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A Sentimental Education: Modern Poetry and the Anthology

Reviewed: 100 Essential Modern Poems. Joseph Parisi, Ed. Ivan R. Dee, 2006.

We have been in the age of the anthology for more than a century now, and nothing suggests we are about to leave it. Our lives and civilization have been built upon miscellanies and compilations: inspired ones, like the Bible, and more modest ones, like Richard Tottel’s Miscellany (Songes and Sonnettes, 1557), which helped establish the taste for the sonnet and lyric mode in Renaissance England. As the Council of Nicea probably knew, the task of the anthology is crucial, that of the anthologist daunting, and that of the reviewer of anthologies tempting.

The first of these I shall address in a moment, but I should note in advance how much an editor risks, as has Joseph Parisi, former and longtime editor of Poetry, in trying to cull the cream of the crop of modern poetry, given the profusion of output in the last hundred years and the still kicking contestation over its merits, achievement, and meaning. And I should confess how tempting it is for the reviewer to scrabble through the table of contents, check the choices he approves and bracket those he dislikes, and then praise or condemn for a few paragraphs based upon how the editor has satisfied his knowing predilections. A long lost friend of mine, who is now a successful novelist, filled his bookshelves with anthologies of short stories I think because he was more interested in nodding reverently over short selections from Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Charles Baxter than he was in actually reading their books. Remembering that dilettantism from a lost life, I opened Parisi’s anthology with the vow to read every poem he selected and, more time-consuming, the prose introductions he composed for each poet.

As T.S. Eliot once observed, anthologies play a distinguished role in the life of poetry—primarily because they are frequently the only point of contact between the world of verse and that of the average literate person. They tend to serve one of two purposes. The first and by far most common is the anthology intended for classroom use, which generally includes a substantial apparatus of editorial material to make the poetry intelligible. Such collections of course tend to be catholic in their inclusiveness, taking for limitation only a language, nation, or historical period. As Parisi comments in his introduction, the bulk of the included materials, intended to give professors and teachers abundant room to swim and select, make for intimidating reading if one lacks the provision of direction by an instructor and the goad of a semester’s syllabus. The old Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry is of immense value, with its generous selection from nearly every poet of (as yet) measurable achievement in the last century, but I am always awed to find that some people, for no better reason than their desire to read a poem, have purchased it and attempted to make inroads with neither compelling occasion nor coercive guidance.

The other common anthology is that of much more specific, though perhaps of no less bold, ambition: those intended to introduce a new group or movement of poets, or to collate poems of a particular ilk. Almost invariably such productions announce a project that extends beyond the province of their pages and so have affected literary culture itself in surprising ways. One thinks of the Naked anthology of decades ago and how it cemented bad taste as conventional practice for a generation or more of would-be poets; or of Ezra Pound’s Des Imagistes, which demonstrated how easy it was to write poetry so long as it appeared difficult (just as the title only “appears” to translate the word “imagist” into French). Other more happy examples arise, of course, like Rebel Angels, whose modest but important contents belie the sweet-shop devilry of its awkward title.

One could detail varieties beyond this, but these two kinds of anthology—that of summary and that of advocacy—will suffice to define the type of Parisi’s book. In a very modest way, it is a cross between advocacy and summary, trying as it does to present work by the critically acclaimed poets of the last century, but not necessarily to present their most representative work. His goal, as he suggests in the introduction, is to present not simply important modern poems, but to present important modern poems that the casual reader might find sufficiently accessible to enjoy on his own. And so, in choosing a poem from Eliot’s slender but towering canon, Parisi settles on “Prufrock” rather than “The Waste Land.” He has chosen wisely on two counts. First, because he rightly appreciates that the latter of the two—though I believe it to be the second or third most important poem of the twentieth century—is unlikely to open itself quickly to a reader removed from the context of high bourgeois anxiety in post-war England. Second, because Eliot’s poetry reads like a spiritual autobiography on par with St. Augustine’s (ending, not incidentally, in much the same place), Prufrock is without question its first chapter.

In selecting poems by Robert Frost, Parisi includes “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Such choices at once clarify and confuse the purpose of the anthology. Doubtless, the poetic neophyte will recognize and even gravitate immediately toward the second and third of these three poems. But would any reader of Frost’s extensive achievement consider those two his best, much less among the best of twentieth-century poetry? Probably not. However, when I think of what poems I would have included in their place—“Design” and “The Woodpile”—I am forced to admit that at least the latter of these is a short blank verse narrative very similar to “Mending Wall,” and including them together might have made Frost (not the most varied of poets to be sure) seem more repetitive a talent than he is. This leaves one to ask, has Parisi selected “best loved” poems, “best known” poems, or “essential” ones? In the present instance, it seems he has elided these very different categories.

And yet this mention of “Prufrock” and “The Road Not Taken” clarifies what may be most important about this anthology. If one surveys the poetic output of the twentieth century with anything like comprehensiveness (actual comprehensiveness would be impossible, as was reaffirmed for me the other day when I was shown the remarkable poetry of the late David Campbell, an almost unknown Australian poet), one is forced to acknowledge that it was a sprawling, intimidating and yet not especially fruitful time. It is a commonplace to say that most of the poetry in any given epoch is bad, but that manages to be trite without being true. A poem is not bad simply because it is not “immortal,” and the clunky-chimey little lyrics that filled out the rest of the pages of Poetry when Pound, Yeats, and Eliot first appeared there were perfectly admirable things for their purpose. The twentieth-century will loom quite large in the annals of literary history for seeing in its decades several poems of lasting import, and that is one sign of a great period for poetry. But another sign is that the readers of a given period are able to find poems in books, magazines and anthologies that are of intelligible to their tastes—that satisfy some need. When this happens often, a period is fruitful; when not, not. Because of the variety of twentieth-century verse—sprung largely from incomprehension and incompetence—most readers neither know what kind of poetry would meet with their satisfaction, nor could find it consistently within the erratic pages of those volumes. Most poetry in the last century cannot justly be called “bad” because one can scarcely determine what was the ideal, the model of achievement from which it falls short. Far better to say that the multifarious concatenations of the last century were simply “without purpose.”

If I am correct in this claim, then it seems fair also to suggest that amid the turmoil a great deal of good poetry was written, and that that poetry rests comfortably within the long traditions of western verse and is the admirable contribution of a troubled century to that tradition. Parisi’s anthology (as Adam Kirsch observes in a blurb on the jacket) serves the purpose of bringing into focus these lines of good poetry for the casual reader. He shows that modern poetry is not just a teratological residue of unprincipled experimentation. The best modern poetry is well crafted, witty, and often profound. It engages with the reality beyond its pages and yet without sacrificing its own reality as a work of art, as a thing of beauty or at least the longing for beauty.

As readers of Poetry during Parisi’s time as editor might suspect, however, this narrowing of the field is uneven and quite enthralled to the conventional account of modern literary history such as that given in Harvard Professor David Perkins’ two-volume History of Modern Poetry. Parisi therefore can scarcely miss in including poets from W.B. Yeats to W.H. Auden, but his selections thereafter seem safe from the perspective of current literary history, and yet incoherent and at times indefensible precisely because current literary history is neither coherent nor defensible. To clarify by example: it seems sure that most of the modernist poets Parisi includes—with the possible exception of Pound—will be read and appreciated for generations. But how long will the works of the so-called New York school—Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery—remain of interest? All three did indeed produce great poems, but Parisi hasn’t included them. Rather he has included poems typical or representative of their oeuvres. The literary historian can understand why O’Hara wrote “Why I am Not a Painter” at the time and place he did, but what someone who appreciates poems from H.D.’s “Helen” to Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and Anthony Hecht’s “More Light! More Light!” could find of value in O’Hara’s poem qua poem mystifies me.

Parisi’s anthology then has its strain of advocacy for the well made poem, but one which is held in check by a desire to survey complacently the mainstream account of poetry’s twentieth-century development away from the well made toward the “expressive.” Only the “experimental” is excluded: happily enough, since it would have punctured the anthology’s expressed purpose to be accessible to someone generally unfamiliar with modern poetry. Nothing would be worse than leafing tentatively through such a book only to run across the inexcusable gibberish of Lynn Heijinian. In brief, Parisi’s anthology includes roughly the kinds of poetry that found their way into the pages of Poetry during his tenure. Thus it is selective and advocates for a kind of poem that is short, lyrical, or narrative, and often in formal verse. One understands the balance or moderation he achieves here, but it also makes me long for an anthology that gives over conventional literary history (especially the abysmal lyricism that gets celebrated in Harvard’s tenured sewing circle). The greatest poets of the twentieth century will be done a great service when it is shown that their work does not just stand within or in relation to modernism and its ruptures. Someday an anthology will appear that demonstrates the continuity of a poet like W.D. Snodgrass with the Elizabethan songwriters, of Geoffrey Hill with John Donne, of Derek Walcott with Rochester. Such an anthology would not be “mainstream,” but it would be, in the best sense “conservative,” because it would insist upon a coherent and continuous (but in no way ahistorical) understanding of poetry across the last few centuries, and so would thereby reveal the riches that are to be discovered in the English language tradition to even the most casual of readers.

