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Responses to American Poetry

The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.


Tatiani Rapatzikou 
(Associate Professor, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Advisor and initiative co-ordinator


Lydia Makri


Artistic Expression and War Conflicts: James Schuyler’s and Denise Levertov’s Countercultural Poems in 1960s America


The two poems “What Were They Like” (1971) by Denise Levertov and “May 1972” (1972) by James Schuyler deliver an antiwar message in their effort to defend peace at the time of the US military involvement in Vietnam. Not only do they display the violent effect of war on the American society of the late 60s and early 70s, but they highlight the damage that American imperialism has inflicted on a domestic and international level. Schuyler, on the one hand, chooses to represent the tragic consequences of war through the use in his poem of vivid even though contradictory images of urban and natural landscape in an attempt to highlight the intense interplay of life and death. Levertov, on the other hand, demonstrates an unusual poetic form made out of questions and answers. What is of interest here is the way each poem constructs its antiwar message with attention paid to the New York School and Organic poetry writing respectively.

The period the two poems are created and presented to the audience brings to the forefront the socio-cultural and political crisis that was prevalent in the US in the early 1970s. The nation was divided due to all sorts of issues of financial and social inequality (Hickman 141). The length of the Vietnam war triggered a general distrust towards both the American government and the press, which later on escalated with the Watergate scandal. The poetry written at the time began questioning the benevolence of the monolithic power of politics and its rhetoric that had sustained the war (Chatterji 144), while communicating via its verse the societal dissatisfaction and uncertainty. Schuyler and Levertov were amongst the poets who expressed their concern about the war, their outrage and feeling of betrayal (Chatterji 145). These feelings become evident in the poems themselves with Levertov resorting to the use of the interview format while placing allegedly innocent questions alongside a series of hard facts and statements, and with Schuyler accentuating the distance that there is between the ignorance of the American public as regards the actual atrocities in Vietnam. In their poems, the two poets strive to bring to the attention of the readers multiple realities presented as a mosaic of experiences. Schuyler describes two antithetical but coexisting temporal dimensions of “here” (1) and “there” (2), with Levertov extracting political commentary from the natural allegories she creates, as is for example the image of the “moths” (30) drawn and burned by the moonlight or her reference to the flower “buds” (4) that no longer blossom due to the destructiveness of the war.

Specifically, Schuyler being a member of the New York School of poets, is interested in capturing change in the transformation of his surroundings. His “May 1972” poem focuses on “the suburban spring” (27), which had grown extremely desirable and popular after the 60s but at the same time ignorant of the problems the periphery had been facing. Whereas “beside the privet” (3) of America’s suburban households, there are only flowers blooming “extra fine” (4-5), they do so in full irony and juxtaposition to the withering image of “foliage curls” (6) in the battlefront of Vietnam. However, as “the war goes on” (30), all elements initially linked to the concept of peace, gradually disengage from it and begin reflecting the repercussions of war, for instance the “parrot tulips [that] look like twisted guts” (16-17) or the “blood on the green” (18) and the “hate and death” (25-26) that prevail. Furthermore, it is repeatedly evident that Schuyler concentrates on the instantaneity, the “here” (1), of the life in the city, presented as blurred by a mist that thickens more and more throughout the poem. Time, for instance, appears to be related to nature and more accurately, the longer the war lasts, the greater the deterioration of nature and, by extension, of life is. The antithesis and simultaneity of these two states of being bring Schuyler’s poetry close to the abstract expressionism1 that serves as a source of influence for his own writing practice. The most characteristic element of this movement is the way the artist expresses feelings and states of mind through their surroundings in a most profound way. Schuyler, in this case, openly reveals his stance in the war, not only by directly admitting that “All war is wrong” (11), but also by establishing that flowers and greens are withering, when mentioning that “parrot tulips look like twisted guts” (16-17) and there appears to be “Blood on the green” (18). Most of his poems are also characterized by a “collage effect,” evident in the ability language has to bring together separate words that represent different states of being (Herd 173). Such a “collage effect” is firstly introduced in the beginning of the poem itself, as certain words are connected with one another, as is for instance the case with the following words: “mists (1), “war” (2), “privet” (3), “tulips” (4), “cardinal” (9) and so on. Last but not least, Schuyler’s writing concentrates on the thingness of reality and its materiality. Any truth that is revealed through the text, is founded on tangible objects, such as nature’s “tulips” (4), “dandelions” (13), “foliage curls” (6), or even a “car” (13), the “drive” (28) and others, which are trivial and ordinary, but at the same time offer readers an insight into various life moments placed one next to the other in an effort to approach reality as a mere piece of material itself.

