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.

Originally Published: February 26th, 2009

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...

  1. February 26, 2009
     Rob Taylor

    Thanks for this - a few new anthologies to look into! My personal favorite is "Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology".
    Oh, and what the poets in Ghana are doing these days:

  2. February 26, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Camille, it's exciting just to think of all these anthos. I too have a weakness for them, ever since that tiny copy of IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE that I literally used to sleep with at night. So, how do YOU first approach an anthology when you open it? Do you read the TOC, go straight through, open at random?

  3. February 27, 2009

    Hi Camille,
    I think you’ve hit on something really important here. Anthologies are definitely a poet’s thing. When I read your post I realized how much I too love them. And you’ve created quite a list here. The difference between us is that I only have four in my whole library. Reading about your trove makes me want go immediately to and spend a lot of money I don’t have. Actually, until recently, I only had three. The first one was a high school graduation gift from my parents (1975). The Norton Anthology English Literature, ed III. It comes in two volumes and I think I’ve probably learned more from it than I ever learned in school. It’s gone everywhere with me, and it’s never shelved. It’s usually on the floor next to my desk, or in the bathroom, or under my bed. Then there’s my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, horribly out of date (1973 copyright), but I won’t part with it. It’s also in two volumes, but that’s because the binding broke right between John Berryman and Dylan Thomas (is that were I situate myself as a poet?). Then there’s my Mille et Cent Ans de Poésie Française, edited by Bernard Delvaille. It contains everything you can imagine, like Pontus de Tyard (1521-1605)…who starts one sonnet: Je sens un feu chaudement allumé, which is what we all feel, right, when we’re about to write? My last anthology, and a book I read up and down and in and out in manuscript, is my friend Peter Cole’s simply remarkable The Dream of the Poem, Hebrew Poetry From Muslim and Christian Spain, 950 -1492, all of it translated by Peter, and fully fleshed out with a remarkable introduction, short articles on each poet, notes and a glossary (Princeton). A simply amazing book.
    Anyway, next time I’m in New York, I’m going to take your list with me and try to build on my collection. Five would be a nice number.
    Anyway, thanks for reminding all of us how important the anthology is to poetry.

  4. February 27, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    "...[M]y 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" - beautifully put, that. I detect a hint of poker in the "doubled down" image; we bet a lot on certain poets when we're younger, don't we? (Hell, we bet a lot when we're older, too.) The rough way we treat books also puts me in mind of a lovely essay by William Gass, in which he catalogues, among other things, the precise origin of a food stain on a particularly well-loved book of his.
    What I find even more fascinating than the anthology we love is the anthology with which we have a slightly more complex love-hate relationship. Often, when we're younger - when we don't have the knowledge (or the freedom of mobility) that enables a better library - we're stuck with the books with which we're stuck. 15 Canadian Poets (and its various later editions) is one such book for me, a book I've loved and loathed (and continue to love and loathe) in equal measure - like a relative with which you're saddled, like it or not, for life. I know, I know, I'm free to move on to other books now. But our first anthologies follow us around (and sometimes literally, like the spooky doll no one can seem to get rid of in a horror movie; last Xmas, I was given a battered first edition of the aforementioned anthology, found at an estate sale, by someone who didn't even know my relationship to the book, or even much about poetry). Perhaps a valuable anthology - as I think this particular anthology finally is - needs to offer us some imperfections with which we can quarrel.
    Anyway, many thanks for the post, Camille.

  5. February 27, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    PS All that writing about 15 Canadian Poets had led me, just now, to retrieve my copy of the second version (15 Canadian Poets X 2), the one I came to know, from the bottom of a stack of books. This is definitely a 'love' day as I flip through it (for the first time in awhile) and marvel at how sturdy some of its choices continue to be.

  6. February 27, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    PPS My previous posts are at odds with other things I've said about the book in the past, but there you have it: the complex relationship with which we can have with books.

