American Poetry: The Twentieth Century

A review by Jon Corelis

American Poetry:  The Twentieth Century.  The Library of America, New York, 2000 v. 1 986 pp. $35.00, v. 2 1009 p. $35.00.

   Anyone who attempts an anthology of national poetry will inevitably produce a portrait disguised as a mirror.  Even the most capacious such anthology must be the result of an intensely selective process, and this selectivity will both prevent the resulting work from being a totally accurate reflection of the nation’s verse, and guarantee that it will faithfully reflect the taste, interests, and biases of those who are doing the selecting.  There is no practical way around this subjectivity:  the only completely objective collection of national verse which one could imagine would consist of poems randomly chosen from all those which had been written, and such a book would be neither very enlightening nor very readable.  The anthologist is under the necessity and obligation to distort literary history in order to explain it, and the best anthologists have always made of this problem an opportunity frankly to school the public in a given taste.

   The question then becomes, 'Whose taste?' We can distinguish among the prominent anthologies of English language verse which have appeared in the past half century three basic answers to this question.  Some are unapologetically based on the taste of a single individual.  Such a project obviously runs a risk of eccentricity, but when the taste in question is one of genius schooled by a deep and lifelong experience of the art, the resulting anthology, like Ezra Pound’s From Confucius to Cummings or Edith Sitwell’s The Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry, can be as fascinating and provocative as it is historically and academically unrepresentative.  A more common solution has been for anthologists to follow the dominant contemporary public taste in poetry:  the best known examples in the U.S. have been Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry and Modern British Poetry.  More recent anthologies have reflected the retreat of poetry to the universities by basing themselves on whatever  canon of significant verse currently prevails in English literature departments; John Frederick Nims’s The Harper Anthology of Poetry is an example.

   The above observations are offered as background to the appearance of what is clearly intended to be the definitive collection of American poetry for our time.  The two thousand pages of American Poetry:  The Twentieth Century are as official as an American book can be without actually being published by the government.  Their publisher is a non-profit organization founded with funding from the U.S.  Federal government’s National Endowment for the Humanities and the private Ford Foundation with the mission of embodying America’s literary heritage in a series of uniform editions.  Most unusually, American Poetry:  The Twentieth Century lists no editor, though the names of those given as the anthology’s 'advisory board', who presumably are responsible for its contents, evidence the highest possible endorsement of the American poetry/academic establishment:  Robert Hass, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Marjorie Perloff. Despite its enormous size, the collection actually only includes the first half of the twentieth century, with a future work promised to cover the remainder.  The lack of an explicit editor is matched by the absence of a preface, leaving the 1400 poems refreshingly to speak for themselves about why they are there.  The brief explanatory notes secluded at the back of the book are useful though somewhat arbitrary: why do the notes to the verses on page 114 of volume 2 tell us who Marsyas and Epona are but not Frigg or Rosmertha?  One of the book’s most interesting features are the concise and detailed biographical notes on its more than 200 poets, which taken together provide a convenient outline of the poetic life of the period and are especially intriguing for their gossip about who knew whom.  Production, layout, and proofreading are all excellent (though someone might want in a future printing to correct the misstatement on page 917 of volume 2 that Ginger Rogers appeared with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress.) Each volume comes with the thin black ribbon place marker with which bookbinders have traditionally equipped Bibles, prayer books, and august monuments of literary culture. The one ancillary feature missing which would have been valuable are the dates of the poems.

   All right, then:  doctis Iuppiter et laboriosis.  But what has all this lore and labor brought us?  This reader’s answer is, a collection which is valuable but flawed, though its flaws are a considerable part of its interest.  The collection is hindered at its deepest level by the seemingly sensible decision to treat the twentieth century as an organic poetic unit, because this requires the disastrous omission of Whitman and Dickinson, who are the first and most important twentieth century American poets no matter what the calendars say.  An anthology of modern American poetry without them seems continually to echo with their absence, and makes one realize anew that this poetry can only be ordered into a meaningful whole by reference to their presence.

