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Literature and Writing

American Literature: Poetry

epic poems, English poetry, diction, American poets, Declaration of Independence

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American Literature: Poetry, verse in English that originates from the territory now known as the United States. American poetry differs from British or English poetry chiefly because America’s culturally diverse traditions exerted pressure on the English language, altering its tones, diction, forms, and rhythms until something identifiable as American English emerged. American poetry is verse written in this form of English.

The term American poetry is in some ways a contradiction. America represents a break with tradition and the invention of a new culture separate from the European past. Poetry, on the other hand, represents tradition itself, a long history of expression carried to America from a European past. American poetry thus embodies a clearly identifiable tension between tradition and innovation, past and future, and old forms and new forms. American poetry remains a hybrid, a literature that tries to separate itself from the tradition of English literature even as it adds to and alters that tradition.

American poetry could be defined differently, however, especially if it is not limited to poetry in English. Without that qualifying term, American poetry has its origins in the rich oral traditions of Native American cultures. Each of these cultures developed complex symbolic tales of the origins and history of its people, akin to epic poems in the European tradition. These tales were performed as part of rituals and passed on through memorization from one generation to the next. Some of them have been translated into English. Yet these works tend to vanish from most histories of American poetry because they were part of ongoing performances based in spoken rather than written language. Moreover, their rhythms and sounds are bound to the native languages in which they evolved.

Other cultures have contributed to the rich heritage of American poetry. Spanish-language poetry has been produced in America from the time of the earliest Spanish explorers to current Hispanic and Chicano and Chicana poetry. American poetry traditions also have thrived in many other languages, from Chinese to Yiddish, as the result of centuries of immigration to the United States.

But most people mean by American poetry those rhythmic, memorable, and significant verse forms composed in English in the United States or in lands that became the United States. This overview of more than 300 years of American poetry tracks the creation of a national literature identifiably different from that of any other nation. In the 1600s colonial poets responded to the challenges of their new world and expressed the hopes and fears of Europeans who settled there. In the years following the Declaration of Independence (1776) American poets created a patriotic poetry as a defining literature for the new nation. A powerful new kind of poetry flowered in the mid- and late 19th century among the first poets to be born and raised as actual citizens of the United States. American modernist poetry emerged in the first half of the 20th century, as many writers sought to subdue nationalist impulses in their poetry and define themselves as part of an international advance in the arts. Finally, in the second half of the 20th century a multiplicity of diverse voices redefined American poetry.

Contributors

Folsom, Ed, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor, English and American Studies, University of Iowa. Author of "Walt Whitman's Native Representations".



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