  7. February 27, 2009
     Don Share

    I buy up all those old Oscar Williams anthologies that you find everywhere for under a dollar and have more poems by him than other poets in them. Charming! Pocket-sized!! And though my own feeling is that anthologies are generally bad for people, giving biased and very canned views of "what poetry is" (and communicating the idea that a single anthologizable poem is one's aim, like hitting a baseball outta the park), you can't go wrong with the old standbys: Tottel's Miscellany (!) on down. A handy tome, for instance, is Paul Keegan's New Penguin Book of English Verse, which has great poems in it... OOPS!, we're not supposed to say poets or poems are great anymore, sorry. But here's a treasure from Keegan's book, and the best anthologies disgorge treasure:
    The Author Loving These Homely Meats
    Specially, Viz.: Cream, Pancakes, Buttered Pippin-Pies
    (Laugh, Good People) and Tobacco;
    Writ to That Worthy and Virtuous Gentlewoman,
    Whom He Calleth Mistress, As Followeth
    by John Davies of Hereford (1563?-1618)
    If there were, oh! an Hellespont of cream
    Between us, milk-white mistress, I would swim
    To you, to show to both my love's extreme,
    Leander-like, -- yea! dive from brim to brim.
    But met I with a buttered pippin-pie
    Floating upon 't, that would I make my boat
    To waft me to you without jeopardy,
    Though sea-sick I might be while it did float.
    Yet if a storm should rise, by night or day,
    Of sugar-snows and hail of caraways,
    Then, if I found a pancake in my way,
    It like a plank should bring me to your kays;
    Which having found, if they tobacco kept,
    The smoke should dry me well before I slept.

  8. February 27, 2009
     thomas brady

    The story of Rufus Griswold as anthologist is one of the great untold stories of American Literature.
    Griswold is known mostly for writing Edgar Poe's strange obituary in Horace Greeley's 'New York Tribune' a day after Poe expired in Baltimore under mysterious circumstances, and a month after Poe gave Griswold permission to be his literary executor.
    Why, we all ask, did Poe let Griswold--a New Englander! and Poe didn't particularly like him--be his literary executor?
    Because Griswold was the best shot Poe had at lasting fame.
    Griswold, in 1849, the year of Poe's death, was America's best known anthologist.
    The silence which greeted Griswold's nasty bit of business in the Tribune on Poe's death was partly due to the fact that no poet dared offend the anthologist. Griswold signed his Poe obituary "Ludwig," but most people knew who wrote the piece; Griswold and Greeley were good friends.
    Following Griswold's successful 'Poets and Poetry of America' came Griswold's 'Women Poets of America'-- women poets in that volume were femme fatales to both Griswold and Poe; as fond as some of these women (Osgood, Ellet, Oakes-Smith, Helen Whitman) were of Poe, Griswold, after Poe's death, was their guy.
    Well, if not their guy, their--anthologist.
    Griswold's obituary may not have been kind, but the 'Collected Poe' he went ahead and produced certainly didn't hurt Poe posthumous reputation.
    Long live anthologists!

  9. February 28, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    I am completely familiar with the way anthologies can fall in and out of your affection, I suppose it's like any kind of love. That which you most appreciate is likely, at times, to be that which you least admire. And, if the love's to last, the cycle shall eventually reverse itself again (and then again). The anthologies I love most stand up to those reversals, but there are plenty more on my shelves I keep around for sentimental purposes. Like the diaries from my youth which remind me (for better or worse) of who I've been.
    And in answer to Annie's question, I tend to read most things front to back. It's a paint in the lines mode of reading, I'll admit, but it tends, for me, to get things done. It's better, then, if anthologies are arranged in some way other than alpha order or chronology as I'll have a better chance of getting a full sampling of the writers included even if I don't ever make it to the end.

  10. July 19, 2009
     Liz Nakazawa

    I enjoyed reading your post about anthologies. I edited an anthology of Oregon poetry called Deer Drink the Moon: Poems of Oregon. I organized it into seven ecoregions of Oregon, depending on what spot in the state inspired the poem.