Poetics of Emergence: Affect and History in Postwar Experimental Poetry by Benjamin Lee is an examination of the influences of Post WWII poetry. Lee teaches courses in modern and contemporary poetry, literary theory, and African American literature. His research focuses on twentieth-century American poetry and poetics, with a special emphasis on vernacular and avant-garde approaches.
I started reviewing poetry a few years ago without having much education in literature. My degrees were in history and political science, and that experience has helped me with this book. I have tried reading poetics in the past, and it has left me puzzled and confused. Lee’s book, which also started as his dissertation, looked like it would be a challenge. I found it, however, to be very readable.
Lee examines the period after WWII, which many Americans view as a golden age. On the surface, it was an age of prosperity and the “Leave it to Beaver”/Andy Griffin wholesomeness and wide open consumerism. The period was much more than that. It was a time of considerable uncertainty. There was the Cold War, MADD, McCarthyism, Jim Crow, sexism, and homophobia.
With the era set, Lee looks at four poets from the time: One gay, one openly gay and a communist, a woman, and an African American. The poets are Frank O’Hara (many know his Lunch Poems). Allen Ginsberg, who needs no introduction. Diane DiPrima, a Beat legend who was friends with the above poets and the mother of a child with Baraka. She taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics as well as working with Timothy Oleary. Amiri Baraka, a poet, and commentator of black culture and music.
On the surface, the poets seem to cover a full portion of the different factions outside the mainstream. O’Hara was the closest to the mainstream and the only white-collar poet in the group, although he was a leading figure in the New York School. Baraka and DiPrimo worked the underground scene together and apart. Ginsberg was the loose cannon. They, despite being so different, fell into the same or almost the same clique. They were all friends.
Lee manages to capture the movement inside history and present it to the reader in a very understandable way. Being familiar with the period and the individual poets helped me quite a bit. Even if I was unfamiliar with both the period and the people, Lee provides enough background to make it understandable and informative. Poetics has always remained out of my grasp, but Poetics of Emergence is not only understandable but informative and entertaining.