Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Manhood and its Poetic Projects:

The construction of masculinity
in the counter-cultural poetry of the U.S. 1950s

Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Jacket number 31 : October 2006

[An early version of this paper was given in 1996 at the National Poetry Foundation conference on the 1950s held in Orono, Maine (USA). It was subsequently delivered at a conference in Athens (2002), at the University of Arizona (2003) and at the University of Florida, Gainesville (2004). A version treating Ginsberg and Olson only was published as ‘Manhood and its Poetic Projects.’ In The Periphery Viewing the World, ed. Christina Dokou, Efterpi Mitsi, Bessie Mitsikopoulou. Selected Papers from the 4th International Conference of the Hellenic Association for the Study of English. Athens: Parousia Publications 60, 2004: 159-181.This piece is 18,000 words or about 36 printed pages long.]

The works of Beat and “New American” poets of the 1950s were overtly counter-cultural and counter-canonical.[1] They were made on the periphery of American culture by people in chosen and flaunted marginality to the center at the moment of the fixing of the Cold War, the fixing of United States post-War hegemony, and the construction of influential intellectual and cultural analyses justifying these global politics. The most dramatic instance of cultural marginality was Charles Olson’s; he gave up two relatively centrist career paths (in the Democratic Party and in the university), to propose an alternative United States-ness and an energetic geo-cultural vision.[2] Olson emphatically did not accept “the Americanization of the world, now, 1950; soda pop & arms for France to fight, not in Europe, but in Indo China, the lie of it,” a prescient statement about the global penetration of U.S. products, globalization, and the forthcoming War in Vietnam (Olson Origin, 9). Allen Ginsberg, who brought the Popular Front politics of the 1930s forward into the 50s, is well-known for his visceral, principled identification with the deviant Others — people in minority cultures, internal exiles for political reasons (communists, anarchists, anti-Bomb radicals), exiles for psychological reasons (the dissident/ odd, psychotic, crazy, or driven mad), as well as the sexual exiles and outcasts (mainly male homosexuals, also the sexually promiscuous, and others who do not enter the family economy). Robert Creeley, rather uninterested in these overt realms of socio-politics, nonetheless engages many of the normative gender tokens of the 1950s — home, family, breadwinner, wife, and husband, exploring the fissures and ironies within their putative seamlessness. All three poets, variously, investigated United States culture; they resisted “mere aestheticism” of the arts, wanting to integrate social critique and energies with artistic expression “as the wedge of the WHOLE FRONT” (Olson, Origin 95; 11). Their poetry and poetics were proudly peripheral, stylistically non-conforming, and intellectually outspoken.

These poets’ ideological, cultural, and political critique of the “American century” also implicated gender.[3] Their writing is notable for its various but considerable opinions on manhood. Thus not only being male (a fact), these poets often championed strong-minded, pushy, outspoken, feisty, shrill, self-consciously posing and even hysterical masculinities (as ideology) — in contradistinction to the more buttoned-down, centrist manhoods normalized in the 1950s. They constructed a dissident and analytic subjectivity on the periphery of their culture, including critiques of masculinity, yet simultaneously they claimed the powers and privileges of normative manhood.

It has been often noted that it is difficult to talk about gender without tumbling into binaries, especially when the people you’re talking about deployed them, sometimes assiduously. Maleness is hardly one totalized thing. Ideologies of manhood and of masculinity are not single. All of the manifestations of gender are historically variable, affirmed, selected from, reaffirmed, and deployed even if these manifestations sometimes proceed under the rubrics of “nature” or “the natural.” Further, one’s sense of the meanings and practices of a gendered self may change over a lifetime and inside a poetic career...


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