On the Anthology

There are just a ton of poetry anthologies out there in the world (over fifty on my own bookshelf alone). I’ve been thinking about anthologies of late, no doubt due directly to the recent controversy about Rita Dove’s choices (and omissions) for The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry and to American Alphabets (David Walker’s wonderful new anthology out of Oberlin College Press, offering robust selections from 25 poets) which I was given for Christmas.

Without taking sides on the Penguin issue, since I have not yet read the anthology itself but only read articles about it online, I wonder if part of the problem is less Dove’s choices and more just the title — if it were An Anthology of 20th Century instead of The (and it can’t be The without Plath and Ginsberg — those two omissions due to permissions issues and budget limitations) would there be so much vitriol? If it were just Dove’s choices for An anthology, I suspect the discussion about it would be more fun.

Well, probably not, but I would go into An anthology with more interest than defensiveness, the sort that a definitively defining The creates. And to continue for just a moment this aside, here’s a brief survey from David Orr of the permissions and quoting status quo. (Not to be confused with this David Orr.)

There are quite a few good ‘survey’ sort of ones, the for-use-in-classrooms textbook kind, that cover a broad swath, the most prevalent in school being ye olde Norton anthologies (if it’s 4 inches thick, chances are it’s a Norton). Of the many textbook-type anthologies on my shelf, with explanations of “the elements of poetry,” I’ve always liked The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry (eds Robert DiYanni and Kraft Rompf). Lots of variety, American and international.

Another good ‘broad swath’ one is The Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (eds Stuart Friebert and David Young). (That link conveniently has a list of all the poems in the anthology — fifty-six poets, total.) There’s Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’s Poems for the Millenium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry for a different take on the twentieth century. (I only have Volume One: From Fin-De-Siecle to Negritude. Volume Two is Post-War to Millennium).

And then there’s Billy Collin’s 2003 Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, An Anthology of Contemporary Poems, aimed at getting high school students into poetry (it’s both a paper anthology and an online archive). I am known as not being a huge fan of Collins’s poetry, so I had my doubts, but I was quite pleasantly surprised. There are a lot of poems I quite liked, and many poets I hadn’t heard of before.

The best title of the anthologies on my shelf is A Controversy of Poets (eds Paris Leary and Robert Kelly), published in 1965 and focusing on poets who had come into prominence since 1950. (Another aside: if you have any love for collective nouns, or words in general, An Exaltation of Larks is a must-read. It was written by James Lipton, who is indeed that James Lipton, host of one of my favorite TV shows, but now I’m getting quite off track.)

The postscript by Robert Kelly from, back to the point, A Controversy of Poets, has one of my favorite descriptions of what poetry should be:

I mean a poem that is not, like a tune we can choose to hear or to neglect, something for the sake of something else, like a print tacked up on the wall to hide the wall. I mean a poem that means something because it is no longer about something but is something: but, and this is all-important,  a poem that, as a thing, does not come to exist aesthetically and in remoteness, as a thing would be in a museum, unthinged, but as a thing would exist, and possess meaning, in a world of living men. As a chair possesses meaning. Not as furniture, but as a place to sit down.

I love that. “Not as furniture, but as a place to sit down.”

Subject anthologies, like David Lehman’s The Best American Erotic Poems: 1800 to Present, or The Jazz Anthology (eds Yusef Komunyakaa and Sascha Feinstein) or any of the zillion animal anthologies (dog, horse, bird…) are always a little uneven, seeming to fall prey, despite the best (presumably) intentions of the editors, to moments of inclusion based on subject alone (it has the word ‘dog’ in it, it should go in the dog anthology…), but even so are often good collections to have around. One I particularly like is A New Geography of Poets (eds Edward Field, Gerald Locklin, Charles Stetler), a 1993 update of the 1979 original anthology. It’s divided into geographical sections, The Northwest, New York City, Southern California, etc.) The poems are definitely not all great, but many are, and a lot of good ones from poets I hadn’t heard of before. (Which, really, is one of the main pleasures of anthologies, on any subject, outside the broad sweeping surveys or the canon.)

My favorite setup for an anthology, is McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets — the fiction equivalent is the short story anthology You’ve Got To Read This. In both, the editors ask well-known writers to pick their favorites, but the McSweeney’s sets up a chain. They asked ten poets to choose a poem of their own, and then a poem by another poet. That poet chooses one of their own poems, and then a poem by another poet and so on. Thus the Mark Doty chain, for instance, leads, by way of Brenda Shaughnessy, Olena Kalytiak Davis, and Alice Notley, to John Ashbery. It’s a wonderfully random way to pull together quality poems.

Another is First Loves (ed Carmela Ciuraru) which is subtitled Poets Introduce The Essential Poems that Captivated & Inspired Them, which pretty much explains it. James Tate on Wallace Stevens, Sherman Alexie on Theodore Roethke, Yusef Komunyakaa on Edgar Allen Poe etc. And if you’re interested more in the technical, Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms (ed. the prolific editor David Lehman), which has 85 poems accompanied by essays by the poet regarding form.

And now for an anthology I don’t have but want, having just run across it this evening while digging up links for this post, Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems.

So, what would I choose for an anthology? Since I haven’t been tasked with creating one (neither an An or a The of anything in particular), such an exercise is really more a desert island list, just my personal favorites without regard for things like balance or budget. And so I’ve started a new page, to which I will add as new poems make it onto that list. Going through all my books of poetry (and I have a lotta books of poetry) reminded me, conjoined thoughts really, of how much I love poetry and how much more I want to read…

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