In Praise of the Anthology
Say what you will about anthologies. For my part, I love these treasure troves. Much of my early exposure to new work or, to put it better, work that is new to me, comes through anthologies. Given the opportunity I, like O’Hara, would certainly “buy/ an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets/in Ghana are doing these days.” I owe many of my love affairs with poets to the anthologies that first introduced me to their work. My bookshelves boast many spine-battered anthologies, favorites from my teens and early twenties. Many of these collections I still read and teach from today.
I’ve grown more reserved about how I treat books of poetry and no longer dog ear the pages of poems I admire, but my copy of The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology: 1980-1990 is significantly fatter at the top due to all the pages I doubled down in college. The same goes for The Virago Book of Love Poetry. Though you wouldn’t know it from the rough way I treated it’s jacket, propping the book open on greasy tables and carrying it out even in the English rain, the cover of my 1990 British edition was part of the wonder of the book. It sent me scurrying to learn more about Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo at the same time I was discovering more about the poets featured within the covers. That anthology introduced me to what remains one of my favorite poems by Anna Akhmatova and had me digging into books by poets as different as Marina Tsvetaeva, Joy Harjo, and Medbh McGuckian, all at the same time.
There have been other gifts as well. I’m a preacher’s granddaughter and find myself often writing out of the Biblical stories I grew up around, so when I ran across Chapters Into Verse (Volume I: Genesis to Malachi) in the old brick and mortar Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, I made it a birthday present to myself. Learning how much I love the old stories, one friend gave me a copy of his favorite anthology, Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology Being Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty 618-906. A good story (or poem) never grows old.
I’ve got a copy of a grade school primer that once belonged to my educator grandparents: Let’s-Read-Together Poems, An Anthology of Verse Arranged for Choral Reading in the Fifth Grade. This gem (copyright 1950) includes Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Untermeyer, Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, E-Yeh-Shuré, and Walter de la Mare. The poem selections, the choral orchestrations, even the introduction never fail to please: “Let’s-Read-Together Poems… is a kind of cookie jar. From it you can take cookies—which are poems—old and new. Some you have tasted—read—before. Others are favorites of boys and girls somewhere else. Still more have found their way into the cookie jar for the first time, because the ‘cooks’ believe boys and girls will find them ‘dee-licious.’” Dee-licious indeed!
And so it is my love for anthologies endures. These days I’m enjoying Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar went to great efforts to represent poets from all through the Asian Diaspora, introducing many of these poets to English-language readers for the first time. It’s an enormous volume, and I look forward to perusing it for years to come.
Also of interest is When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women. With over 450 poems and nearly 100 poets, Andrea Hollander Budy has done a terrific job of representing a range of the women writers working in America today.
While neither of these are hot off the press, I thought I’d also mention two other anthologies I have been reading recently. Martín Espada’s Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination From Curbstone Press is a splendid answer to critics who believe it’s impossible to be overtly political and also write a good poem. And for those of you who wonder if good poems always have to have line breaks, try No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets, edited by Ray Gonzalez. There’s enough variety in this anthology to welcome anyone into the glories of this form.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...