Turning away from these musings, it is worth commenting on the apparatus of the book. Parisi has here made an important contribution to the genre of the anthology. As its title states, the volume includes only one hundred poems, the longest of which are James Merrill’s sonnet sequence, “The Broken Home,” and Seamus Heaney’s sonnet sequence, “Clearances,” both included in their entirety. At more than three hundred pages, the book clearly includes an abundance of prose material. Parisi introduces each poet thoroughly, often surveying their entire career before presenting just one little poem.

There’s much to be said for this practice. I recall, as an undergraduate, spending days working my way through the Elizabethan, Restoration, and Augustan verse in the first volume of the Norton Anthology of English Literature. A course, as one might guess, provided the occasion for this tour, but the thorough historical introductions to each poet and his context helped me quickly to develop a sense of a great conversation between the works. Without the aid of these prefaces, I doubt Dryden’s “Absalom and Achitophel”—or any of his poems save “St. Cecilia’s Day”—would have caught my interest. The opportunity to see it in conversation with other poetry and with the history of early modern England, however, helped the poem to come alive for me, and later—only later—I came to admire Dryden’s stout line for itself.

The age of the New Critics was also the age of Robert Hutchins’ Great Books program at the University of Chicago, and we would do well to admit that the appreciation of an individual poem isolated from all meaning-bequeathing context is rare indeed. Hutchins’ called his program “The Great Conversation,” and what is true of thinkers from Homer to Augustine to Aquinas to Dante is equally true of poetry in English from Chaucer to Herbert to Auden to Hecht: context or, if you will, tradition matters. Parisi has acquitted himself well in seeing that each poem in his anthology is sufficiently bolstered by a prose introduction so that a reader with neither time nor interest to take a course in English poetry will be able to get a good start on understanding and appreciating the merit of the included poems. In this respect, it is invaluable. 100 Essential Modern Poems is fairly generous in its selection of poems and extraordinarily generous in providing the information necessary to enter the world of those poems. Parisi does sometimes introduce excessively. I was abashed, after reading a page-and-one-half précis of the career of Dorothy Parker (which drags one through the dirt and informs one she left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr.) only to come upon this little semi-precious stone:


Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

The simple preface of “Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)” would have seemed more appropriate; as would have been the more ingenious “One Perfect Rose.” This excess reaches almost comic largess in the preface Ezra Pound receives. One would expect Pound to get a lengthy introduction, because so much of his poetry is difficult, at first glance, but soon becomes intelligible and even at times sublime—with proper initiation. Parisi goes into great detail over six pages, mentioning incidental affairs from Pound’s life, only to present two short poems, “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” and “The Study in Aesthetics.” The first is much anthologized, though it is not very good. The second is at best a footnote in Pound’s early career. Neither poem is “immortal” or “essential.” Even a Pound fanatic would have to admit that. Where is “Portrait d’une femme” or a snatch from “Mauberley,” Pound’s best pre-Cantos efforts? Given the choice between this excess and the absence of Parisi’s introductions (and hence, in effect, the anthology as well), one has to choose the latter; and overall, Parisi is judicious and helpful in his prefaces. Indeed, his musings on Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, and Mary Oliver are penetrating.

Ivan R. Dee is a small press, but Parisi’s efforts are worthy of wide distribution and general promotion. Poetry’s readership is microscopic. Indeed it takes a Christian’s cherishing of every individual as sacred not to deny that poetry has any readership at all. But an anthology like this aims to make that readership much bigger, and if it finds its way into less professionally interested hands than my own, I am confident that it will be successful. One wishes thus.

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James Matthew Wilson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His poems, essays, and reviews appear regularly in a wide range of books and journals, including, most recently, The Dark Horse, Pleiades, and Modern Age.

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