David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Going Back to 1968


45 years ago was a barricaded, world-rocking year. Both in politics and in poetry.

Between January and the end of March came the beginning of both the Prague Spring and the Tet Offensive. North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and student protests broke out in Poland. Although the public wouldn’t know about it until a year later, soldiers of “Charlie” Company of 1st Battalion, 11th Infantry Brigade stationed in South Vietnam, slaughtered some 400 women and children at My Lai. Robert Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from it.

Then, on April 4, came Memphis. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. Followed by riots in major American cities. Followed by the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Followed by student protestors shutting down Columbia University. Followed by Hair opening on Broadway. That was April.

In May, in Paris, rioters take to the streets. In June, Andy Warhol was shot as he entered his studio in NYC and Bobby Kennedy was shot as he exited the Ambassador Hotel in LA. In July Saddam Hussein led a coup d’etat in Iraq, while in Rome Pope Paul VI condemned birth control.

In August: Around the time Richard M. Nixon accepted the GOP nomination for president, nearly a quarter of a million troops and 5,000 tanks were putting an end to the Prague Spring. Same month: The Tet Offensive was winding down in South Vietnam around the same time peace protestors in Chicago clashed with police outside the Democratic Party convention.

Come October, ten days before the Summer Olympics, four dozen students were killed in street protests in Mexico City. Two weeks later in the same city, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in a power salute from the medal stand after winning medals in a track and field event.

By the end of the year, Yale University announced plans to admit women, Mao Zedong ratcheted up the Cultural Revolution, Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, and the Beatles released the White Album.

Who won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry that year? Anthony Hecht for The Hard Hours, a splendid and frightening book about the inhumanity of World War II. Hecht’s coolness celebrates reason and rationality, in both form and function, in both emotion and content, over brutality and evil. The Hard Hours asserts the poetic and the civic sense of order over chaos.

The National Book Award was won by Robert Bly for The Light Around the Body, a quiet book of anti-war poems. Bly concluded his acceptance speech questioning the morality of book awards during a time of war: “I respect the National Book Awards, and I respect the judges, and I thank them for their generosity. At the same time, I know I am speaking for many, many American poets when I ask this question: Since we are murdering a culture in Vietnam at least as fine as our own, do we have the right to congratulate ourselves on our cultural magnificence? Isn’t that out of place? You have given me an award for a book that has many poems in it against the war. I thank you for the award, and for the $1,000 check, which I am giving to the peace movement, specifically to the organizations for draft resistance. That is an appropriate use of an award for a book of poems mourning the war.”

I adore both these books. But I also think they have had little influence on much of today’s caffeinated American poetics. Hecht’s poems are too poised and too steely, and Bly’s poems too whispery, even in their subversions. That’s too bad because they are both important books in the ways that they embody the range of American poetry between zones of disposition and zones of disturbance.

Other than those two award-winning collections, 1968 also launched the tinny, angular sort of poetry of withdrawal that many of today’s poets emulate. I’m thinking of George Oppen’s seminal book, Of Being Numerous, debatably the most influential volume that appeared during that difficult year over today’s poetics. Oppen strips away ornamentation and privileges self-perspective over poetic overtures. That’s a brushstroke we see everywhere today.

Published the same year: Robert Creeley’s Pieces and Lorine Niedecker’s North Central. From my perspective, both poets appear to exert a greater influence today than either Hecht or Bly. A little research reminds me that Etheridge Knight’s debut book Poems from Prison came out that year too. It’s a book that re-calibrated Confessional poetry and could use a friendly reexamination.

I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to try to find a “year of years” in American poetry. 1917? 1959? But I love the parlor game of it and it may result in some fresh reconsiderations. So I invite you to name your Year of Years in American Poetry in the comments below and tell us why. Rules: 1) Poems have to still influence today’s poetry. Explain why. 2) The poetry can’t seem dated.

Ready? Discuss.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →