I do think there is a sharp historical boundary between postwar or midcentury American writing and “contemporary” writing, what we have now. The boundary is about 1973, the year of the oil shock, the beginning of the Watergate scandal, a time by which the civil rights movement and the New Deal Democratic Party had definitively dissolved into a collection of narrowly focused movements and interest groups, and the utopian and antinomian impulses of the ’60s had lost their credibility and momentum.
Before about ’73, you have clearly defined generations in opposition and a clearly defined “mainstream” whose poets and novelists command public attention, a liberal consensus both in literature and in political life. Afterward you have none of those things—instead, you have a broader range of stylistic and cultural options. Few writers of consequence after 1973 think there’s a powerful cultural “center” in the way that there seemed to be in ’55 or ’65. Even fewer people think that there’s one unified thing called a “counterculture” that can turn the world on its ear. Race changes in American writing, too. The early 1970s give you more visible self-conscious groups of Asian-American and Latino writers, and debates about black writing emerge more easily from an authentic-inauthentic dipole, in part because so many more black writers get published.
It’s a commonplace that postwar readers considered Robert Lowell the incarnation of their cultural “center,” the guilty liberal continually surprised by the inutility of inherited forms. John Ashbery represents contemporary (post-’73) literature about as well as Lowell represents ’45 to ’73. He doesn’t think he’s going to change the political world, he doesn’t give art a consistent ethical mission (though he understands that other people do), he doesn’t compete with the novel or film, he envisions the limitless circulation of limitless information, and he doesn’t mind that not all that many people understand him.
The Ashbery era includes the present. I’d still tell readers to start with Houseboat Days, but he’s as representative now as he was in the 1970s—otherwise he wouldn’t be the hidden hand, the stylistic innovator, two or three paces behind half the young poets of consequence I read. We’re still a culture where poets feel marginal but encouraged by the coteries they form (when I say “we” I mean writers and readers of poetry), still a culture opposed to sharp, durable value judgments, and still a culture in which information circulates faster than we can process it. All those preconditions show up in Ashbery. As they affect poetry, I’m tempted to say that the cultural changes of the Reagan era and the dot-com boom, the differences in stylistic possibilities between 1979 and 2005, are small potatoes compared with the differences between 1966 and 1974.