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Crisis and the US Avant-Garde

Poetry and Real Politics

Ben Hickman

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Charts the energies and tensions of avant-garde poetics and vanguard politics

Crisis and the US Avant-Garde examines the politics of poetry through the lens of crisis. A timely commentary on the role poetic culture might play in political struggle going forward into our own various contemporary crises, the book connects major twentieth-century poets and movements, including Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and Language Poetry, with their various moments of political upheaval. Reading poems as attempted interventions in ‘turning-points’ or ‘moments of decision’ within American culture, Crisis and the US Avant-Garde looks at how poetry seeks to go beyond poetic language, and investigates how experimental American poetry has attempted to responds to imperialism, war, class conflict and capitalism itself.

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1. ‘Longing For Perfection’: History and Utopia in Louis Zukofsky
2. ‘Atlantis Buried Outside’: Muriel Rukeyser, Myth and War
3. Slipping the Cog: Charles Olson and Cold War History
4. Husky Phlegm and Spoken Lonesomeness: Poetry Against the Vietnam War
5. ‘You Can Be the Music Yourself’: Amiri Baraka’s Attitudes, 1974-1980
6. Figures of Inward: Language Poetry and the End of the Avant-Garde

About the Author

Ben Hickman is the author of John Ashbery and English Poetry (Edinburgh, 2012) and has published numerous essays on the New York School, the New American Poetry, John Clare and others. He studied at University College, London and currently teaches at the University of Kent.


Hickman’s highly readable account of some aspects of contemporary American poetry includes a close survey of work by Zukofsky and Olson, Rukeyser, Baraka and Ron Silliman [and is a] clear, precise and lucid account of the avant-garde in American poetry.

- Tears

I have read no other work that better captures the particular stakes of poetry’s politics right now, amidst the new crises and social movements this side of Language Poetry and the dry well of Conceptualism. Hickman’s is a call to begin again that should resonate across and reanimate our discussions of poetry.

- Professor Stephen Collis, Simon Fraser University

Hickman’s important study productively explores responses to a series of political crises to investigate poetry’s capacity for political intervention. This challenging work directly addresses the political role of poetry (and poets), re-asserting ‘real politics’ and agency against the formalist politics of Language Poetry and the anti-subjectivism of the New Conceptualism.

- Professor Robert Hampson, Royal Holloway, University of London

Ben Hickman’s Crisis and The US Avant-Garde is a lively, well-argued, finely researched book. It contributes significantly to a new wave of scholarship on twentieth-century poetry that dispenses with long-held period divisions, such as ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’, and asks questions about the relationship between poetry and politics that do not depend on the truisms of an older avant-gardist perspective… Hickman’s case is made especially persuasive by his choice of the framework of ‘crisis’, which allows him to shift the burden of ‘politics’ from individual speakers to the times themselves… Hickman’s book is both timely and engaging, and it should find enthusiastic readers among the widening circle of critics and poets who are confronting the economic and political crises of the early twenty-first century with ‘less [interest] in Ezra Pound of Russian Futurism than [in] the particular class and cultural dynamics of its own contemporary existence’. Hickman knows the literary value of Pound and the Russians, of course—but he is, like the poets he restores to our vision, most interested in the radical present.

- Christopher Nealon, Review of English Studies

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