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The Age of Anthologies: Sonny Williams Reviews Four New Collections
Posted By SWilliams On October 20, 2004 @ 5:55 pm In Reviews | No Comments
Good Poems. Ed. by Garrison Keillor, Penguin Books, 2002, $15.00
The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classical Tradition in English. Ed. by Phillis Levin. Penguin Books, 2001, $18.00
Present/Tense: Poets in the World. Ed. by Mark Pawlak, Hanging Loose Press, 2004, $16.00
The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002: Ninety Years of America’s Most Distinguished Verse Magazine. Ed. by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young. Ivan R. Dee, 2002, $29.95
About fifty years ago, Randall Jarrell proclaimed he lived in the age of anthologies. He did not mean this as a good thing. Walk into any bookstore and peruse the poetry section and one would have to say we still do. I would say that in most bookstores nearly a third of the section is devoted to just anthologies of poetry, an observation that is unique to the genre. You won’t find that percentage in the fiction section. If Jarrell were alive today, I could probably guess what the severe critic’s comments would be at the number of anthologies that are produced each year; “These tomes, when opened, read like a roll call of the dead, and the cemetery appears to never get full,” Jarrell sternly remarks. Read the book spines, and one can find an anthology of poetry for whatever ails. There are poetry anthologies for gays and lesbians, African-Americans, Native-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Americans with dogs; anthologies of experimental poetry, performance poetry, Irish poetry, and women writing in form. There are anthologies of poetry devoted to weddings, the blues, angels, love, war, and numerous other themes. Then there are the anthologies of poetry titled Best Loved, Great American, Immortal Poems, and New Younger Poets. Such proliferation would suggest that the poetry anthology has become a genre unto itself, and like any genre, there will be many different kinds of anthology within it.
So disturbed is he by the meteoric rise of anthologies, Robert Potts, co-editor of Poetry Review, wrote two essays on the subject: the first, “Death by a Thousand Anthologies,” appeared in December 2003, then four months later “Concentration, Not Consolation”—both in the Guardian. Though written for a British paper, the same claims can and have been made in the United States. In both essays, Potts reveals his dismay at the number of anthologies specifically devoted to uplifting and reassuring its readers, for anthologies of poetry that console the complacent middle class. For Potts, such “therapeutic” anthologies are more like lifestyle accessories that appeal to a “potential market” than about the art of poetry. Alan Golding concurs to a point, though speaking of an earlier time but applicable today, when he says, “Many gift-book anthologies presented poetry as something to be dipped into rather than read carefully…” (Those who are interested in a thorough study of American anthologies and the creation of the canon are encouraged to read Alan Golding’s book From Outlaw to Classic, specifically the excellent and informative chapter titled “A History of American Poetry Anthologies”). Even earlier, in 1928, Robert Graves and Laura Riding published A Survey of Modern Poetry and a Pamphlet against Anthologies in which they state, “The true anthology is one that is in no way likely to become a popular trade anthology.” Graves and Riding are reacting against the themed anthologies of the day because of those collections’ conservative selections that usually catered to popular tastes, those poems based on “the brass facts” of birth, love, death. Potts echoes their concern when he says, “Where a market does exist, of course, is precisely in the popular rather than the cultivated taste.” Jarrell, too, pejoratively called anthologists “cultural entrepreneurs” for producing anthologies that appeal to a potential market.
Along with Potts, other critics have expressed their displeasure that anthologies have become a genre unto themselves, dominating bookshelves at the expense of the lone poet. John Ezard in his essay “No Poetic Justice in Bestseller Lists” states, “The public which abundantly buys anthologies rarely ventures into contemporary verse written by practitioners who are struggling to keep the tradition alive and depend on sales for their livelihood.” I have yet to meet a poet who depends on the sales of his poetry for his livelihood. Even Longfellow, who was quite popular in his day, could not subsist on his income from poetry sales alone. Most practitioners of poetry require other forms of employment to exist.
Now I would certainly argue against a poetry solely meant as a panacea for the ills of modern life, and I consider “poetry as therapy” to be a particularly unhealthy place to tread. But can or should poetry, specifically anthologies, be lifted out of the realm of consumer culture? Based on the criticism I’ve read, popular culture has been the dominant market for a hundred years. What anthologies, specifically, and presses would be charged as appealing to a “potential market”? It is easy to simply point out those anthologies devoted to angels, gardening, or titled Best Loved, but what about that anthology of Mexican-American poems? Certainly, the introduction will argue that the poems selected were written by a marginalized group whose voices need to be heard. Heard by whom? Who is this book’s potential audience? College students? Other poets?
Potts claims, “the commercial anthologies are aimed at the complacent middle class, and are not intent on addressing political and economic complexities…” If one studies some of these commercial groups, it very much looks like a snake swallowing itself. In recent years, Pearson Education acquired Prentice Hall, which is part of Pearson, the international media company, which also owns the Penguin Group, a group formed by the merger of Penguin Books USA and Putnam Berkley Group. Certainly, these larger publishers are focused on consumer publishing; however, many also have numerous brands or imprints that allow for more attention to be placed on less commercial enterprises, like poetry. These smaller brands benefit from a larger press’s ability to advertise and promote that would otherwise be denied them. The large groups like the Penguin Group and Prentice Hall, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and others produce many quality publications under various names like Viking and Longman, Bantam, and Scribner. Though such expansion and acquisition by companies like Pearson would seem to encourage an entirely commercialized and homogeneous product line, most large presses diversify to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Even so, one does not have to rely on traditional print publications. Many respectable journals and presses work exclusively online, and Penguin has explored the viability of eBooks. Indeed, the Internet and eBooks allow one to publish whatever one wishes while providing consumers an avenue for easy access.
This may all seem as my condoning the proliferation of large corporations, of the domination and swallowing of smaller, less fortunate groups. Such is not my intention. Those small, independent presses are vital to American literary culture. Rather, I would beseech the reader to view it as a corrective, a leveling out. Poets bemoan their outcast state, displeased by their lack of recognition, while at the same time attacking the bourgeois, capitalist culture many secretly wish to be a part of. Many of these self-same poets are in fact middle class, living comfortably on tenured salaries and spending their weekends dabbling in home improvement. Which editors, publishers, and poets would be upset that their book climbed the bestseller list? Granted, a few probably prefer to wallow romantically in their anonymity, but look at any acknowledgments page of a poetry book and read the listings of anthologies in which the poet’s work has appeared. Alongside NEA and Guggenheim grants, anthologization is a badge of honor, a way of proudly saying, “Guess what, someone has found me worthy.” How many poets, especially emerging writers, actually deny inclusion in an anthology? Ironically, as Golding points out, “When a textbook anthology such as The Norton Anthology of Poetry canonizes poetic outsiders, however, it renders their work culturally and intellectually harmless.” In effect, the poet and the poems have become systematized, institutionalized, mainstream.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. If poets wish to reach a larger audience, though doing so is certainly not the aim of many good poets, anthologies are a great way to do so. We must remember that Jarrell also said, “the average reader knows poetry mainly from anthologies.” Though he meant this negatively, it’s also true. Must all anthologies be potential textbooks or geared toward other poets? Despite Potts’s assertion otherwise, would not a reader of a single anthology who comes across a poet he likes be more inclined to pursue more of that poet’s work than if he attempted to decide on the hundreds of slim volumes published every year? Would not poetry as a whole benefit if sales did increase even if dominated by anthologies? Would not “other” voices and more experimental poetry have a better chance to filter into public culture? More anthologies are being produced than ever before, even by those small, independent and university presses. They know they have a better chance at reaching a larger audience, increasing sales or at least breaking even, if they include numerous poets in a single collection. The paradox is that there will always be marginalized, fringe poetry. There will always be someone who feels underrepresented.
Think of it practically from the perspective of the general audience. What is the non-poet to do? How much of his life is expected to be devoted to the reading of poetry? With all of the other forms of art and entertainment available to an intelligent person, what would draw a potential reader to contemporary verse? I am not talking of the general masses here, the “complacent middle class” of which Potts speaks, but, rather, the educated and inquisitive person who enjoys good films, visiting museums, seeking out new music, and reading good novels. Even those who make poetry their life cannot possibly know all that is out there, and many so-called poets or those with “cultivated taste” are notorious for not supporting journals, even those in which they are included. I rely on a few trusted reviewers like Tom Disch, William Logan, Christian Wiman, and James Fenton, and suggestions from friends and colleagues. Of the many books I receive, only a handful do I deem reviewable.
Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor is one of those anthologies considered by some critics to appeal to a “potential market.” Indeed, this book reminds me of those popular collections like Palgrave’s Golden Treasury or Felleman’s Best Loved Poetry of the American People from which I was first introduced to poetry and that rested on our family’s bookshelves alongside Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, and the Bible. Not only does the book carry the Keillor name, a well-known commercial press, Penguin, published it. In addition, many of the selections and authors are recognizable and well known. This book has already been thoroughly reviewed, but I would like to discuss two reviews in particular. Poetry, April 2004, presented two opposing viewpoints of this anthology side by side, those of August Kleinzahler and Dana Gioia.
Dana Gioia, himself an anthologist, is attempting in this review, as he has done in his own poetry and other criticisms, to bridge the modernist gap between the popular and highbrow intellectualization, or what has become increasingly known as “academic poetry,” and expand the audience for poetry. Prior to the twentieth century and the advent of Modernism, anthologists felt no guilt in celebrating “popular” poetry along with their literary brethren. Many times the poems were both literary and popular. Neither does Keillor. Keillor unashamedly has the popular song “Home on the Range” sandwiched between Galway Kinnell’s “When one has lived a long time alone” and C. G. Hanzlicek’s “What I want Is.” Such popular songs and poems act as a touchstone, to remind us of poetry’s origins in song and the simple pleasures one experiences from the familiar. Gioia says, “if one intends poems to reach a general audience in the ordinary business of their day, then other qualities are primary—such as expressive power, music, and memorability.”
Gioia makes it clear that Keillor is not writing for an academic audience, nor is he attempting to sell Good Poems as a textbook. Yet Gioia admires “the quality, freshness, and diversity of the work included” and “intelligent inclusion of neglected writers.” Though at first he “was prepared to treat it with mild condescension”, believing that the book would not be a necessary addition, he is ultimately grateful for the collection, saying that Keillor and his radio show, Writer’s Almanac, “has probably done more to expand the audience for American poetry over the past ten years than all the learned journals of New England.”
Kleinzahler’s review is humorous and barbed with much jeu d’esprit. I wish more criticism could be so entertaining. For in this world of contemporary reviews in which lavish, orgasmic praise predominates, it is refreshing to read a reviewer who “grips it and rips it.” His claim that there is “a virulent strain of the ‘politely depressed’ in American poetry” is certainly accurate. The quietness and earnestness of contemporary poetry is indeed frustrating, and I, too, would like to have seen included some poetry a bit more robust. Yet, Kleinzahler’s argument is mostly ad hominem and was used as an opportunity for him to vent, rather than actually review the book. He claims that America has no vital literary culture, an argument that has been repeated ad nauseam, but Keillor is expanding the potential audience for poetry, reviving public culture, though not the kind of audience or culture Kleinzahler prefers. For he believes the merchandising of poetry “or at least the slick, sentimental idea of it, is the problem, not the solution.” He continues by saying, “the better animals in the jungle aren’t drawn to poetry anymore.” Instead, these gifted young writers are attracted to movies, television, and advertising. Are not these the very forms of entertainment—and let’s face it, poetry is a form of entertainment—that bring prestige, recognition, and cash, all of that terribly bourgeois stuff? Perhaps he envisions true poets as standing on street corners in fatigues holding signs that say: Poetry Vet—Will Write Poetry for Food. Hungry souls indeed.
Furthermore, calling these poems “comfort food for the philistines” is a typical and predictable charge. Oddly, when a poet or reader does not write like or conform to the ideas and aesthetics of the so-called avant-garde, he is automatically dismissed as lacking in intellectual taste, as being simple pumpkin pie. Kleinzahler wants to force-feed Keillor, and, I suspect, all of middle America, “as they force-feed a goose in Perigord for foie gras,” the saxophone solos of Albert Ayler; “Ayler is all about excess, anger, challenge, exploration, risk.” Notice his rhetoric: since you don’t think like us, then we will force our will upon you. Forcible suppression of opposition? Sounds a bit fascist, eh? Der Führer wants Keillor to explode conventions and expectations, but this is not Keillor’s purpose. He has an audience of non-poets going about their daily business, and, according to the responses Keillor receives after reading these poems on the radio, these poems mean a lot to that audience. I have always been curious why there is such vehement hatred (or is it shame?) for simplicity. Life and poetry is not all excess and anger, and pumpkin pie does have its pleasures.
From the outset, Keillor tells us “This is not Introduction to Poetry…” This is not meant as a textbook. Instead, it is simply a collection of what Keillor and his listening audience likes. Is Good Poems a vital anthology that has altered our expectations of poetry? No, it isn’t. Will Keillor’s collection revise the canon of American poetry, as we know it? Probably not. Yet, there is something necessary here. His idea of a poem’s “stickiness,” its memorability, rings true. As Gioia notes, “If one compares Keillor’s allegedly modest volume with some ambitious recent anthologies, ‘stickiness’ appears to be a more reliable criterion than some alternatives.” The fact that a non-academic has produced an anthology that has generated such scrutiny is necessary because it reveals the general public’s need for poetry and that the academic poet is not the only kind of poet out there. His candor and jargon-free language is refreshing and honest. He includes recognizable poems with the lesser known, meter and rhyme with free verse and prose poems. He includes such mainstays as “Psalm 23” from The Bay Psalm Book, “Sir Patrick Spens,” “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns alongside some interesting and new selections. I like just about everything from the section titled “The End.” George Barker’s “Street Ballad” is wonderfully sinister, and it is not a comfortable or hopeful poem. Charles Kingsley’s “Young and Old” is a kind of cautionary tale. Here are the closing lines:
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.
A bit of quiet terror exists in those lines. Auden’s “At Last the Secret is Out,” included in the section called “Lives,” is tantalizingly scandalous with haunting lines:
Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.
Even the two sonnets by Shakespeare that are chosen are not the usual ones, “Sonnet XXXVII” (“As a decrepit father takes delight”) and “Sonnet XXV” (“Let those who are in favor with their stars”).
Keillor does make some odd claims, however. He says, “What makes a poem memorable is its narrative line…Good poems tend to incorporate some story, some cadence or shadow of story.” Okay. Yet he specifically lists in his introduction, out of all the poems in the book, one poem, “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver as one of these stories. Unfortunately, this poem does not tell a story. Maybe this is one he means has some “shadow” of story, one that is abstractly implied. Hopper paintings imply a story, but “Wild Geese,” with all of its lyrical exuberance, does not. Another problem is that not all the poems in this selection are good, but such is the case with any collection. Nevertheless, there are enough good poems to make this anthology worthwhile, and for $15, it’s a steal.
The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classical Tradition in English edited by Phillis Levin is a different kind of anthology from Keillor’s, yet it has much of the same wide appeal. This is not a potpourri of poetry selected from a radio show but a well-researched scholarly collection, in the best sense. Levin provides a comprehensive introduction to the sonnet, its history and evolution in the English language, as well as astute criticism of the ways various writers, like Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, approached and transformed the sonnet. One of the more compelling aspects of the introduction is the section in which she discusses the several fascinating possible origins of the sonnet. Far from being a form pulled from thin air, one of those origins for the sonnet may be found in the science of the day, and I am giving but a brief synopsis of this argument. According to various critics, Giacomo da Lentino (who invented the form and who wrote the first sonnets on record between 1225-1230) was influenced by the Pythagorean-Platonic theory of numbers. The actual architecture of the sonnet, the decision to add six lines to the familiar strambotto, or eight-line stanza, may be based on discussions of harmonic proportion in Plato’s Timaeus and the numerical relations to the sonnet, as well as the ideal ratio proposed by Pythagoras—the Golden Mean, later known as the Divine Proportion—a ratio that characterizes the motion of the world soul in its entirety. She further reveals that certain numbers and combinations also relate the sonnet to the Fibonacci series, named after the Italian mathematician Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci (1170-1250). Sounds like something from the Da Vinci Code, but the possibilities are intriguing, and her introduction reveals the mystical aspects of the sonnet as well as its enduring qualities.
Levin includes over 600 sonnets by more than 230 poets, with over 150 of them writing in the 20th century. She begins with a sonnet in the Italian by Petrarca followed by a “translation” by Chaucer. She then presents the sonnets chronologically beginning with Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503?-1542) and ending five hundred years later with Jason Schneiderman (b. 1976). In between are examples from the usual suspects such as the Shakespearean sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet, Milton’s caudated sonnet, and Hopkins’s curtal sonnet, among others. Yet, alongside the sonnets of traditional mainstays like Frost and Cummings, Levin includes numerous interpretations and experiments by contemporary writers. Levin puts on full display the dynamic possibilities of this form. Though the sonnet requires adherence to certain rules, paradoxically, the sonnet and its rules can be wondrously liberating. Within its boundaries is constant flux, constant discovery. As Levin asserts, “Within its severely restricted boundaries, it opens itself to matters that know no bound.” There exists the infinite within the finite. The idea of Divine Proportions, and the very vision of the architecture of the universe, continues to be suggested by the form.
One of the best contemporary writers of the form is Mark Jarman. Levin uses three poems from his collection Unholy Sonnets, an excellent collection in which he responds to Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Jarman, however, does not make the same assumptions as Donne did, instead approaching the problem of God from a modern, skeptical perspective:
Someone is always praying as the plane
Breaks up, and smoke and cold and darkness blow
Into the cabin. Praying as it happens,
Praying before it happens that it won’t.
Someone was praying that it never happen
Before the first window on Kristallnacht
Broke like a wine glass wrapped in bridal linen.
Before it was imagined, someone was praying
That it be unimaginable. And then,
The bolts flew off and people fell like bombs
Out of their names, out of the living sky.
Surely, someone was praying. And the prayer
Struck the blank face of the earth, the ocean’s face,
The rockhard, rippled face of facelessness.
Other poets force the reader to question whether or not some poems are sonnets at all. In “American Sonnet,” Billy Collins plays on the preconceived notion of the form, in many ways defying the sonnet tradition. It is twenty-one lines long, even over-stepping Milton’s caudated sonnets of twenty lines; it doesn’t rhyme and is not written in iambic pentameter. Can Collins still honestly call this a sonnet? As Levin notes, “…his poem certainly doesn’t look like a sonnet (it really isn’t one, in either a classical or far-fetched sense), and we would not think of sonnets at all in relation to this poem if not for its droll, flat title announcing itself as one of them.” However, Levin says, “The basic image of this poem—its principle conceit, the picture postcard—is a paradigm of the sonnet.” She is convincing.
We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser
and it is not fourteen lines
like furrows in a small, carefully plowed field
but the picture postcard, a poem on vacation,
that forces us to sing our songs in little rooms
or pour our sentiments into measuring cups.
We write on the back of a waterfall or lake,
adding to the view a caption as conventional
as an Elizabethan woman’s heliocentric eyes.
We locate an adjective for the weather.
We announce that we are having a wonderful time.
We express the wish that you were here
and hide the wish that we were where you are,
walking back from the mailbox, your head lowered
as you read and turn the thin message in your hands.
A slice of this place, a length of white beach,
a piazza or carved spires of a cathedral
will pierce the familiar place where you remain,
and you will toss on the table this reversible display:
a few square inches of where we have strayed
and a compression of what we feel.
It would appear Collins is breaking with Elizabethan conventions, yet we (specifically Americans) add to the postcard’s view “a caption as conventional / as an Elizabethan woman’s heliocentric eyes.” Though it is not fourteen lines, the postcard is like a stanza, or room. Those “little rooms” Collins speaks of are reminiscent of stanzas that often occur in a sonnet. In addition, as Levin perceptively detects, “The strategy of calling forth a compelling image in the octave and commenting on it in the sestet is mirrored in Collins’s portrayal of the very way a postcard functions: we look at the picture, then turn it over and read the message.” The turn of which Levin speaks is a variation on the volta, or turn in a sonnet. In a sense, these “little songs” are like letters, or, in the contemporary sense, postcards. Collins is at once challenging and adhering to the sonnet tradition. Whether or not one concurs with Levin’s analysis, I am personally thankful that she does not enlist the draconian views of those who insist that sonnets must be iambic pentameter, fourteen lines, with a specified rhyme scheme. The history of the sonnet, that Levin so intelligently presents, proves the form’s vitality and alterability, the form’s capacity to be different without changing into something else.
Levin concludes the book by providing an appendix covering a variety of sonnet patterns, suggestions for further reading, biographies of the poets, and complete indexes. For anyone interested in the sonnet, its origins, its evolution, and its possibilities, this is a wonderful companion. Levin’s anthology will have wide appeal, for the book may be used as a textbook, for scholarly interest, or simply for pleasure.
When I first received for review the anthology Present/Tense: Poets in the World edited by Mark Pawlak, I must admit I was apprehensive. Any book that uses slashes and colons in its title reminds me of those dreaded MLA conferences where the schedule is filled with essay titles littered with colons, dashes, parentheses, and a variety of cluttered punctuation. Was this yet another theme-based anthology of avant-garde political poetry that would require my special Ph.D. decoder ring? Pawlak states in his brief introduction, “My aim in compiling this collection has been to find the best available work by living American poets that is, broadly speaking, political in nature.” That sounds clear enough. Yet, earlier in the introduction he states, “My criterion for selection was poems whose subjects had been fully digested and assimilated into the writer’s blood and nerves before emerging as utterance….” How exactly does an editor know when a subject has been assimilated in a writer’s blood and then make that a basis for selection? Curious.
The authors are listed alphabetically, and, since rarely does one read an anthology from beginning to end but rather flips about, I thumbed warily through the book as if spinning the wheel of fortune. I stopped at this poem, “For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Where My Cousin Esteban was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks” by Martín Espada. Once I had waded through the title, the first strophe describes a mostly white wait staff and boss who “share the complexion of a flour tortilla.” The reader is then introduced to Esteban, a sculptor who rolled tortillas in the kitchen but who aspired to be a waiter. Yet he is rejected because his dreadlocks are deemed unclean (It is more likely he would frighten the mostly-white clientele). My eyes widened with pleasure as the second strophe began as an invective, a lost art in American poetry. It begins:
“May La Migra handcuff the wait staff
as suspected illegal aliens from Canada;
may a hundred mice dive from the oven
like diminutive leaping dolphins
during your Board of Health inspection;”
“and may the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies
to the menu wait for you in the parking lot
at midnight, demanding that you spell their names.”
What a wonderful challenge to one’s assumptions. The reader suspects he will be assaulted physically upon entering the parking lot. Instead, Espada subverts the reader’s expectations and forces him to do something much worse, spell those difficult Aztec names. A delightful beginning.
Turning with newfound vigor to the opening poems by Jack Agüeros, his “Psalm for the Next Millennium” and “Psalm for Distribution” are humorously irreverent and are mainly concerned with poverty. In “Psalm for the Next Millennium” the narrator dreams it is the year 3001 and we still don’t know what to do about the homeless and the poor. He is ordered by City Hall to fly them in a giant flying saucer and leave them anywhere but here on earth, but even the aliens don’t want them. In the process, Agüeros reveals many contemporary attitudes toward the poor:
But every time I got near a new planet
angry aliens screamed, “not in our galaxy,” “not in our solar system”
“not in our Milky Way,” “not on our Super Nova,”
so I sped back to earth, and mistakenly landed in City
where all the policemen were racial profiling for
and they nailed me for double parking,
jaywalking and Speaking Spanish
because in my excitement I said, Caramba Karajo!
The narrator wakes up and wonders if it wouldn’t be better to wander in outer space than to ignore all of the “everywhere-I-look facts.” Unfortunately, he ends with a cliché: “a few rich have most of the wealth / and the poor have all the poverty.” Despite the poor ending (I know, bad pun), the satire is effective. As with most good humor, darkness accompanies these poems. In other poems the darkness becomes stark, as in “Psalm for the Damnation of Pig Pino Oink Ochet, Who Unlike His Victims Will Neither Die Nor Disappear, Because He Was Never Human.” This poem is another invective, but its language is much less forgiving:
Pig Pino oink ochet,
your body will not decompose
because the sensible bacteria shudder
and will not touch your hideous corpse,
and the worms will run from your grave
as if death squads pursued them,
and the worms will starve rather than take
a taste of your wretched remains.
The poem ends severely:
And rather than face
the possibility of having to forgive you
no one will ever
want to be God.
I thumbed to the acknowledgments page and conveniently found all of these poems listed under one collection amusingly entitled Lord Is This A Psalm?
There are many other good poems that deal with a variety of political issues, such as “Capital Punishment” by Sherman Alexie, a poem that I have read in another anthology but which fits perfectly in this one, and “Ace,” a dramatic monologue by Pawlak, making the book’s $16.00 entry fee a bargain. Other poems are not as strong, the language not as vigorous. At times the politics seem a bit too “out there,” somewhat cloying, as with Ron Schreiber’s “The Public Stammer”:
Af, Af, Af, Af, Af, Af,
ghanistan. I, I, I, I,
run. I ran. I want to be
Oi, oi, oi
oil. We want our oil.
We want our profits.
We want our weapons.
The center of the American political spectrum
is far to the right of center.
Yet Schreiber’s poem, “Gay Life,” that follows a page later, is more suggestive. The poem, about violence towards gays, tells the story of rescuing a man from water who had been beaten. The poem begins “the docks at the foot of Christopher Street, / dark & safe, it seemed then.” This beginning is mysterious, especially with that uncertain “it seemed.” How many of us know a place just like this in our own town, a place we thought was safe? After his friends pull him to shore, the poem ends,
We didn’t go to the police.
We took him home to his lover,
who said, Don’t take him to the hospital.
Think of the disgrace.
(His eye was bleeding.) We took him
to the hospital & left him there.
So much is implied, and the reader must fill in the gaps, making him more intimately involved with the situation and its participants. The drama is compelling and matter-of-fact. The reader knows how terrible this violence is without being told, without any judgmental finger pointing.
The anthology concludes with a single poem by Bill Zavatsky, “Walker Evans in Bridgeport.” Since the authors are presented alphabetically, Zavatsky obviously appears at the end, but how fortunate for the book to end with this poem. It has the rhythm of blank verse and a wonderful reflectiveness about it, appropriate for closure. Zavatsky is responding to a photo-essay by Walker Evans when the photographer was in Bridgeport in 1941. The centerpiece of the picture is a parade with a group of women riding in a car bearing a banner that reads “Love or Leave America.” In the poem’s epigraph, in a quote from Luc Sante on this photograph, the reader is told, “The women pictured here look as if they’ve already heard all the possible come-on lines any country could make. They don’t like Evans, and they don’t like you, either, and if you gave them money they’d take it and spit in your eye.”
Zavatsky then begins his poem “And yet these are the faces I come from, / with their mouths’ edges twisted down in anger / —or in sorrow—like bent machine-shop metal.” He immediately identifies himself as part of this community, and the simile is wonderfully evocative, the faces like the factory metal soon to be used for the war. Zavatsky tells us “I’ve looked at all of the published photographs / he shot there in my home town” and the “snapped pictures of squads of marching troops.” Of the three women in the picture, who are in a car carrying a banner that reads “Love or Leave or America,” he speculates that their faces are stunned “by what / I imagine is the approach of terror, of death’s / chisel that shears away individual features.” He continues to focus on the women’s expression, their dark eyes, one of whom holds a baby.
I admire the fact that they did not
pose for the camera, that they wore their anger
or sorrow like the metal they might have worked
all week in one of the factories gearing us up
for the coming war.
This leads Zavatsky to imagine his own mother in this portrait, “soon herself at work / in one defense plant after another.” The poem closes with Zavatsky telling us what we now know: “These are the / women who fought the war at home, building / the guns and bullets and planes that killed / so many.” The women know they are building instruments of war, the same type of instruments used to kill their own loved ones: brothers, husbands, and sons. Finally, Zavatsky ends by asking,
“How should we expect their faces
to look, even with babies in their arms, even
on their day off, at a Bridgeport parade, in 1941?”
My mind was racing with allusions as I read this poem. At first, the three women reminded me of the Fates, the three goddesses who determine destiny, or the three witches from Macbeth, the Weïrd Sisters. Then, with those hard, metallic faces, I thought of the Furies, the Erinyes or Eumenides, those spirits of Greek mythology who carried whips and avenged offenses against the family. Later, with the lines “these are the women who fought,” I was reminded of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, sans the humor, in which the Athenian and Spartan women stop the war by denying the men sex. As Lysistrata said, “It lies with us to decide affairs of state and foreign policy.” Yet, the women in this photograph are not against the war. It seems they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, though their faces are stern and hardened. Obviously, the poem is relevant to the United States’s current situation in Iraq and the women, and men, across America who carry the same type of expressions, the sorrow and anger from sacrifice.
A reader will not be attracted to all of the poems in any given anthology. Some will be liked and others will not based on his preferences, but I enjoyed most of what I read in Present/Tense. The anthology provides a myriad of subjects regarding politics and is not simply a compendium of post-9/11 complaint. Certainly, there are poems about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there are also poems about race, gender, identity, poverty, and language itself, and poems that envision a better world. In addition, these poems venture toward a public rhetoric, instead of toward the cryptic and coded. Despite my earlier misgivings, I am glad to have received this anthology, for there is much to be admired.
The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002: Ninety Years of America’s Most Distinguished Verse Magazine, edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young, is an interesting anthology in several ways. Though not new to this reviewer, it’s still exciting to see poems by the earlier practitioners in Modernism sitting side by side, such as those by Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and William Butler Yeats, all appearing in the first twenty pages. It is also interesting to watch the transformation of American poetry over the decades. The anthology is a veritable “who’s who” in the poetry world, with almost all schools represented: Black Mountain poets Creeley, Duncan, and Levertov; the Projectivist Charles Olson; Deep Image poets Bly, Hall, and Wright; the New York School poets Ashbery and O’Hara; the Formalists Wilbur and Hecht. More than 600 poems have been selected from over 29,000 poems by 4,725 authors published in 1,080 issues of Poetry from volume 1 through 180.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the introduction. The editors provide an informative introduction to the history of the magazine that reveals some of the travails and troubles of keeping a poetry magazine in print. Though Poetry recently received a financial boon, the magazine teetered on the brink of ruin on many occasions. The reader is also made privy to some of the previous editors’ preferences, delectations, and sometimes-volatile personalities. We learn of Harriet Monroe’s troubled relationship with Ezra Pound. As Parisi notes, “Pound’s contributions to Poetry were perhaps fifty poems in all, his own and by others he sent. Yet, with the passing years, he claimed more and more credit for Monroe’s enterprise, while deprecating her substantial labors.” The drama that unfolds with subsequent editors would make for an interesting book. Many of the editors were controversial, like Karl Shapiro, or meticulous like Henry Rago, but Poetry’s ninety years is anything but boring. The reader is given an inside view of the relationships, the politics, and the finances that go along with editing one of the most popular literary magazines in America.
Another interesting aspect of the anthology is to see which poets and poems have remained from the earlier anthology The Poetry Anthology: 1912-1977, also edited by Joseph Parisi and Daryl Hine. A poet’s prominence is often precarious, and despite one’s vigorous self-promotion, one will many times be removed. Amy Lowell had two poems in the earlier book, yet she has none in the current one. According to Parisi and Young, Lowell was quite the promoter, but her poetry fails to live up to her fanfare of it. Though Robert Lowell retains two poems, Parisi claims that after Lowell’s death, “the estimate of his work fell precipitously, and has continued to drop.” Even the incumbent Yeats, who had seven poems in the earlier anthology, has been cut to just two poems. So Time’s winnowing occurs before our very eyes, and the reader witnesses first hand one of the ways canons are made.
Of course the main interesting feature of the anthology is the new poetry. Parisi prudently provides this qualifying statement; “It is presumptuous at best to predict what portion of present-day work future readers will find to their taste and worthy of remembrance.” I would charge that in recent years the magazine has published poems that lack a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain verve and robustness in subject matter and language, though this reflects the current trend in contemporary poetry as a whole. Poems that are quiet, gently ironic, and written in plain speech is the order of the day. Nevertheless, some fine poems emerge. Catherine Tufariello’s sonnet “In Glass” is a good example of some of the finely wrought verse currently being written:
A photo for your album.
Floating in clear solution in a dish,
How beautiful they are, like cultured pearls,
Pale sequins of some iridescent fish,
Or cloudy globes in which we gaze, foreseeing
Your blue-eyed son, a daughter with my curls,
Frozen halfway from nothingness to being.
Here’s the sublime of lab and microscope,
Their sacraments, invisible to sight.
Half trying, half afraid to summon hope,
We marvel at our colonies of cells—
Four perfect spheres, surrounded by the bright
Coronas of their still-unbroken shells,
Small stars, none more substantial than a wraith,
On which we wish with our agnostic faith.
The editors at Poetry have a sense of humor, too. These two epigrams by Robert West precede Tufariello’s:
1. The Discounter
His too-Good News would strip the Scripture
of every inconvenient stricture.
2. The Extortionist
Consumed with gall, this other one forgets
the News is Good at all, and just makes threats.
Whether are not Poetry the magazine has been fully representative of all the poetry being produced in the United States, it has certainly covered a large bit of it, publishing free verse, prose poetry, and formal poetry, of various styles and tones. Virtually every major poet has published at least once here, still making it the place to search for excellent poems by contemporary practitioners.
I would like to conclude this section with a final remark, though the tone turns slightly darker. In the Note by the editors, they make an important comment:
We are deeply grateful to the many poets, heirs, executors, and publishers who allowed us to include work in this collection. Regrettably, some famous authors who appeared early and often in Poetry, as well as significant poems that were introduced in the magazine, could not be represented in this anthology, because permission was not granted or excessive fees were demanded by copyright holders. The Founder-Editor, who was very kind to a number of the writers missing here, tended to hold her silence and to forgive when her generosity was forgotten. The present Editor is not so inclined.
Being an anthologist myself, I can sympathize with the editors’ attitude on this point. Many presses and poets request absurd fees for reprinting their work. In one instance from my own experience, a press required several thousand dollars for the use of two short poems by a new poet, not for an established and famous one. Such fees make it impossible for smaller presses to include certain poets and their poems, and all suffer from this kind of approach. Despite claims to the contrary, I do not know any anthologist who got rich editing a book of poetry.
A FINAL NOTE
Since we are on the subject, I would like to end this review on anthologies by making a personal request. One of the best anthologies of the last twenty-five years is Tygers of Wrath: Poems of Hate, Anger, and Invective edited by X. J. Kennedy. The University of Georgia Press published this book in 1981. I bought a copy some years ago that used to belong to the U. S. Army Library. The book should be re-released for all those who have never heard of or read the book, for I fear it has been forgotten. Kennedy says he created the book because “So many anthologies have been devoted to the poetry of love that it seemed high time for the poetry of hate to have one.” And we should thank him for it. Whenever I show my students poems from this book, or the “unclean” poems by Martial, Catullus, or Chaucer, they are most often shocked, yet exhilarated by poetry’s possibilities. They have been led to believe poetry is only about waterfalls and chirping birds.
Kennedy’s entertaining and informative introductory essay discusses the nature of hate in poetry and traces its history from the Old Testament, Greek classics, and the Middle Ages to the Child ballads and American protest poetry. With more than 200 poems, there are so many wickedly delicious selections that no poems are representative. He divides the book into thematic sections with such titles as “In Praise of Hate,” “Nearest But Not Dearest,” “Sexual Skirmishes,” “Personal Animosities,” “Collective Detestations,” “Nobles, Statesmen, Prelates, and Top Brass,” “Poets, Critics, and Scholars,” and “This Vile Created World.” Read this one from the section “Offending Race of Humankind” called “The Hustler”:
The name of the game is beat the lame,
Take a woman and make her live in shame.
It makes no difference how much she scream or holler,
‘Cause dope is my heaven and my God the almighty dollar.
I, the Hustler, swear by God
I would kill the Pope Paul if pressed too hard,
I would squash out Bobby and do Jackie harm
And for one goddamn dollar would break her arm.
I, the Hustler, kick ass morning, noon, and night,
I would challenge Cassius and Liston to a fight.
I would climb in the ring with nothing but two P-.38’S
And send either one that moved through the pearly gates.
I, the Hustler, can make Astaire dance and Sinatra croon,
And I would make the Supreme Court eat shit from a spoon.
This is an anonymous, Black American folk poem from around 1965. Kennedy’s notes tell us “This outrageous boast is a toast: a kind of poem recited by urban blacks involved in the sporting life.” He also lists a collection of toasts, The Life: The Lore and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler, a book for which I hustled and found to be filled with gems. Another beauty was provided by Les Murray, called “The Bastard from the Bush.” According to Murray, “most male Australians above the age of fourteen” know this ballad from the Australian tradition. Here is but a part:
“May the itching piles torment you;
May the corns grow on your feet;
May crabs as big as spiders
Attack your balls a treat;
Then when you’re down-and-outed
To a hopeless bloody wreck,
May you slip back through your arsehole
And break your fucking neck!”
The collection is filled with poems from pre-Renaissance to the twentieth century, from popular songs to the literary. Here is an anthology that addresses personal, economic, and political concerns in an uncomfortable way. The subject matter does not conform in any way to either the sugarcoated comfort of conservatives or to the quiet and earnest poetry that is au courant. However, I would change one thing; I nearly went blind in my attempts to read the acknowledgments so that I could find collections from poets I liked. Just a little larger font please.
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