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I can't remember exactly what hooked me into becoming a reader of poetry; nor can I recall just when or where it happened. I know that I was not much of a reader of anything until I graduated high school in 1956, a few months shy of being 16. Oh, I had collected comic books compulsively up to about the age of 13, but then tired of them and sold all 1200, packed into slovenly cartons, to a used magazine dealer for 2 cents each. After that, I took a vacation from virtually all printed matter (except school books) for about three years. It wasn't until the sabbatical year taken between high school and college that I
tore--mostly out of boredom--into a pile of books left behind from my older sister's sojourn as a college literature major and developed a fascination with things poetical and fictional that has lasted me the better part of a lifetime.
Thinking back to that time, I remember very few of those books having either "collected poems" or "selected poems" on their spines. They were almost exclusively novels and mostly British (my sister was already an Anglophile), with a smattering of French drama thrown in: Orwell's
1984, Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent, Anouilh's Five
Plays--books like that. What anthologies of poetry came my way were put into my hands by friends who got them as book club bonuses and had no use for them. One such was
The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse, edited by W. H. Auden, that came out the year I left high school. Somewhat conservative in its taste (the mid-'50s were a conservative time), the compilation contains all the names you might expect to find, but also some that might today seem rather eccentric choices; and a few, perhaps predictable, inclusions (e.g., three poems by Chester Kallman) that have dated along with others which have since disappeared from the radar screen altogether--Howard Griffin, James Broughton, and Robert Horan, for example.
In his Introduction Auden stressed the Americanness of his selections, luxuriating (though "exulting" might be more accurate) in his own certitude that "From Bryant on there is scarcely one American poet whose work, if unsigned, could be mistaken for that of an Englishman." Though I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to read poets who were new to me, I was bummed that my then favorite poet, T. S. Eliot (whose
Waste Land was my entrée to psychedelia) had been left out because of copyright restrictions imposed by his publisher, Harcourt, Brace & Company. And I really didn't find that much amid the cultivated wilds of Conrad Aiken, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robinson Jeffers, say, to set my youthful imagination ablaze. Maybe it was my
age--I was still only about 17--but much of it, at least to me, never quite transcended the condition of being
stuff. I demanded of any poetry I was asked to admire that it do what Emily Dickinson insisted poetry had to do in order to be called great: it had to make you feel the top of your head had been taken off. The "Americanness" of these poets was largely irrelevant to me (my mother was American, but I was born and raised in eastern Canada); I knew no one close to my own age whom I could discuss modern poetry and all its complexities with; and besides, my interest lay more with those writers who combined the resources of vivid poetry with the radical discontinuities of stream-of-consciousness fiction. I had already happened upon Joyce, as well as some of his more inventive followers (the Faulkner of
The Sound and the Fury, the Dos Passos of U.S.A., and the Pietrio di Donato of
Christ in Concrete, to name but three), and by the time I was 18 I was already deep in the writing of a (since destroyed) free-verse novel, the chief subject of which was a very close friend of mine and his family. Among the poets (other than Eliot) whose work I was familiar with, like Dylan Thomas (his
Collected Poems was another book club hand-me-down), I was most taken by those who had unequivocally kissed off "strong measures," who had managed to enter that realm where poetry was the pearl that could only be gotten at by prising open the prose shell that hid it from the light. I'd had enough of scanning feet and parsing rhymes, not to mention the poems by Tennyson and Bliss Carman that swam in them, in high school never to want to have to deal with such things again. They had taught me, against their own grain, that they were everything real poetry was not, and it was a long time before I could look at a modern poem decked out in rhyming stanzas without gagging. Auden thought "Air" by Edwin Denby worth the labor of a careful read; I did not and still don't:
Thin air I breathe and birds use for flying
Over and through trees standing breathing in air
Air insects drop through in insect dying
And deer that use it to listen in, share-
Thickens with mist on the lake, or rain
Cuts it with tasteless water and a grey
Day colours it and it is thin and plain
Air in my mouth and air for miles away. . . .
