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Thousands of Poems Before I Sleep

Building an online poetry archive can be a messy business.
Building a poetry archive can wear a person out. D.H. Tracy is the Poetry Foundation’s Archive Editor. Here he writes about the task of choosing what to include, and how sometimes it felt like he was constructing an unsteady monument.

Marvin Bell’s “An Introduction to My Anthology” plays on the Greek meaning of anthology as a flower-gathering or bouquet:

Such a book must contain—
it always does!—a disclaimer.
I make no such. For here
I have collected all the best—
the lily from the field among them,
forget-me-nots and mint weed,
a rose for whoever expected it,
and a buttercup for the children
to make their noses yellow.

Here is clover for the lucky
to roll in, and milkweed to clatter,
a daisy for one judgment,
and a violet for when he loves you
or if he loves you not and why not.
Those who sniff and say no,
These are the wrong ones (and
there always are such people!)—
let them go elsewhere, and quickly!

For you and I, who have made it this far,
are made happy by occasions
requiring orchids, or queenly arrangements
and even a bird-of-paradise,
but happier still by the flowers of
circumstance, cattails of our youth,
field grass and bulrush. I have included
the devil’s paintbrush
but only as a peacock among barn fowl.

This poem gives some idea of the purpose and scope of the Poetry Foundation’s new online archive. Our objective in starting this project was to assemble several thousand poems—some clover, some orchids, even some “cattails of our youth”—and present them on the Web, freely and legally, on the assumption that improving access to good poems lowers one barrier to their wider enjoyment. This collection would therefore square with the Foundation’s goal of expanding the audience for poetry, and of doing so without dumbing down the art. This collection would be broader than a print anthology but more winnowed than a library. It would be all things to all people, like a pool with a shallow end for novices and a deep end for experts. The reduced cost of online publishing would allow us to offer longer poems than are typically found in print anthologies, and to offer more poems by lesser-known authors, and more lesser-known poems by well-known authors, than, again, would be the case in print. Freedom from a calendar-bound publication cycle would allow us to add poems on the fly, and the accretion of poems over time would not occur at the expense of material already there.

We would select the poems to represent an author’s critical embroilments and passions, to sample the arc of his or her career, and with a mind to presenting both chestnuts (for newcomers) and lesser-known work (for old hands). Previous appearance in Poetry magazine would have no bearing on the selection process. We hoped these considerations would mitigate the idiosyncratic effects of taste on our part, but at the same time we didn’t want to remove these effects, and the sparkle of personality they bring, altogether. In practice, single readers (including Caitlin Kimball and Samantha Myers, who did yeoman’s duty in plowing through the work of hundreds of poets) have made all the selections for a given author, and these selections have subsequently been seconded and approved by other editors. So all selections are the acts of an individual sensibility, and no selection has been unilateral.

Broadly speaking, all of this has been executed as planned, although with more chaos than any of us might have guessed. Marvin Bell is right, in his poem—anthologists do have a habit of disclaiming and do like to point out how forces beyond their control conspire to undermine their vision. I have never listened to them when they say this, and I don’t expect you to listen to it now. A tornado of budgetary and legal wrangling cuts a swath through one’s precious flower arrangement; nevertheless one has to stand by the product, like a politician taking the blame or credit for the economy. Caitlin quipped that her job title was “anarchivist.” Rights holders may be skittish or completely unreachable. Fee structures for online use of copyrighted material can bear little relationship to the notoriety of the work in question. Poets themselves, reluctant to be cast in bronze, may renounce their widely appreciated earlier work and refuse its inclusion.

I mustn’t exaggerate the bad: the vast majority of the poets we had cause to deal with directly were highly enthusiastic about the project, and the major poetry publishers have been, all told, remarkably nimble and generous in coming to grips with the Web medium. (Deserving special mention in this regard are Copper Canyon Press, New Directions Publishing, Houghton Mifflin, BOA Editions, and Wesleyan University Press.) I think our greatest obstacle has been some fundamental mismatch between the public, businesslike aspirations of the archive and the stubbornly private or rarefied nature of the poetry in it. More than once it seemed to me that we were opening a restaurant and hoping for fast-food appeal with a gourmet menu. The clientele is expecting cheeseburgers; the ingredients in the kitchen are snails, frogs’ legs, and Belgian endive.

In the end I must put my hopes for the deliciousness of these poems in the multiplicity of them, and indeed in making these selections we were overcome by what Louis MacNeice calls “The drunkenness of things being various.” Somewhere in this archive you can put on a slinky red dress, visit revolutionary Cuba, stand in a ditch, or get a vasectomy. You can turn thirty-five, turn forty, drive a Buick, or pay tribute to Gandhi. You can indulge a conspiracy theory, do your laundry, have a walk along the tracks, or get more involved in the emotional lives of your appliances. You can have an ice cream sundae, commit to social justice, engage in self-abuse, or relax at the villa. We hope you find something engaging in the archive’s “queenly arrangements,” as Marvin Bell puts it, as well as in its incidental felicities, its “flowers/of circumstance.”

At a time when many people I know are openly disparaging of the cultural achievements of the society they live in, the poems in here (I speak now especially of the ones drawn from the past hundred years or so) form a sturdy monument. That is already wrong—these poems were composed neither with collective intent nor with intent to glorify the culture of which they are a part. Nevertheless the poets of our time have found resources of praise and lament that answer forcefully to our extremes of experience, or at least they would answer forcefully if someone read them. In September of 2001, I was a student in a course of Derek Walcott’s and we were in class when news came of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The events of course colored our discussions for the rest of the semester. Frustrated with the republic’s incompetence at staging any kind of meaningful healing ritual (he especially ground his teeth at the sentimental benefit concerts that rock stars were then giving), Walcott asked us why, given the magnitude of the tragedy, no one would rise to the occasion. “You have great things,” he said. “Why does no one stand up and read Hart Crane?” I had no very good answer for him then, but we propose a solution now: here’s an excerpt from Hart Crane’s poem, “The Bridge.”
  • Poet, critic, and editor D.H. Tracy earned an MFA at Boston University. In his formally engaged poems, often infused with sly humor, he explores themes of intimacy, perception, and loss. His debut poetry collection, Janet’s Cottage (2012), won a New Criterion Poetry Prize, and his work is featured in The...


Thousands of Poems Before I Sleep

Building an online poetry archive can be a messy business.
  • Poet, critic, and editor D.H. Tracy earned an MFA at Boston University. In his formally engaged poems, often infused with sly humor, he explores themes of intimacy, perception, and loss. His debut poetry collection, Janet’s Cottage (2012), won a New Criterion Poetry Prize, and his work is featured in The...

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