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Poetry Anthology Wars
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am teaching a creative writing class, the first time in eight years, for the Cincinnati Art Academy. I’m also teaching the survey in British and American poetry at Xavier University for the first time in my career. So I’ve been thinking about and poring over the plethora of poetry anthologies and innumerable books of contemporary poetry I own. How to choose among them? This problem is, of course, a microcosm of the problem of poetry anthologies in general—the problem of choice. As the recent debates over the Rita Dove-edited Penguin poetry anthology suggests, no matter how focused the criteria for choosing may be, the very concept of the anthology is an invitation to criticism. No doubt this is true because the act of choosing is perceived to be an index of the editor’s own aesthetic preferences, itself a barometer of his or her critical acumen. The fact that this might not be the case, that a particular editor may organize an anthology according to a set of criteria independent of his or her own personal tastes, does not shield one from criticism.
I happen to think these arguments are, in general, a good thing, a sign of the robust jostling for positions of canonical (who deserves to be taught), if not cultural, authority among teachers, poets and critics. I read a lot of poetry—contemporary and historical, national and international—but, as noted above, I rarely teach it (as creative writing or in a historical or contemporary survey). When I teach fiction in what amounts to a one-size-fits-all literature course that every Xavier student has to take, I try to rotate or mix and match among those four areas mentioned above: contemporary, historical, national, and international. The Xavier course, created in the early 1990s, is called Literature & the Moral Imagination. Because it is required for all students, our department offers anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five sections of it per semester. As you might imagine, we have had a lot of discussions about this course since it is the only required literature course for non-majors. Given one shot at every student, what should we teach? You won’t be surprised that the department discussions have been passionate. Canonical or marginal works? Contemporary or historical texts? National or international focus? Many of us in the department do various mixtures of the above. We do, however, designate one section for English majors and minors and in that section the works are indeed canonical. Since the professor who teaches the majors/minors section is a 19th century Americanist, the course primarily consists of American fiction, though he does manage to blend in a Shakespeare play and parts of Paradise Lost. In brief, our department as a whole is pretty traditional regarding its canons of British and American literature.
As for poetry, my own view is that the more broadly one’s reading the better. I would never exclude canonical poets, but I do think it’s important to situate them not only within their historical and cultural contexts but to also interrogate the political, economic, social and, yes, aesthetic forces guiding canonization. To that end I include non-canonical poets and discuss marginal aesthetic trends within any given historical period. I demystify mastery since no one can, obviously, read it all. In that sense, wide reading only mitigates what are inevitably partisan tastes. Nonetheless I do believe that there are certain predominant, even “universal,” themes and tendencies that comprise the various histories of poetry, which is to say, certain themes and motifs that have defined poetry in the West and the East. These tend to be fairly broad and context-specific as far as which ones predominate. So sexual desire, the quest for love, the paralysis (or invigorating) drive of hate, religious awe, existential despair, anger, nature’s beauty and destructiveness, longing—all the emotions and feelings, yearnings and satisfactions, that constitute the known range of homo sapiens can be found in poetry as well as in fiction. To write about these, however, is a matter of learning to embody these large issues in context-specific modes and forms (to say nothing of language). In deciding to teach a particular poem by a particular poet to a class of students, with no guarantee that those students will ever read another poem again, one chooses based on criteria that is objectified (what the department or literary history has determined is the “best”) and partisan (one’s own taste and interests) but what one cannot do is choose objectively (value neutral) since there are no value-neutral criteria for choosing one poet or poem over another. This is the quandary of the human sciences; there is no circumventing value. Thus those arguments about poetry anthologies are often arguments about cultural values that subsume literary and aesthetic partisanship.
Given the struggle between what are overlapping and distinct value sets, it isn’t surprising that reviews of anthologies tend to focus on what is missing from them. Each “absence” is perceived as another instance of a poet’s or poem’s arrested exposure to a “new’ audience (generation, class, ethnic group, gender, etc.). Even if a poet has appeared in other anthologies or, as is often the case, in earlier editions of the same anthology series, shifting tastes and criteria may render yesterday’s indispensable poet today’s relic of irrelevance. Even though the anthology may be a mode of economic and cultural convenience for those unable to afford or distinguish among individual books of poetry (the democratizing successor, if you will, to the Great Books programs), it is also the functional equivalent of a university’s one literature course required for all students.
Like Xavier University’s Literature & the Moral Imagination, the poetry anthology is sometimes taken as a one-shot deal, the only chance we get to get it right. I understand that the pressure exerted on the poetry anthology and the required course is an index of the marginal status of the literary in general, and poetry in particular. But the firepower that the poetry anthology often attracts is also related to another development in the 20th century: the canonization of the imprint: Norton and Penguin trump Longman or Broadview. More significant, the combination of the above factors can raise the stakes between critics and poets since the anthology is, by definition, a critical enterprise. For example, when the scholar-critics Nellie McKay and Henry Louis Gates edited The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, the reviews were, on the whole, fairly respectful, the disagreements, as I recall them, fairly muted. However, when poet Rita Dove edited The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Helen Vendler, the doyen of American Poetry critics, took her to task. One wonders, though, what might have happened had McKay and Gates deigned to edit an anthology of African American poetry? Scholar-critic Charles Rowell was raked over the coals by Amiri Baraka after doing just that. The issue isn’t the merits of the criticisms by Vendler and Baraka. The issue is the passion aroused by anthologies of poetry on certain imprints.
Why do poetry, and not literature, anthologies draw the kinds of reviews that reach the New York Times headlines? Is it true that the smaller the stakes the more vicious the in-fighting? Are Norton and Penguin anthologies, like my department’s Literature & the Moral Imagination course, serviceable because the public, my students, if they read poetry at all, are likely to do so in one of these anthologies? Because these are the imprints that will be taught by most professors to the most students? If these are, in part, questions of public relations, how do we calibrate literary merit with advertising and marketing clout?
If any of what I have described comes close to the truth about our situation as poets, critics and publishers, we have then, in the United States, a curious disconnection between what most poets are taught about how to establish a writing career and how that career is perceived by anthology editors who are themselves often poets. That is, the traditional trajectory is publication in small magazines, then publication in “major’ magazines and journals, all of which will “justify” book publication. This, of course, is another version of the subscription strategy used prior to the mid 20th century, that is, prior to the explosion of creative writing programs in academia and the subsequent explosion of magazines and journals dedicated to the publication of poetry. This history is analogous and causally related to the creation of research journals after the professionalization of teaching in the late 19th c. Now that the fields for both poets and scholars are saturated with journals and magazines, some publishing houses have resurrected the subscription series. The justifications for doing so are different today. Prior to the 20th c. most of the population was still illiterate or only functionally literate, so subscriptions then presupposed a relatively small and narrow reading public. Today the situation is just the opposite. The reading public and its choices of material are both large; therefore subscriptions are an effect of fierce competition. Anthologists, faced with an overwhelming number of journals and books (to say nothing of chapbooks), cannot pretend to master any sector of the poetry writing field. Yet, some of the criticisms of poetry anthologies are written as though that is precisely what they, the anthologies, must do. In short, the criticism of anthologies is another stage on which battles rage over the effects of the proliferation of poetry. Rightly or wrongly, the anthology, like the books taught in a required literature course, is perceived as de facto canonization—the boredom of students, the howls of critics, notwithstanding.