My freshman English course at university pawed the ground of various kinds of poetry, and it proved a bracing experience to read Chaucer, Spenser, Milton and Coleridge, along with, of course, Shakespeare, without having my appreciation of their verse stalled at the level of iambs, feminine rhymes and shards of Malory protruding from
Idylls of the King. Most bracing of all, however, was the segment of the course devoted to 20th Century poetry. We read Hopkins, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden and Thomas at a depth I and my fellow freshmen found utterly mindboggling. (My mind was perhaps somewhat less boggled than theirs because I had already read works like
The Waste Land and had memorized several editors' explanatory notes to it and other poems.) I remember it was very "in" then to read every work of literature, in virtually every genre, as an allegory of the creative process and the superiority of the poet-protagonist to the sea of clods swarming over him with the single intention of shackling him with the irons of bourgeois morality. Bazarov's struggle in Turgenev's
Fathers and Sons enacted this Nietzschean agon more vividly than many other relatively modern literary works, though
Jean-Christophe, Romain Rolland's door-stopping novel loosely based on the life of Beethoven, ran it a close second.
This all took place in the late '50s, when jazz, and jazz-and-poetry fostered by the Beats (themselves extravagantly hyped by Grove Press and the Luce publications,
Time and Life) ruled the roost of a powerful subculture increasingly dominated, in both America and Canada, by college-age youth. Poetry in and of itself was not all that popular within that demographic. What little of it that was read outside of college courses tended to be of the Beat-inspired sort favored by epigones of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and their circle, which meant that it had to look like William Carlos Williams, sound like e. e. cummings, and be about free love with Botticellian co-eds phantasmagorically on the make. The Beat movement raised a dust cloud of allusions to European, Asian and even Latin-American writers, but acquaintance with them never got much beyond the name-dropping stage with its younger clones and fellow travelers.
Not being a joiner, I remained on the fringes of this activity as a student and, in a different life, as an off-campus lover of bop and progressive jazz. As cultural icons the Beats left me cold-possibly because I felt put upon by the slovenliness they cultivated, a down-at-heels unkemptness that called to mind the boxes I'd kept my comics in. The paperbacks that loomed largest during my undergraduate years were Kerouac's
On the Road, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Hesse's Steppenwolf and
Siddhartha--books that in beckoning to oases beyond the pale of mere literature prompted journeys of the soul to painted palaces irremovably implanted in the mind's eye. Where was the mast from whose lashings one could resist their call? Being under 20, part of me knew that the dispenser all that kickapoo joy-juice was a crock, but another part of me wanted to get drunk on it along with everybody else.
The "mast" that fortuitously presented itself and which allowed me to restrict all contact with Hesse, Salinger & Co. to hearing friends talk enthusiastically about them, was the anthology that this recollection seeks to honor, Selden Rodman's
One Hundred Modern Poems. Though I'm not absolutely certain, I think I acquired it in either 1958 or 1959, at the then newly-opened Little Classics Books in Montreal, which got its name by stocking nothing but quality paperbacks and first rate titles in pocket book format. A slim volume of 192 pages (its length was determined by its inclusion as a "single" volume of the Signet and Mentor Book series, put out by New American Library), the Rodman miscellany had appeared first as a Pellegrini & Cudahy hardback in 1949 and had been reprinted no fewer than five times by the end of 1956. Clearly, this was an anthology that had not only benefited from word-of-mouth referrals, but was also competing splendidly with the two powerhouse paperback anthologies then racking up the most copies sold, edited by Oscar Williams and Louis Untermeyer.
What made the Rodman stand out favorably from its rivals? In a word, its
eclecticism--which expanded to encompass a considerable variety of contents, lack of editorial bias, and a Sidneyan belief in the extendability of poetic qualities across generic lines. The first thing you noticed in riffling through its pages was the number of selections
that were not, strictly speaking, in any kind of verse. "In this age of the break-up of old forms and the creation of new ones," Rodman declared in his lengthy Introduction, "it is not surprising that 'prose' has become a major vehicle for poetry, and that the most radical experiments in breaking down language itself to create a medium for the newly discovered 'subconscious mind' should be conducted by the poets James Joyce and Gertrude
Stein--in 'prose'...." Brief excerpts from the former writer's "Anna Livia Plurabelle" (from
Finnegans Wake) and the latter's Four Saints in Three Acts document the exceptionality of these two writers, but he goes on to pad out his demonstration with snippets taken, respectively, from novels such as Kafka's
The Trial, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Mailer's
The Naked and the Dead; from works of belles-lettres such as Hemingway's
Death in the Afternoon, Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Fleming MacLeish's
Exploration by Air; and from prose-poems by Rimbaud (from Illuminations), Auden (from
For the Time Being), and William Carlos Williams (from In the American
Grain). And as if that weren't unorthodox enough, Rodman encapsulates his sense of modern poetry's crazy-quilt diversity in a quadripartite table of contents divided up into sections labeled "Beyond Frontiers," Forerunners," "The Age of Satire," and "The 'Forties."
The most engagingly heterodox of these segments is the first, "Beyond Frontiers," whose selections consist for the most part of marvelous translations of poems by such major European figures as Valéry, Lorca, von Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Blok, Mayakovsky, Brecht, and others at that exalted level of comprehensive vision and technical competence. A number of the more successful translations from the French, Italian and German are by Rodman himself, and he is ably abetted by the likes of Rex Warner, Roy and Mary Campbell, J. M. Cohen, T. S. Eliot (a fragment of St-Jean Perse's
Anabasis), and J. B. Trend. Oddly enough, Rodman's own translations are careful to observe the decorums of rhyme and that particular reason one would have thought inimical to works exuding an impatience with "strong measures," as does Apollinaire's "Zone":
This morning I saw a lovely street whose name I forget
Fresh as full of sunlight as a cornet
The bosses the workers
the stenographers like a flight
Of birds pass four times between Monday and Saturday night
Thrice in the morning the sirens croon
A peevish bell stammers about the hour of noon . . .
-or Êmile Roumère's "Three Haitian Creole Moods":
If age has left me like a fruitless tree
These compensations still remain for me:
Beauties toward whom I used to sweat and stamp
Must come to me-in my rheumatic cramp. . . .
I feel confident in saying that never in my encounters with literature up to that point had I come up against an
embarras de riches that gleamed with the naked affluence conveyed on every page of
One Hundred Modern Poems. Not a single poem in the entire book was without one supremely memorable or quotable gem, and many pieces boasted considerably more than that. Most anthologies that I'd picked up were weighted down with a lot of dead wood or featured selections so often reprinted that their inclusion seemed almost insulting to the reader's intelligence. Rodman's was sleek, streamlined and hot to trot with examples of verse that differed sharply from what littered most comparable samplings of the contemporary poetry scene. One example tells this tale more convincingly than almost any other, and the fact that it comes from a rather unlikely source makes it even more compelling. Louis MacNeice's "Goodbye Now, Plato and Hegel," about the highblown, flyblown rigors of an Oxford education, probably graces no other verse anthology than this one, but what a pity that is. With wit as punctual as an awl and wiseacre-owlishness that's a hoot on innumerable levels, the poem makes hay out of the irrepressible tendency of Oxonians to mix High Tables and high chairs:
And then they taught us philosophy, logic and metaphysics,
The Negative Judgment and the Ding an Sich,
And every single thinker was powerful as Napoleon
And crafty as Metternich.
And it really was very attractive to be able to talk about tables
And to ask if the table is,
And to draw the cork out of an old conundrum
And watch the paradoxes fizz. . . .
And where else but in Rodman could a young and inexperienced reader of new poetry find a poem as simple, as moving, as
simply moving as this tribute to W. C. Williams by Kenneth Rexroth--and I make no apologies for the number of lines I'm about to quote:
Now in a recent poem you say,
"I who am about to die."
Maybe this is just a tag
From the classics, but it sends
A shudder over me. Where
Do you get that stuff, Williams?
Look at here. The day will come
When a young woman will walk
By the lucid Williams River,
Where it flows through an idyllic
News from Nowhere sort of landscape,
And she will say to her children,
Isn't it beautiful? It
Is named after a man who
Walked here once when it was called
The Passaic. And was filthy
With poisonous excrements
Of sick men and factories.
He was a great man. He knew
It was beautiful then, although
Nobody else did, back there
In the Dark Ages. And the
Beautiful river he saw
Still flows in his veins, as it
Does in ours, and flows in our eyes,
And flows in time, and makes us
Part of it and part of him.
That, children, is what is called
A sacramental relationship.
