Call me anthological


“Anthologies of contemporary poetry, like new cars, run the risk of being obsolete within a couple years. My hope is that this one will have the lasting power of a Volkswagen at least.”
-A. Poulin, Jr., Contemporary American Poetry (1971)

9780520072275As anthologies go, the monstrous Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (2009), edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, is a Hummer pretending to be a hybrid. Combined with its sturdy predecessors, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry, Volume One: From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude (1996), and Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium (1998), edited by Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, with 2600 combined pages, they are a fully-loaded triple trailer.

A carrier we can use for the long haul, or a threat to others on the road? At the beginning of the new millennium, we have some time to sort it out. This is my shakedown run.

I love poetry anthologies, for reasons that can’t be duplicated with anthologies of fiction or essays. A lyric poem, after all, is itself a work of assemblage, each line a careful choice of image and word held in balance for a breath, framed in tension or in harmony with lines before and after, rounded swiftly to the close. The poetic line is a product of selection; the poem an anthology of lines. In a good anthology, we sense, in the swift space of a few poems, the range or depth of the poet, the clash or harmony of theme and emotion. In half an hour we explore the unique geography and weather of two, four or half a dozen poets, landscapes wild or domestic, an experience that can be over- or underwhelming depending on the curatorial skill of the anthologist.

No other anthology offers the same sense of immediacy or range. I very seldom read fragments or segments of novels in progress. I don’t even like isolated short stories; I need to read several at a go to feel connected to any one. So I wait for new collections by Alice Munro and T.C. Boyle, rather than read their stories singly in The New Yorker or Harper’s.

Anthologies have been the lifeblood of American poetry, the venerable Mississippi of American poetry, though poets and readers may not realize it fishing the thousands of miles of the hundreds of tributaries, pulling up sunfish and an occasional trout. Though the internet may have changed that somewhat, providing broad access to poetry and poets, there is nothing like the compact, well-thumbed anthology to provide the casual intimacy that precipitates the shock of recognition – a new poet! The discovery of good poetry is incidental to that kind of casual exploration.

Poetry also has fewer readers and wider diversity, and needs the cross-fertilization an anthology provides. I’m guessing wildly here, but if you ask 25 readers to name the top 25 fiction writers in America, I’d expect two-thirds of those named would be the same but in a different order. Ask 25 poetry readers to name the top 25 American poets and perhaps only half a dozen would be the same, and some lists might have no common names.

There are all kinds of anthologies. Some explore eternal themes such as love and anti-war. Some are gender or ethnic collections. Others are simply the 101 “best loved” poems of the last year, decade or century. Some are designed for college classroom use, providing surveys of canonical poets and representative poems, often winding a poet’s reputation tightly to a few poems before they’ve hit their stride. Some anthologies are school or movement oriented, both recognized and obscure: Futurists, Surrealists, Objectivists, Beats, confessional, or language poets. Most – and, interestingly, some of the best – are very polemical, arguing for a certain kind of poetry. Classrooms never do justice to this volatile aspect of contemporary poetry. I’m not sure how you can educate yourself in the broad landscape of American poetry, all its streams, other than through the anthologies of the day, serially “new” and “recent,” and then old and dusty and obscure in all their wild diversity.

I’m seldom more than a few feet from a poetry anthology (or a battered copy of Four Quartets, an anthology of sorts). How else to fill the time when you have a minute or two to spare, waiting for something or someone, and you crave intellectual nourishment, but a novel is too much and a Luna bar wrapper too little?

As I’ve suggested, you need a lot of anthologies in order to make sense of any one of them. Here’s a few of the ways I’ve learned about the condition of American poetry since, say, 1950. And I should also declare that I judge the purpose and importance of any anthology by whether it includes Charles Olson, Robert Lowell and W.S. Merwin (very seldom are all three included), and by the fact that nearly all of them fail to recognize Elizabeth Bishop.

