A Candid, Backward Look at Mid-Century American Poetry

Lacking the candor of dogs, I kiss the departing air,” wrote Theodore Roethke in “Praise to the End.’

What does that mean? That he is too inhibited to piss on the hydrant as he passes by? I have never known… Just now I tried to find a way to link the poem to this blog, and all I found were academic papers about the poem. Not the poem. That’s kind of how I thought things might go here in the future.

When I was in high school, Theodore Roethke was regarded as an Important Contemporary American Poet. I don’t know if his work is even taught any more. I know that I believed Miss Cohen and I bought a thin volume and read it back to front. Some of the poems I wrote in those days emulate Roethke and Ferlinghetti. I thought I might grow up to be a poet.

Roethke was not one of the “beat poets” yet rhythm was important to him. When we read his poems aloud, my teacher made a big deal out of this. “Hear it? Hear the 3/4 beat behind his words?” She was reading “My Papa’s Waltz” which is a poem about Roethke getting slapped around by his alcoholic father.

Anyway, since we read Roethke at the same time we were reading “the beats,” they are conflated in my mind — and they are poets of a generation. Of the beats, we mostly read Ferlinghetti. Our teacher mentioned Ginsberg’s Howl, but she made it  clear that it was a questionable piece of literature and had been censored by the Supreme Court. Or something. Not that she objected to that. I got to know her well as a friend, and I’m sure, now, she was following the orders of the Board of Education in not teaching it. Not that Howl makes any sense. It doesn’t. What does is “Supermarket in California” and, especially, “America.”

But time rubs the edges off of horror (as we see daily in the news, that shithole) and by the time I was in my thirties, Howl was required reading in many college and university Intro to American Lit classes. Here’s a photo of West Point cadets reading that unspeakable work.


Oddly, one day in San Francisco some 40 years after I left high school, I found myself in Ferlinghetti’s old neighborhood, not far from the Haight, my friend and I, hours away from a toilet and in desperate need of a good pee, availed ourselves of a dark corner in a parking structure before we headed down to find Chinese food in North Beach. We, too, lacked the candor of dogs, but in every sense that was a memorable urination and a really good poem.

Still, lines of their poetry linger in my memory. Of Roethke, from his poem, “In a Dark Time,” “What’s madness but nobility of soul At odds with circumstance?”

I will think of this line from Ferlinghetti, In Golden Gate Park that day, a man and his wife were coming along, thru the enormous meadow that was the meadow of the world.”

I’ve been to Golden Gate park and Ferlinghetti exaggerates, but I get the idea, and sometimes, when I’m walking through a field, even at my slough I think of that line. I refuse to be a party to the ultimate nihilism of Ferlinghetti’s poem. It’s cheap, facile, juvenile and useless here in the “meadow of the world.”


7 thoughts on “A Candid, Backward Look at Mid-Century American Poetry

    • “Them Russians, them Russians and them Chinamen…”

      Once I was in the library at the university where I taught in another life, looking at all the books by Goethe that I couldn’t read because they were in German. My eyes filled with tears. My friend said, “America, why are your libraries filled with tears?” I still laugh at that…

  1. I really liked Ferlinghetti and Garry still quotes pieces of his poems. We are the kind of people who quote poetry mixed liberally with lots of swearing. Oh America.

    • I saw Ferlinghetti twice. The first time, he was disgusting. The second time, he was amazing, great. The first time was 1968 in Colorado Springs. He was trailed by groupies and had just written “Tyrannus Nix” and was all over himself. The second time he’d grown up and the poems he read at D.G. Will bookstore in La Jolla were beautiful. I loved the little book that came out when I was in high school, “A Coney Island of the Mind.” That was where we came “thru the enormous meadow, that was the meadow of the world.” I got to see Ginsberg, too. I love “Supermarket in California” very much. I don’t think I ever bought groceries while I lived there without hearing that poem in my head. “What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman.” ❤

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