Will the Kids in the Hall Like This Poem?
Somewhere in the front matter of most textbooks such as The Longman Anthology of Poetry, there appears a large, black block of text, listing names accompanied by university affiliations. These are the reviewers who commented on the book at various stages of its writing and production. In my darker moments during the editing of this anthology, I imagined them as a kind of intestine through which the book was forced to pass.
Although the cover of the Longman anthology displays the names of Lynne McMahon and myself, suggesting that, as editors, we simply compiled a comprehensive list of poems (and I’m not sure we thought our role as editors would be any more complicated than that), the process was more frustrating and, ultimately, illuminating. A project of this magnitude—covering poetry in English from Caedmon to yesterday—turned out to require far more cooks to season the stew and stir the pot than we expected, from corporate editors and marketing specialists to numerous college instructors and even an undergraduate or two.
Most of the time, I think Lynne and I felt less like editors (which suggests some mild form of authority) and more like referees. Some reviewers felt we were pandering to “the multiculturalists” and ruining literature. Others scolded us for our tradition-bound, mainstream tastes. (Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson seem to be the only poets on whom everyone agrees.)
In an anthology like the Longman, poems have to be teachable, canonical, and diverse. The prose has to be both “student-friendly” and intellectually sophisticated. I suspect most students are as intimidated by poetry as my students are. They often wrestle with how a poem’s formal strategies help create its meaning, or how poems are shaped as a result of a poet's living in a particular time, or how poems speak to each other across the ages.
As the Longman moved painstakingly through revisions and reviews, I railed against the process and the fingerprints of so many other people. Yet I’ve come to believe that these discussions about poetry and reading and purpose are essentially productive: that rather than simply ratifying poems, they contribute to aesthetic arguments about what a poem is. Poets have always argued among themselves about what is or is not a poem, what is or is not “the poetic.” It’s the job of an anthology like the Longman to bring students and teachers in on the argument.
Coffee shop, dry cleaner, best burger, reliable Indian food, the barman who remembers how you like your martini, the bookstore with the best poetry section—anyone who lives in a city turns it into a kind of village by finding and returning to their favorite spots. A comprehensive anthology like the Longman is a little like a city in this way: the grid of chronology and literary schools barely contains the unruly energies of so much poetry. Just as I have my own idiosyncratic version of the city I live in, I also made my own anthology from the thousands of poems in the Longman.
My anthology included not only old favorites, such as Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” but poems from periods or by poets mostly unfamiliar to me. These included early, anonymous poems, such as “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Wanderer,” and poems by the medieval Welsh poet David ap Gwilym, “Winter” and “Aubade”; Isabella Whitney’s “The Manner of Her Will,” Jonathan Swift’s “Description of a City Shower,” as well as “London’s Summer Morning” by Mary Robinson and “Soliloquy on an Empty Purse” by Mary Jones; “Florida Beach” by Constance Fenimore Woolson; Melville’s Civil War poems, such as “Shiloh” and “The March into Virginia”; and, finally, Robert Hayden’s “Monet’s ‘Waterlilies.’” My hope is that readers will identify their own favorite and familiar poems and thereby make their own neighborhoods within the walls of the book.
A lyric poet influenced by Donne, Hopkins, Merrill, and Auden, Averill Curdy notes, “In my own work, the aural quality and weight of words is very important and I think it’s partly an attempt to make them feel as material as the smears of color on a painter’s palette.” Her...