And that is what a poet
Is, children, one who creates
That last always."--
With love and admiration,
Not all of Rodman's choices are as felicitous, however. His decision to sandwich Lawrence's Durrell's
faux-Audenesque "A Ballad of the Good Lord Nelson" and A. D. Hope's poison-pen letter to his country, "Australia," between the Rexroth homage and Peter Viereck's marvelous "To A Sinister Potato" is, to this reader at least, both editorially inexplicable and a serious lapse in taste. Are we really to think that this sort of sixth-form salaciousness--
The Good Lord Nelson had a swollen gland,
Little of the scripture did he understand
Till a woman led him to the promised land
Aboard the Victory, Victory O--
is comparable to Viereck's cheek-on-tongue joust with the spud:
O vast earth-apple, waiting to be fried,
Of all life's starers the most many-eyed,
What furtive purpose hatched you long ago
In Indiana or in Idaho?
And are we to accord a trifle like Rosalie Moore's "Imprecation for An Aesthetic Society with Newts, Warts, Waxes and Pins"--
I'm ready now to cat-chase those porcelain people, get after them
With bells like fire buckets, damn them
With my own personal damn.
Let them float into the garden like little images
In saint formation.
I will spank their loaves
With a butterfly spanker. . . .
the same undivided attention that its back-to-back bookmate "The Progress of Faust, " by Karl Shapiro, warrants:
He was born in Deutschland, as you would suspect,
And graduated in magic from Cracow
In Fifteen Five. His portraits show a brow
Heightened by science. The eye is indirect.
As of bent light upon a crooked soul,
And that he bargained with the prince of Shame
For pleasures intellectually foul
Is known by every court that lists his name. . . .
Anthologists, it seems tiresome to have to point out, are human, all too human: they have professional debts to pay, duties of friendship to observe, and prejudicial blindspots regarding the work of other writers to overcome. Rodman's contribution to the craft and sullen art of the anthologist reflects a batting average much higher than most of his competitors' around mid-century. Though very much of his time, he was also somewhat ahead of it, sensing in his preliminary statement to his readers the "luxury of narcissism" afflicting too much of its superior verse. He could with confidence credit "the passion for a loyalty, an identification with humanity transcending race, class, nation, profession, family [that] informs all the significant poetry of the war and the post-war period." If to him the alembication of these qualities seemed least adulterated in the work of two poets, Dylan Thomas and Peter Viereck--neither of whom is held in great esteem
today--well, no one, not even a good anthologist, is any more perfect than he needs to be. Poets generally concentrate the brunt of their uniqueness, their ability to be the nerve center of their time's sensibility, on fixities of the eye or ear, but not both. Only the Dantes and the Shakespeares bring a fidelity to fact and the resources of language that transcends home theater to bring us sight and sound able to convert diction into a planetarium of singing spheres. But anthologists have to be able to sound the limits of the visible, no less than the subtlest frequencies of the audible, in their chosen art. And that is a conscription far fewer are up to than volunteer for.
To touch down again briefly on a runway already traversed:
One Hundred Modern Poems proved influential in the life of one young
reader--and writer--of poetry mainly because it altered the job description of the verse anthology in new and even radical ways. It treated prose-poetry and conventional poetry as co-equals in a war against artistic conformity (rampant around 1950), and viewed poetry not in English as prospectively on a par with poetry in the American language. Moreover, it refrained from insulting the taste, as well as the intelligence, of its readers by falling back upon tired and familiar translations of poetry by the big guns of European
modernism--the Rilkes, Montales, Valérys, Lorcas, Mayakovskys and Nerudas. The livelier translations of these and other poets which Rodman either commissioned himself or scoured newer publishers' lists to find make the first section of Rodman's anthology, "Beyond Frontiers," a veritable joy to read and something to treasure for the long haul. Today, it's rare to find any book people hang on to for any length of time. Even coffee-table books and design-conscious productions costing real money find their way onto remainder tables in book store chains in record time. It is perhaps for this reason that Selden Rodman's slim slice of our recent cultural past should be brought back into print
post haste by the New American Library. Its usefulness as a reminder of where literary modernism took us, unloaded us and left us to ponder its glories and derelictions is needed in these directionless times. Amid acts of senseless terrorism in our cities, and of terroristic senselessness in our cultural products, it might serve as a tonic to more than one contemporary thirst.