Anthologies have always served a valuable purpose in bringing back into print poems that have appeared in the more ephemeral media of newspapers, magazines, or journals, putting the poems between hard - or, later in the century, soft - covers, at least as a bridging operation until the poet published the poem in his or her next collection. Such was the value, for example, of the annual Anthology of Magazine Verse and Year Book of American Poetry edited by William Stanley Braithwaite from 1913 to 1939. Such anthologies usually claim to be reprinting "the best" of the period covered, although of course such a claim inevitably involves often unstated premises. A contemporary series that claims to reprint "the best" is The Best American Poetry, published each year by Simon & Schuster and initiated in 1988 by David Lehman. This series is edited and introduced by a different leading contemporary poet each year, and while the magazines from which the poems are selected rarely include very radical, experimental publications, the series serves as a useful introduction to at any rate the mainstream poetry being published in the journals that it covers. Here the reader will find famous and emerging names, selected by editors who in recent years have included Louise Glück, A. R. Ammons, Adrienne Rich, Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, and Rita Dove.
As Alan Golding has pointed out in his discussion of the role of anthologies in canon formation, American poetry anthologies have always had an ideological purpose of one kind or another, ever since the earliest in 1793. This purpose is usually some mixture of political nation-building, literary nationalism, moral and/or aesthetic assumptions, or a broader claim for historical or contemporary assessment.
Thus when, early in the modernist period, poets and editors began using anthologies to promote modernist poetry, it was part of a long tradition. Emerson, Whittier, and Bryant had all published anthologies of American poetry in the 1870s that emphasized their own New England mode (and that did not include Whitman or Melville, and ranked Poe as a minor poet). Des Imagistes (1914), published in London and New York, allowed Ezra Pound to introduce the poets working around the principles articulated in the earlier imagist manifestos, as well as some poets that he considered suitably "modern." This enterprise was followed up - not with Pound's endorsement - by Amy Lowell in Some Imagist Poets (1915, 1916, 1917). Alfred Kreymborg, who found a publisher for the New York Des Imagistes, was also associated with the little magazine Others, an avant-garde journal that appeared erratically, and whose pages included poems by William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore, and which issued annual anthologies in 1916, 1917, and 1919. Pound continued to edit polemical anthologies throughout his career, not always focusing exclusively on contemporary work, since part of his concern was to place modernist poetry within a reshaped historical canon.
Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry in Chicago, along with co-editor Alice Corbin Henderson, published an anthology that included a generous selection from the modernist poets in 1917, and the editors revised and expanded the selection in various editions into the 1930s. Other anthologizers sympathetic to some degree to modernist work in the first half of the century were Conrad Aikin and Louis Untermeyer. By contrast, Bliss Carman's edition of the Oxford Book of American Verse in 1927 included no work by Eliot, Williams, Moore, Stevens, Hart Crane, or E. E. Cummings, only one poem by Pound, and no black poets except Paul Laurence Dunbar. F. O. Matthiessen corrected many of these omissions in his 1950 revision for the second edition, in which he drastically pruned the selection from the nineteenth-century poets, but Matthiessen removed Dunbar and included no poems by black American writers. As late as the mid-1960s two classroom anthologies, Karl Shapiro's American Poetry (1960) and Gay Wilson Allen, Walter Rideout, and James Robinson's American Poetry (1965) included no black poets.
Another prominent volume from 1950, John Ciardi's Mid-Century American Poetry, allowed the poets to introduce their own work in the form of answers to a questionnaire. Ciardi's selection and introduction is, like Matthiessen's, based on New Critical criteria, but his influential selection marked the first anthology appearances of Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Eberhart, Theodore Roethke, Muriel Rukeyser, and Richard Wilbur. Three other poets of the 15 that he included were first anthologized here and concurrently in Matthiessen's volume. No other anthology could count so many new poets being introduced until the famous "anthology wars" of 1957 and 1960, between Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson's The New Poets of England and America and Donald Allen's The New American Poetry. Jed Rasula, in an extensive study of the impact that anthology appearance has had upon the careers of poets in the second half of the century, The American Poetry Wax Museum (1996), argues that these two anthologies, together with Ciardi's, exerted a major influence upon the formation of the canon of writers most extensively read and taught in the years following the anthologies' appearance. Rasula's study contains a series of very suggestive statistical appendices that list such things as the major anthologies published, the poets first introduced in them, the winners of literary prizes, and the most anthologized poets (at the time of the book's publication, Richard Wilbur topped the list).
The Hall/Pack/Simpson anthology and Allen's three years later revealed a split in conceptions of the most significant new American poetry, between the more formal poets of the 1957 volume and the more radical poets of Allen's collection. An introduction by Robert Frost set the tone for the 1957 volume, while Charles Olson was a major advisor to Allen. Allen's volume printed in its back pages statements by the poets on their work, while the 1957 collection adhered more to the new critical position of letting a poem stand on its own. Allen's division of his poets into the Beats, the San Francisco poets, the Black Mountain College poets, the New York school, and a miscellaneous group served as a convenient if schematic guide, and influenced anthologies, classrooms, and scholarly discussion for many years subsequently. The categories were abandoned in Allen's revised collection, The Postmoderns (1982) edited with George Butterick, where the poets are organized chronologically by birthdate.
The 1957 volume has come in for a good deal of criticism from those who insist that the social, cultural, and political context of a poet's work should be recognized in some way in an anthology, and also for failing to recognize and include the open form and Beat poets who were challenging New Critical formalism in the mid-1950s. In defense, one might say - as one of the editors has - that it was easier to see the importance of these movements in 1960 than in 1957. Anthologies take time to prepare, and Ginsberg's Howl and other Poems appeared in 1956 when the earlier anthology was being put together. Nevertheless, Charles Olson had published his theory of "Projective Verse" in 1950, and William Carlos Williams had given it an endorsement and some publicity in 1951 in his Autobiography - published by mainstream publisher Random House.
The rhetoric surrounding the "anthology wars" gained much of its heat from another aim underlying the act of anthologizing contemporary poetry, the motive behind the Pound and Monroe volumes - the implicit or explicit claim that this is the major poetry of the moment and for the future, and that these are the poets who will write it. This division between the historical and predictive functions of an anthology - the difference between the aims of the Braithwaite and Pound volumes - has become more complex with the development of the higher education market for twentieth-century and contemporary poetry anthologies which took off in the early 1960s. Hayden Carruth's The Voice That Is Great Within Us (1970) attempted to be broadly comprehensive, but consequently was able to give only two or three pages to many of the poets - although Carruth initiated Cid Corman and Lorine Niedecker into anthology publication. A more mainstream classroom text, Richard Ellmann's Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (which collects British and American poets) initiated only one poet into anthology status in its first edition of 1973, although a measure of the pace of change in the canon and in poets newly emerging was that in the second edition (1988), of the 180 poets, 61 were new to the collection. Ellmann's selection (made with Robert O'Clair for the 1988 edition) attempted historical comprehensiveness, but such was its widespread use in colleges that it also helped to shape future reputations. Like all histories, it inevitably reflected the judgments of the moment, and the selection was increasingly seen to have inadequacies - for example in the selection of H.D.'s poetry and that of African American poets, and in such details as Louis MacNeice receiving more space than Charles Olson. The recent third edition (2003), newly edited by Jahan Ramazani, attempts to bring the text into the new century. Tellingly, while it includes only 16 more poems than the second edition, half of the selection has been changed. Some attention is given to the problem of anthologies representing long poems only with extracts, and at the end of each of its two volumes appear statements by a number of the poets on their work and its aims - in the spirit of the earlier Ciardi and Allen selections. The second of the two new Norton volumes (they are now titled separately Modern and Contemporary Poetry) begins, like Allen's, with Olson.
In another prominent text intended for classroom use, Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2000), a section draws attention to the graphic design of some of the original printings of the poems. Some recent critics, such as George Bornstein, Jerome McGann, and Nelson himself, have argued that graphic design should be considered as part of a text's overall meaning, the visual language sometimes suggesting a context within which a poem is intended to be read. Nelson's is the first anthology to reprint in full one of William Carlos Williams's books of poetry and interspersed prose, his experimental The Descent of Winter (1928), thus contributing to a more accurate presentation of a poet particularly poorly represented in the usual anthology selections. This anthology, like the third edition of the Norton, generally does fuller justice to the century's longer poems. But again an attempt at comprehensiveness (Nelson's anthology also includes a generous selection of Native American poets) means that space is constricted, most evident in the somewhat perfunctory introductions to the individual poets. Formalist principles can still sometimes guide an anthology primarily intended for classroom use, as in Helen Vendler's The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985), which, controversially, even omits a poet as established as Robert Creeley. On the other hand, an ambitious anthology dedicated to the work of the Language poets, for whom Creeley would be a seminal figure, is Ron Silliman's In the American Tree (1986), which in addition to providing a rich selection of the group's work, raises challenging questions about the assumptions behind genre categories.
In general, the changes in most classroom-oriented anthologies of contemporary poetry since the 1980s have been in the direction of trying to represent the range of multi-cultural writing in contemporary American poetry, in a general broadening and questioning of received canons that has been part of an ongoing debate in the academy. This change reflects, too, the impact of the discipline of American Studies upon more traditional Eurocentric conceptions of American literature. For some commentators, however, such a criterion of selection has become almost a quota system that threatens to exclude from attention poets who are making innovative contributions not based exclusively on content. A further charge is that the most favored poems on ethnic subjects are those that affirm the poet's culture without offering serious challenges to white readers. Along with such complaints is the claim that academic programs such as the Master of Fine Arts degrees offered by many graduate schools foster an "official" kind of poem, a personal lyric that lends itself particularly to the detailed description of ethnic background; that in turn such poems find favor in academically oriented journals, and such poets find favor with hiring committees looking for new writing teachers. The American Poetry Review is a leading journal that is generally seen as associated with the work of MFA programs. An anthology representative of work from the journal, which was founded in 1972, is The Body Electric, edited by Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, and Arthur Vogelsang (2000). The volume's affinities with the Romantic tradition are signaled by its being introduced not by its editors but by Harold Bloom, whose scholarly work is associated with the transmission of the Romantic writers. For new formalist poets, advocating a return to more traditional rhyme and meter, such "official" poems tend towards the self-indulgent and undisciplined. Timothy Steele and Dana Gioia are two of the leading theorists of new formalism, and Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism (1996), edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason, is a useful introduction to poets connected to the movement.
Time has brought together many of the poets separated by the Allen and Hall/Pack/Simpson anthologies, and they began to appear together in anthologies that historicize post-war poetry and those that publish contemporary verse. In particular, a number of the poets from the 1957 volume began to experiment with more open forms, for example Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich. But divisions among more contemporary poets remain, according to the editors of a number of recent anthologies. For Marjorie Perloff, such claims amount only to a wish for the radical moment of Allen's 1960 anthology. For Perloff, most anthologies of the last decades of the century are retrospective and not particularly radical.
Some of the most useful discussion of the role and contents of recent anthologies has come from Perloff, along with Golding and Rasula. Perloff's suggested alternative to anthologies that belatedly claim to be countering a "mainstream" official culture is a "yearbook" format that could be much more fluid in its contents, experimental in its juxtapositions, and less definitive in its claims. Golding is interested in the role that anthologies play in perpetuating or challenging canons, and while this is also a central concern of Rasula's, and he also sees the "nostalgia" identified by Perloff, he is interested in particular in the representation in recent anthologies of the Language poets - as a measure of how comprehensive the selection actually is.
Rasula singles out for particular rebuke A. Poulin Jr. and Michael Waters's editions of Contemporary American Poetry, primarily a classroom text, published by Houghton Mifflin, which up to its seventh edition (Spring 2000) did not include any Language poets, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1990) edited by J. D. McClatchy, which is even more conservative. Whereas the January 2000 preface to the Poulin/Waters volume by the surviving editor Waters admits that the selection reflects "Poulin's biases," McClatchy's volume, although much more restricted in its range than the Poulin/Waters volume, claims not to be choosing sides. Its opening poets are Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
The trade series New American Poets of the 80s and New American Poets of the 90s, edited by Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten, claim implicitly to be forecasting the future of the decade in their titles, since the volumes were issued early in the decades to which they refer. The foreword to the 1990s volume claims to offer "a representative array of some of the best and most exciting poetry being written today by young to mid-career poets whose work, the editors feel, is provocative, timely, important and accessible." Again Language poetry, which its adherents would claim is provocative but would agree is not conventional (if that is what "accessible" means here) is not included.
Three volumes that have received a good deal of discussion as part of reviews of how contemporary American poetry has been anthologized in the 1990s are Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry (1994), Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators & Outsiders (1993), and Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry (1994).
Hoover's volume generally gains admiration for its inclusiveness, but the price paid, once again, is in the lack of space to represent the range of a poet's work: 411 poems by 103 poets averages out to four poems a poet. Hoover's anthology is published by Norton, giving it the visibility and importance of being put out by the leading textbook publisher, and this has produced some grudging praise of Norton's willingness to commission it, from critics otherwise harsh on the publisher's American anthologies. Hoover's selection places itself consciously in the line of Allen's anthology, beginning the poetry selections with Charles Olson, quoting him in the first line of the volume's introduction, and printing after the poetry selections, as Allen had, statements by the poets themselves - beginning with Olson's "Projective Verse." For commentators who see Louis Zukofsky's work as an essential link to modernist poetry, Hoover's following Allen in not including the poet is a crucial omission. And a number of reviewers have pointed out that Hoover's introduction uses the slippery term "post-modern" both historically - meaning post-Second World War - and ideologically, to suggest an "avant-garde poetry" that resists "mainstream ideology." This, for Perloff and Rasula, is an example of "belatedness" and "nostalgia."
Eliot Weinberger's anthology sets a date of 1950 for its earliest selection, but since many of the modernists associated with later open form movements were still publishing into that decade, Weinberger is able to include selections from Williams, Pound, H.D., and Langston Hughes in his volume, as well as a subsequent generation represented by Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, and George Oppen, before - after 116 pages - getting to Charles Olson. For sympathetic reviewers, Weinberger is putting his contemporary poets into a context, a historical lineage back to Pound and Williams that bypasses the now marginalized era of the New Critical poets. Less sympathetically, for Perloff this is "buttressing," another example of re-fighting Allen's fight of the 1960s, as is his "A Note on the Selection," which once again sets up a "ruling party" against which the "Innovators and Outsiders" rebel. However, in addition to the canonized modernists, the later Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Creeley, Ginsberg, O'Hara, Ashbery, Snyder, and Baraka are all represented in most classroom anthologies. All but Baraka are even in McClatchy's collection. These figures may not be "outsiders," but Weinberger's limited number of poets, 35, allows him to give a much more representative space to each poet than does Hoover. He also includes a handful of Language poets - fewer than one might have thought, given the literary history that the opening selections set up. Another feature of Weinberger's volume deserves mention. It was originally published in translation to introduce Spanish readers to these poets. For this reason, no doubt, the poems have a thematic unity rare in anthologies, often concerned with other countries or cultures, beginning with the first selection, Williams's "The Desert Music" set on the US-Mexico border. A particular criticism of Weinberger's selection has been its lack of representation of women and black writers. Given this volume's claims to be setting out a history, and its emphasis upon other cultures, this amounts, for some reviewers, to writing women and blacks out of history, and celebrating white male poets' "exoticizing view of the Other."
Messerli's volume cites Weinberger's collection in its introduction as an example of the well-intentioned collections since Allen's that either fail to present "a significant enough selection of their poets to help readers contextualize the work," or which are "too often. . . based on personal agendas." Messerli offers an Allen-like set of categories in this introduction, but plays down its claims for definitiveness: first, poets concerned with cultural issues, myth, politics, history, place, and religion; secondly, poets concerned with these things but also "issues of self, social group, urban and suburban landscape . . . and visual art"; thirdly, poets emphasizing "issues of language, reader and writing communities"; and finally poets "who focus on issues of performance, voice, genre, dialogue, and personae." Messerli's historical foundation starts later than Weinberger's, with Reznikoff, followed by Niedecker, Rakosi, Zukofsky, and Oppen, before coming to Olson and Duncan. Messerli does not give more space to individual poets than Weinberger - in fact he usually gives less - but there are far more poets (over 80) and far more pages (1,135), and the poetry included is often more radical. But the collection has been criticized for its lack of critical selection. Messerli himself comments that the book turned out to be twice the size that he had intended because of "unwillingness to exclude any more poets than I have." Messerli had edited an earlier anthology of Language poets, and the general orientation of this anthology, while being more broadly conceived, also points in that direction.
Perloff and Weinberger are among the prominent figures on the "Advisors" list of the ambitious two-volume Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (1995 and 1998). This anthology is not devoted only to American poetry but is global in its scope, and includes many kinds of texts beyond those normally considered verbal. The volumes are arranged in a broadly historical way, but around movements and "galleries" rather than in any strict chronology. The intention is the open-ended effect of collage, of multiple relationships suggested through juxtaposition, but not defined, systematized, or prioritized in any way. The editors want to emphasize, as far as poetry is concerned, "an overall sense that what has characterized the century's poetry has been an exploration of new forms of language, consciousness, and social/biological relationships . . ." In American poetry, for the editors, this amounts to the objectivist-Olson line of history: Pound, Williams, H.D., before a selection from the objectivists themselves, then Olson, Duncan, and the Language poets. But this lineage is presented as less phallocentric than is often the case, with selections from the work of Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Laura Riding. Included too are T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land is acknowledged but not reprinted), Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens. All of the established contemporary poets that Hoover shares with McClatchy are included, but only seven of the 26 poets listed by Rasula as the most anthologized in anthologies of contemporary poetry. Not included are such figures as Wilbur, Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, and Plath - writers of personal lyrics, often in more or less formal verse; the seven included from Rasula's list are Ginsberg, Levertov, Snyder, Creeley, Ashbery, Sexton, and Rich. However one wants to judge the selection in this anthology (even for Perloff "Volume 2 has a lot of third-rate poetry in it" - as do, for this critic, the Messerli and Hoover volumes), it presents a context for twentieth-century American poetry of avant-garde poetry, prose, and visual culture - and works that defy categorization - that goes beyond the ambition of most anthologies. In the spirit of the Rothenberg and Joris volumes, which they acknowledge as a model, Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery's Imagining Language: An Anthology (1998) goes even further in its historical scope and its conception of contexts for twentieth-century American poetry.
This discussion of anthologies has focused in the main on anthologies that either claim a broad inclusiveness, or claim to correct omissions in such anthologies. But there are many useful anthologies appearing every year that specifically limit their scope - anthologies devoted to work by feminist poets, gay poets, black poets, minority poets, etc. In many ways, the editors of such anthologies have an easier task than the editors of classroom anthologies (at any rate those who do more than merely copy others' selections), or than the editors of collections that claim to be broadly representative. One criterion of selection has already been established, and the "establishment" against which the poets are aligned is easily identified. Golding has suggested that it may be impossible, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to compile a genuinely representative anthology of the twentieth century's American poetry, or even of the full contemporary poetry scene. And the Rothenberg/Joris, Rasula/McCaffery, and even the
Ramazani/Norton collections raise the issue of whether "American" poetry can be separated out as a category in a way that genuinely represents its context. And then why exclude poetry written in English in other countries and continents? Borders become somewhat arbitrary in an age of global travel, the internet, and the international reach of academic institutions. If Rasula is right about the condition of nostalgia affecting many anthology editors, one can have sympathy for the possible reason. Both the polemical and historical/classroom anthologist may well pine for the Golden Age of 1950-60, when, as Perloff puts it, "there really was an East Coast establishment" against which the polemicist could do battle, and only half as much - actually even less - poetry for the historian to have to represent.
Was this article helpful?