Schools of poetry are notoriously fluid and unreliable categories. In post-War America, virtually every poet who came of age at that time who was not associated with the academy (itself a tricky characterization) became lumped in with the Beat Generation. With the publication in 1960 of Donald Allen's groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry, the situation was further muddled by Allen's own set of groupings. The title did, however, at least provide a handy name under which to gather all those poets standing in contrast with, if not outright opposition to, what was perceived as the monolithic poetry culture centered around the universities. In retrospect, one group, though small, stands out as a coherent unit.
Ironically, the three poets who met at Reed College in Oregon following World War II were put in two different sections by Allen. Lew Welch fell in with the San Francisco Renaissance, while Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen appeared with what one might call the otherwise unaffiliated. This is stranger still when one considers how much more the poetry of Welch and Whalen have in common than that of Snyder has with either one. However, all three share several important qualities.
Each poet is clearly descended from the American Modernists, particularly Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. In the cases of Welch and Whalen, Gertrude Stein is a major influence. Pound's ideogrammic method, Williams' insistence on the use of native speech rhythms, and Stein's concern with the materiality of words and syntactic structures form the foundation of the Reed poetics. All three show an impressive range of reference; they also wear that learning lightly, which makes their verse as accessible or complex as the reader requires. The geography of the Pacific Northwest, an abiding interest in Buddhism and Zen, ecological concerns, familiarity with cultural traditions outside the American mainstream, all are common features in their writing. The level of commitment, sincerity, and seriousness to what they see as essential human work is indeed admirable.
Like the rest of the poets in the Allen anthology, there are at least as many differences as similarities in the work of Snyder, Whalen, and Welch. Their paths in life diverged in large measure after 1951. At the same time, a shared place, time, and outlook on the role of poetry in American life keep them linked as pioneers of a certain brand of avant garde poetry.
(published www.writinghood.com, 1/16/08)