Growing up in Napa, California during the 1950's and 1960's, I was more or less subject to the cultural opportunities afforded in public school, the local public library, and the one local bookstore. Our family was poor, we didn't travel, and my parents--though reasonably cosmopolitan--were completely unsophisticated when it came to music, literature, and the arts in general.
"I've resurrected the term for a couple of reasons: It acknowledges the historical nature of literary reaction in this country. As an institutional tradition that has produced writers of significance only at its margins--Hart Crane, Marianne Moore--the SoQ continues to possess something of a death grip on financial resources for writing in America while denying its own existence as a literary movement, a denial that the SoQ enacts by permitting its practitioners largely to be forgotten once they've died. That's a Faustian bargain with a heavy downside, if you ask me, but one that is seldom explored precisely because of the SoQ's refusal to admit that it exists in the first place. Perhaps the most significant power move that the SoQ makes is to render itself the unmarked case in literature...while every other kind of writing is marked, named, contained within whatever framework its naming might imply. Hence Language Poetry, Beat Poetry, New Narrative, the San Francisco Renaissance, etc. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the few cases in which SoQ poetics has named some of its own subcohorts, such as the agrarians or new formalists. These can be read, rightly, as the sign of a struggle within the SoQ over relations of hierarchy & institutional advantage. The agrarians, as it turns out, were successful, the new formalists it would seem were not. I choose the School of Quietude category just to turn the tables here to call into question the issue of paleopoetics being the unmarked case in American writing. If I am correct in applying a social interpretation to their activity over the past 16 decades, the only way to unhinge them from their position of hegemony through blandness is to name them, to historicize them, maybe even to rescue some of their forgotten heroes so that we begin to understand the pathology at the heart of their poetry."
He has qualified this tendency towards categorical nicety:
What, then, was I to make of an apparent monstrous unresolved stand-off in a literary landscape which I could not even begin to understand, circa 1965? Would my apprehension of the formal possibilities of writing poetry such as that which I understood through Zukofsky, for instance, be opposed by my appreciation of, for instance, John Logan, or Theodore Roethke? Would it, in other words, have been useful for me to have been persuaded to approach the field of possible voices--coming at me from multifarious directions--by imposing a sort of kangaroo court of discrimination, passing this one, rejecting the other, on the basis of how "traditional" or "innovative" each may have seemed? I would certainly have rejected that notion then, as I would probably now, except that the whole notion of "belonging" to this or that school or group or coterie, has crucial implications, not just for one's participation in the system of literature, but for anyone intending to pursue writing in a "serious" way, as a career.
In the years following, as I matriculated to UC Berkeley, Iowa, and beyond, all these issues and conflicts and tendencies would become more vivid and concrete. I knew, without a doubt, that had I pursued a more narrowly conservative track as a poet during my years at Iowa, honing my oeuvre and style to please the reactionary editors and judges of the 1970's, my career as a writer would probably have led me towards a role that my parents--and their world, god help them!--would have understood, on some basic level. How would I ever have explained to them--as I could never have done--how a poem of Robert Creeley's or Frank O'Hara's spoke to me in a way that Longfellow's or Sandburg's would to them?
That division, then, had deeper implications than mere literary styles. It expressed a schism in the possible audience for literature that was as real as the world that I had grown up in. The officially sanctioned body of acceptable literary taste exercised a subtle control over the means of dissemination. America's puritanical, artistically conservative and suspicious character guaranteed that a justly respectful and righteous attitude towards the familiar music of sentimental "verse" be maintained, against the untutored, rebellious experimenters.
W.H. Auden has said that the reason for such variety [in A Controversy] is that America has no traditions, and that each artist struggles to create one--to which he can subsequently be faithful. The riches of modern American poetry he ascribes to the solitude and independence in which the creative American mind comes to its own consciousness of itself.*** I myself made a point very like this, when I insisted in an online comment stream that the reason American poetry can claim so many variant channels is that it's too large to be unified (as it is in France or England): It's a collection of regional entities, with the Mid-Atlantic region (the powerhouse of publishing and reviewing) showing the greater dominance, but without the vertical integration so characteristic of European centres. Thus, we have San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, the South, The Mid-West, New England, the Prairie, and even our foreign "exile" contingent--all as separate, distinct, places, with separate, identifiable periods, with isolate(d) individuals scribbling away in a relative remoteness which makes them gratifyingly forsaken!, at least in the orderly, controlled manner in which American decency and propriety is interpreted.
Ultimately, then, the effect upon me of this anthology, when I first acquired it, was of an eclectic debate. Unlike the Untermeyer and Williams carousels, which made of each poet a tended plot, with just the right amount of fertilizer and irrigation to keep it alive, the joint editors of A Controversy of Poets allowed their readers to imagine that the ultimate poetics was literally up for grabs, with the outcome very much in doubt. It didn't presume to say that everyone should, or could, think of all of its exemplars as inevitably chosen, but of all severally engaged in a colloquy of separate voices, none more "correct" than any other. It even implied that the process of selection--which involved, after all, as it always does, a series of exclusions--was open-ended, as Kelly made plain in his list of an additional 39 names, on the last page of the text, which might, in his words, have made "an anthology of comparable merit." Indeed, one wonders how--despite all possible excuses--Kelly could exclude Duncan, Oppen, Niedecker, and Whalen--while including Blaser, Oppenheimer, Owens, and Jonathan Williams?
All anthologies are doomed. Monuments to passing fashion. How few survive. Pound's Active Anthology [Faber, 1933]. Donald Hall's Contemporary American Poetry [Penguin, 1962]. Paul Carroll's Young American Poets [Follett, 1968]. Donald Allen's New American Poetry [Grove, 1960].