Yet there is more to this than an incompleteness of literary history. Previous anthologists have, implicitly by their selections if not explicitly in their prefaces, understood twentieth century American poetry as a dialectic, evolving through contrasts like idealism and pragmatism, artistic diction versus common speech, free verse against traditional formalism, establishment academics opposed by bohemian rebels.  Whitman and Dickinson are the great roots of this dialectic, and their absence from this anthology, even if strictly explainable on chronological grounds, is nevertheless emblematic of its compilers’ rejection of this dialectical view in favor of one based on the politics of identity and the ideals of diversity currently dominant on American campuses.  

  The anthologists’ aim has apparently been to preserve the importance of the accepted major figures of modern American verse while also giving greater prominence to poetries which previous cultural biases have de-emphasized or excluded.  Thus the coverage of Frost, Williams, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Crane, and other great names is as extensive as any traditionalist could wish, and indeed often includes interesting lesser-known works by such poets in addition to the ones which are in every other collection.  But along with this, much more space than has been usual is devoted to women poets, allowing for instance the inclusion of passages of Gertrude Stein which are long enough to really demonstrate what she is doing; of generous selections from H.D.’s more ambitious later works; and of enough of the startling experiments of Mina Loy to enable you to decide whether you like them or not.  Additionally, this anthology will serve many readers well by providing their first exposure to lesser known women poets such as Hazel Hall, Adelaide Crapsey (inventor of the cinquaine),  Hildegarde Flanner, and the remarkable Lorine Niedecker.  The African American contribution to the country’s poetry has also been highlighted not only by sections on Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen large enough to make clear how impressive their accomplishment was, but by briefer selections from a number of other poets who deserve to be remembered, like Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Anne Spencer, whose ‘Lines to a Nasturtium’ is one of the collection’s rediscovered gems.  And the inclusion of verse by John Reed, W.E.B.  du Bois, and other radicals, if not wholly justified by its poetic quality, has a place in such a work to remind us that there was a time in America when leftist political activism was something more than a rare, eccentric hobby, and when, even more astonishingly, poetry was seen as a necessary and effective weapon of class struggle.

   Such inclusiveness, though admirable, involves risks, and it would be surprising if there were no false notes.  For instance, the attempts of such poets as James Weldon Johnson and Sterling A.  Brown to employ rural black American dialect in verse, though no doubt a justified and positive experiment in their time, may now seem to some readers unacceptably stereotyped when presented in isolation from their social and historic context.  And the decision to include popular song lyrics from blues, country music, and Broadway musicals, though it can be supported in theory by any number of good arguments, in practice doesn’t work:  the familiar words, so natural and convincing in their musical setting, seem painfully stilted in naked print.  It would have been better just to admit that, in American culture at least, song lyrics are a fundamentally different art form from poetry and don’t belong in an anthology of verse.

   But these are minor concerns.  A more serious issue is the underlying disunity which this anthology shares with the culture it represents. Surely we must approve of the granting of proper credit to hitherto undervalued strains in American verse, and the reordering of some priorities which this requires is more often than not an asset.  And yet in the process the dialectical unity towards which previous anthologies have striven has been dissolved, and no credible substitute for it has been found.  In this anthology’s retrospective vision, the American poetic melting pot, like the social one, has become an abstract mosaic, conveying no overall meaning except what individual perceptions decide to take from it; the diverse neglected traditions of American poetry seem not to have been brought into the mainstream but set down beside it as parallel currents deserving equal attention, each contributing to a whole which is nothing more than the sum of its parts.  By an irony probably unintended by its compilers, this definitive anthology raises without resolving the unanswered questions which haunt American culture in general today:  whether democratic individualism is compatible with national unity (how dismaying the question would have seemed to Whitman), and if it is possible to separate the value of personal experience from political realities (how puzzling the question would have seemed to Dickinson).  Like the nation it portrays, this anthology presents us with tremendous resources serving confused intentions, and with ideals which inspire but do not cohere.

[This review was originally published in the British literary magazine Acumen.]