In the case of Levertov’s poem titled “What Were They Like,” this is based on the patterns of organic poetry, which is defined in her synonymous essay as a method of “apperception” (Levertov)2, in other words of the intuitive organizing of forms and content. Such a method is achieved mostly through the creation of analogies, resemblances and natural allegories, as well as rhyming, chiming, echo and reiteration (Levertov). This is evidenced in the way the Vietnamese people are presented in the poem, whose way of life and customs function as the means through which the inhuman force of the imperial war machine is exposed. Similar to such techniques is also the alliteration located in lines such as “bitter to the burned” (“What Were They Like” 16), which causes an acoustic effect, as well as in the repetition of the phrase “It is not remembered” (11, 19) where the verb “Remember” (20), intensifies the meditational resonance of the experience conveyed. Levertov herself has mentioned that organic poetry is of an exploratory mindset revealing an attentive relationship between the lines and the poem as a whole. Her poetry does not aim for truth and precision, but for “the splendor of the authentic” (Artistic Expression and War Conflicts: James Schuyler’s and Denise Levertov’s Countercultural Poems in 1960s America Levertov), that being the attempt to help the reader internalize the experience presented by the poem, caught up in “a process rewarding in itself” (Levertov). In effect, the process of creating organic poetry is described as the “crystallization” (Levertov) of an experience in the mind of the author, after they have contemplated on, meditated and finally delved into the ecstasy of the moment. This, however, does not necessarily imply that the poem has a prescribed form. Levertov has made that clear by applying to her current poem the form of questions and answers. Nevertheless, she clarifies how essential it is that the poet resorts to the use of words that engage all the senses, functioning as a mediator that absorbs everything around them. She creates in the poem “What Were They Like” a landscape in the form of an inner reality, which conveys to the audience the life of the Vietnamese: how they were “peasants” (20) working in fields of “rice and bamboo” (21) or occupied with animals such as “buffalo[s]” (23). In other words, according to organic writing, there is a form in all things and experiences which the poet can discover while writing. Nothing in poetry writing is redundant.

As far as the concept of war is concerned, it is a theme projected in both poems examined in the current article quite explicitly. First, in Schuyler’s “May 1972,” it is interesting how the image of the “mist” (1) is under transformation throughout the poem. Functioning as a veil, it disguises the war effects and prevents the reader from a clear sight of the violent truth. As the war in Vietnam goes on, the “mist” (29) thickens but as it does so, it becomes much more perceptible while revealing what may be lying beneath it, as is the case with the scandals and the manipulative moves of the state which leads to the realization, that “the war is wrong” (23). By the end of the poem, one comes across a strong visual image: “Children are more valuable than flowers” (30-32). In this comparison between flowers (32) and children (30), although both could be assumed to symbolize hope, the “extra” (4) “white tulips” (4) that are mentioned in the beginning, represent a deceptively beautiful and innocent reality. And while the poet makes an ironic statement of being torn between the two, he actually indicates that children should be a priority. That is why by the end, he reaffirms in a strong statement, that he is against the war, by peremptorily admitting that “the war must end” (33-34). Overall, Schuyler’s images reveal how he senses reality in his effort to grasp “some aspect of the world onto the page” (Herd 183). In the meantime, Levertov in her poem “What Were They Like,” demonstrates plenty of visual, kinesthetic, tactile and auditory images in order to convey a much more wholesome experience of her writing. Most interesting are her auditory images, as they create a dynamic effect. The “speech” (28) of the Vietnamese before the war, resembles “a song” (28), while after the war and their demise it resembles a lingering “eco” (27). Last, yet most important is her metaphor of the “moths” (30) that get killed from being drawn to the light, the same way the napalm annihilated thousands of Vietnamese during the war (Herd 147).