md1176384775One of my favorites is Donald Hall’s 1962 Penguin anthology Contemporary American Poetry, a slim paperback with the little red and black signal flags on the cover, a book that fits neatly in the small pocket of my backpack. It features poets first published after World War II, including Robert Lowell, W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, James Merrill and Adrienne Rich. Oregon’s own William Stafford’s poems are the first in the book, offering, along with several other voices I’d never heard before (I found the book in 1966), a “synthesis of the literary and the colloquial,” but with a diversity “implicit in the nature of America.” If this beautiful little book included Charles Olson I might never look at another. Only six of Hall’s 25 contemporary American poets (Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, Gary Snyder and Robert Mezey) made it into Donald Allen’s New American Poetry (1960), a collection of 38 poets said to prefer “formal freedom or openness as opposed to academic, formalistic, strictly rhymed and metered verse.” (“Formal freedom”?) This collection also included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Paul Blackburn and Charles Olson, among others. In 1969 Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey edited Naked Poetry, a collection of “recent American poetry in open forms,” including 19 poets, a few from each of the earlier anthologies, as well as the likes of Kenneth Patchen, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke. In 1971, A. Poulin, Jr. reused the title Contemporary American Poetry, and included different batches of poets from earlier anthologies, as well as Gwendolyn Brooks and Anne Sexton.

There are comparable Oxford and Vintage and Norton and Columbia anthologies of contemporary and modern poetry. Some wonderful poets such as John Logan, Anthony Hecht, James Wright, Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, can be found in only one or two of the anthologies I’ve mentioned. Others, like Elizabeth Bishop, cannot be found at all.

By the time Paul Hoover rolled out his 1994 anthology, Postmodern American Poetry, only five of Hall’s contemporary American poets were included (Duncan, Levertov, Creeley, Ashbery, Snyder), while some two dozen of Allen’s new American poets (including Hall’s five) survived to become postmodern poets. Sixties freshets flooded the landscape, carrying some poets along and leaving others high and dry, often for unaccountable reasons. Raw, abrupt, cutbank polemics plays a part. That’s certainly the case with the three-volume Poems for the Millennium. The project was originally conceived as two volumes, the first, From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude, cataloging the scattered early Twentieth Century avant-gardes, and the second, From Postwar to Millennium, a celebration of the global poetries that will sweep American poetry into the future in what Hugh Kenner calls the worldwide “Revolution of the Word.” The third volume, Romantic and Postromantic Poetry, a brilliant afterthought, but really a “prequel” to the other volumes, explores the aboriginal and Romantic origins of the late-twentieth century, postmodern poetry, the “radical and experimental” flowering that will seed the new millennium.

24831At some 2600 pages, the trilogy seems too much and yet not quite enough. Again, five of Hall’s and two dozen of Allen’s choices, many of whom I read consistently, are included, but there are many others I’ve read the last forty years, who, it would seem, are not millennium-worthy, including Lowell, Merwin, Berryman, Plath, and Stafford, as well as Bishop, and Jorie Graham (who do not appear in any of the volumes named above). The godfather of the “new” and “postmodern” poets, Charles Olson, is placed as a central figure in the “postwar turning” leading to the millennial promise, but he has as much in common with my list of those excluded as with the bulk of poetry awash in the wake of the last century. Perhaps I’m suffering anthology fatigue. Perhaps my own anthologizing is too personal and quixotic to float any other’s boat.

The global project engineered by editors Rothenberg (included, by the way, as a poet in Allen’s and Hoover’s anthologies), Joris and Robinson, is constructed from one obsessive idea: to define American poetry in relation to and drive it in the direction of a poetics that is indigenous/oral/quasi-religious in nature. Rothenberg began by anthologizing fragments and extracts of modern and traditional poetries that illustrated his concept of “ethnopoetics,” basically, non-Western traditional, aboriginal, folk or ritual literatures, and anything in Western literature with the same feel – mostly oral, spontaneous, expansive, anti-industrial and “experimental.” His anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poems from Africa, America, Asia, & Oceania (1968), and Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas (1972) are monuments to Sixties communalism, cosciousness-raising and performance art. The object of Poems for the Millennium is prescriptive and transformative – to remake the world by reforming, and, in part, reinterpreting poetic traditions. This is captured in the introduction to Volume Three, a statement reflecting a sense of American urgency created by events since 9/11:

The nineteenth century begins again: nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, ethnic and religious violence, growing extremes of wealth and poverty, all reemerge today and with a virulence that calls up their earlier nineteenth-century versions and all the physical and mental struggles against them, struggles in which poetry and poets took a sometimes central part. With these dire connections to the nineteenth century we can see, as an instance of that “mental fight,” a linking of an experimental romanticism to its modern and postmodern counterparts. In poetry the struggle occurred, as it did in the century that followed, as convulsive “unfetterings” of the imagination, presumed to be restricted by the powerful hegemonies of industrial capitalism and philosophical, political, and religious orthodoxies.

10540_1601Volume Three, then, provides the nineteenth century prehistory of contemporary or postmodern poetry; Volume Two documents its inklings in the various avant-gardes of the early twentieth century; and Volume Two, the heart of the enterprise, describes the “continuities,” the trajectory of American poetry from what Rothenberg views as the asperities of academic, hide-bound formalism to an experimental openness that by century’s end joined American poetry to world traditions and continuities. There are literally hundreds of poets and anonymous traditional voices represented here, many in translation, and much of it samplings or fragments, tied together by the editors’ small-print commentary. If, as they suggest, poem and manifesto are one, their manifesto in turn invades each carefully chosen selection in the anthology. They are indefatigable in that regard.

Several “emphases” or characteristics mark the chosen work: experimentation with language; consciousness and social/biological relationships; dream work and altered consciousness; the alliance of poetry with other arts, abstract expressionism and performance genres such as “slams” and jazz; typographical experiments in “nonsyntactic and nonreferential” (abstract) poetry; the use of vernacular or “suppressed” or “fringe” languages; acceptance of traditions from “submerged” and emerging third world cultures; a sense of globalism and a “veering away” from hierarchical ideologies; a commitment to free verse as raw and unfinished, in contrast to the art and life of formalist European “high” culture; a politics that is international and utopian; a belief that poetry is part of the struggle to save the wild “in the world and in the mind” (“the poet as endangered species”); and, so that we don’t take it all too seriously, a reminder that poetry should carry “a sense of excitement and play.” (As the editors’ sense of purpose in the project deepened, so did their respect for Euro-centered scholastic jargon. What in Volume One is described as the exploration of fringe language – vernaculars, dialects, creoles, etc., by Volume Two becomes “a renewed privileging of the demotic language.”)

Sounds broad and inclusive, but it is often narrow and exclusive in practice, with no convincing explanation why so many poets could not prove up even one poem for the millennium. Too much willful individual consciousness in Lowell, Merwin, Berryman, Bishop, Merrill and Plath, I imagine. In Volume One exclusions are not explained, except to summarize that many “major” poets have in the past been “celebrated precisely for their antiexperimental and antirevolutionary positions or for their adherence to a relatively conventional view of poetic traditions and formal possibilities.” In Volume Two the attack is more charged. What the editors reject is a “retrograde poetics,” part of an inherited “great tradition” of English poetry. And “the careers of the inheritors were too often literary, resting like the idea of literature itself on a fixed notion of poetry and poem, which might be improved upon but never questioned at the root. And behind it too there was a strange fear of ‘freedom’ as articulated by earlier, truly radical (‘experimental’) moderns – whether as ‘free verse’ or ‘free love’ or the abandonment of judgment as a bind on the intelligence or of taste as a determinant of value.” (The only reference to Lowell is from one of David Antin’s talkist, run-on oralisms: “if robert lowell is a poet I don’t want to be a poet”.)

Having said all that, I love these books, for the raw materials you cannot find in any other place, for the challenge and provocation thrown down by the editors, and, OK, for the “excitement and play.” As I’ve slogged through these pages I’ve often mused that the “abandonment of judgment” is the one fixed notion governing this bizarre assemblage. And yet I bring a keen interest to the slog through this swamp, so long as I’m clear about where I’m likely to emerge. This may be the wild Missouri of American poetry, but eventually we’ll slide out into the Mississippi, and join waters with all those other tributaries up- and downstream.

I recall that Huck eventually left his river “to light out for the Territory.”