The proliferation of first book prizes for poetry reflects the increasingly professionalized academic culture in which poetry was published, written, and read during the 1950s and 1960s. This change threatened the validity of the poetic vocation by formalizing the career and thus opening poets to the charge of careerism. Zuba's essay explores the representation of poets' paths in the context of postwar debuts, which consistently evoke the career through the theme of beginning. On the one hand, this emphasis signifies a capitulation to the imperative of development that informs the university-based poetry scene. On the other, laying claim to the status of a beginner may be read as a strategy of defense, for it allows poets to present themselves as if they had yet to embark on professional careers. Interpretations of articulations of beginning in first-book poems by Sylvia Plath, Richard Howard, Robert Pack, and Donald Hall illustrate the ambivalence with which poets responded to the new conditions of poetic production. In turn, that ambivalence signals a need to reevaluate the division between mainstream and countercultural poetries that often structures critical discussion of postwar verse, for it reflects a resistance to cultural norms typically credited solely to mainstream poets' more overtly antiestablishment counterparts on the margins.
Jesse Zuba; “Poets of the First Book, Writers of Promise”: Beginning in the Era of the First Book Prize. American Literature 1 December 2010; 82 (4): 753–778. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2010-044
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