Charles Explorer logo

Limits of Reality: American Poetry in the Mid-Century

Class at Faculty of Arts |


1. CanvasRichard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961), chapters 1-4Ross Macdonald, The Drowning Pool (1950), chapters 1-3Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963), chapters 1-3Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963), chapters 1-3Ralph Ellison: Introduction (1981) and Prologue.

Invisible Man (1952)Music: Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (1959)2. Within the Limits(See Word file "C Limits New Crit Poems")James Merrill: ‘The Black Swan’, ‘The Broken Bowl’Adrienne Rich: ‘Storm Warnings’, ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’Richard Wilbur: ‘The Beautiful Changes’, ‘&’, ‘O’John Berryman: ‘The Statue’Suggested background music: chamber music by Haydn or Mozart3.

ExplosionAllen Ginsberg: ‘Howl’ (1956), ‘Kaddish’ (1961)Robert Lowell: Life Studies (1959)Richard Wilbur: Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (1961)Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Travel (1965)James Merrill: Water Street (1962)Sylvia Plath: Ariel (1965)Suggested Background Music: Pete Seeger, Bob DylanDesktop: Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Edward Hopper


This course begins with an analysis of what Robert Lowell called the "tranquilized fifties", that is, the post-war United States at the onset of the Cold War, by examining the way that different writers analyse the construction of that reality. Themes such as sexuality, race and foreignness will arise as lines of demarcation, deciding what is real (i.e., socially and culturally acceptable) and what is unreal (i.e., threatening to the status quo).

In the first part of the course we will look at a wide range of materials, including paintings and music, demonstrating that the 1950s were not quite so tranquilized as Lowell had them. Following this, we will look at the rather limited and restrained early work of the New Critical poets, and then the explosive poetics of Allen Ginsberg, who recuperated the tradition of inclusive radical American patriotism from Whitman.

We will conclude with a consideration of the variety of 1960s poetry.