Juxtapositions play a dominant role in the way the two poets establish their beliefs and thoughts, either due to relation of “cause and effect” or a comparison of binaries. In any case, the outcome is common: the exposure of the reader to intensified and enhanced emotions. Schuyler, drawing once more on examples from his environment, describes how blooming nature is filled with flowers and fresh green “grass” (11). This is in dire juxtaposition with the sick and dying nature of Vietnam which is described in shades of black “foliage curls” (6). There is also the intense “blood on the green” (18) line, according to which the green represents not merely nature, but also youth, hope, peace and innocence viewed against the scarlet red of blood, violence and danger. He even associates the entire poem with a constant juxtaposition between two places of apparent calmness, even if it is illusive and hardship, as this is suggested by the Vietnam war. Despite of all the horrors happening in the battlefront, his distance from the events defines his initial perspective, described as being enchanted in a way of being propagandized. The one to blame for the act of spreading propaganda in this case is a bird, with the purposefully put word “cardinal” (9) to symbolize both the bird species and also the member of the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, the propaganda applied by the power figures of the state appears to have successfully distracted the minds of the American people from the devastating war scene. Schuyler breaks this pattern of illusive reality however, when he uses the phrase “silent scream” (19). In this case, he refers to “here” (19) as the current moment which fuses calmness with pain, highlighting in this way the interconnectedness and inseparability that prevails in all places, despite the distance of his position from the battle zone. Levertov strives for a similar effect in her poem, but she achieves it in her own way. At first, she poses questions in a naïve and detached manner, wondering about the Vietnamese “ornaments” (7), “ceremonies” (3) and “speech” (9). In the second half of the poem, she resorts to authoritative and parodic answers instead, elucidating the atrocities that the Vietnamese people were subjected to during the war. Their previously serene life is now a distant “dream” (17), after “bombs smashed…[their] mirrors [and] there was time [for them] only to scream” (25-26). Apart from the overall tone conveyed, Levertov also makes a distinction between civilized and uncivilized people. The specific contrast, however, serves at the same time as a paradox, because while anyone would connect the civilized with peace and the uncivilized with war, this is not currently the case. The Vietnamese, being the uncivilized, are connected to a life of peace, working in the fields along with their families, their “tales” (24) and their “song[s]” (28), meanwhile the civilized, are the ones to blame for throwing “bombs” (25) and killing not just people but even “children” (14). They are the ones to blame for turning their “ornament[s]” (17) into charred “bones” (18), exploiting, in other words, the advanced technology and knowledge they owned. Under such conditions it is that the readers witness a destructive side of a progressed civilization at the expense of the less evolved one. In a metaphorically significant image, the poet associates the ornaments with life, utility and beauty, leading the readers to an awareness of the situation after the initial image is opposed to burned bones, standing to connote death and destruction. The effect of this organic image will emerge in the readers as an inner discovery, originating from an intuitive, self-proving analogy.

Both poems, “What Were They Like” by Levertov and “May 1972” by Schuyler, attempt to criticize the ambivalent political framework that existed during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US by expressing their opposition towards the Vietnam war. In addition, through the use of intense imagery, the two poets hope to alarm and sensitize the audience of the time, not only about matters of war and peace, but also about the dubious role the media and politics play, so that a violent confrontation is approached and tackled. Schuyler’s and Levertov’s poems reveal the ability poetic language has to transfer to readers a much more engaging insight into human experience, suffering and pain.



Chatterji, Subarno. “Vietnam Poetry.” Irish Journal of American Studies, vol. 6, 1997, pp. 139-169. JSTOR, . Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.
Denise Levertov. “What Were They Like.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., E, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 389-390.
Herd, David. “Relishing: James Schuyler.” Enthusiast!: Essays on Modern American Literature, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2007, pp. 168-196. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.
Hickman, Ben. “Husky Phlegm and Spoken Lonesomeness: Poetry against the Vietnam War.” Crisis and the US Avant-Garde: Poetry and Real Politics, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2015, pp. 91-114. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Dec. 2020.
Levertov, Denise. “Some Notes on Organic Form.” Poetry (Chicago), vol. 106, no. 6, September 1965, pp. 420-425.
Levertov, Denise. “Some Notes on Organic Form.” Poetry Foundation, New Directions Publishing Corporation, October 13th 2009. Αccessed 30 Oct. 2021.
Schuyler, James. “May 1972.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry, 1972, Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.
The Art Story Contributors. “Abstract Expressionism Movement Overview and Analysis.” TheArtStory, The Art Story Contributors 22 Nov. 2011, Accessed 23 Oct. 2021.

                © Poeticanet

1 Abstract Expressionism has become the most accepted term for a group of New York artists in the 1940s and 1950s, who […] committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes, and most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, a movement that they translated into a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma. Among them were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and many others. It was under such circumstances that America's dominance in the international art world was defined, according to the

2 Denise Levertov’s essay “Some Notes on Organic Form” was first published in Poetry in September 1965 and then reprinted in 1968 in New Directions in Prose and Poetry 20. Later on, it was also published on the website Poetry Foundation in 2009.