiction – though Kerouac wrote beautiful poetry that has been read and appreciated over the past two decades.

By the mid-1950s, the Beats’ mixture of free-expression jazz and socially informed free verse poetry became the anthem for a generation of Greenwich Village youth seeking greater spiritual meaning through visceral experiences and the laying down – or trampling – of their parents’ strict, Depression and World War II-fed mores.

The Beat Movement entered the public’s consciousness when Allen Ginsberg published Howl.
In 1956, the scene exploded into the public eye when Ginsberg published Howl, followed a year later by Kerouac’s On The Road, which he’d been shopping to publishers since 1949. Ironically, the explosion was triggered not in New York, the center of early Beat poetry, but across the continent at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. On October 9, 1955, a group of Beat poets from both coasts gathered for what became the 20th century’s most famous single reading – but it was Ginsberg’s reading of Howl that left his peers gasping in amazement and that ignited a subculture.

By the time of the Six Gallery reading, San Francisco was host to a burgeoning Beat community that included poets Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip LaMantia, and three older influences: Kenneth Rexroth, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen. In 1947, Rexroth launched the San Francisco Renaissance, a loose poetic movement including he, Whalen, Kenneth Patchen, and William Everson. It directly fed the San Francisco Beats, as did the Black Mountain Poets that included Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Another major contributor was former New York poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who owned and operated City Lights bookstore, which in the 1950s sold books that were banned by the U.S. Justice Department. He published Howl, thus creating a legacy as the greatest publisher and distributor of Beat literature.

San Francisco Renaissance
In 1947, Kenneth Rexroth launched the San Francisco Renaissance, which fed into the San Francisco Beats.
Beat poets and their works fostered a new era of appreciation and study of poetry. The emerging Baby Boomer generation fanned the fame of the Beats far beyond what any of them imagined. The Beats also influenced East Village poet-musicians Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg (who formed the Fugs), and a group of artistic, musically inclined youth who hung out in San Francisco’s North Beach and Haight-Ashbury districts. That group went on to launch psychedelic rock and the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. Growing fame also brought many fine Beat poets to the surface, such as Diane Di Prima, Joanne Kyger, LeRoi Jones, and Herbert Huncke, who worked in the shadows of their more renowned peers.