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The Yellow Pages of Poetry: Notes on the New Norton

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar

The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (Third Edition), edited by Jahan Ramazani.

Give me a look, give me a face
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free;
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all th’adulteries of art.
They strike mine eyes, but not my heart.
-Ben Jonson (“Still To Be Neat”)

Austerity, for the anthologist, should be a ruling criterion. This quality need not descend to miserliness-a deliberate withholding of nourishment-but the menu should whet appetites. The late Herbert Barrows, co-editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry (Third Edition, edited by Alexander Allison, et al.), began his “Understanding and Appreciating Poetry” course at the University of Michigan by chalking the following quotation on the blackboard: “In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.”[private]

The sentence is from Wallace Stevens’ “Adagia” (see Opus Posthumous), and it draws on certain assumptions. First, there must be the illusion of ownership in the enjoyment of a poem, or if not ownership, then a robust identification with the poem’s parts. For a reader to attain this perspective, a poem’s architecture must be swallowed whole. Or, adopting a different metaphor, one may consider Stevens’ word “capacity” as a reference to lung volume.

But the proposal that a poem should be introduced into a reader’s circulatory system presumes another phenomenon. The poem should convey a shapeliness that compels memorization. This is not to say that all great poems should be compact or capable of summaries-only that they should invite a longing to trace their lineaments. This approach has obvious parallels with idol worship, where the object of devotion is not a mere rock or statue, nor even a symbol of eternity, yet is worshipped for its own sweet sake. In another context, this philosophy resembles Matthew Arnold’s theory of “touchstones,” to be relished as ideal manifestations of poetry’s potential. Or, to again quote Stevens, “not ideas about things, but the thing itself.”

This elaborate preface is meant to express one reviewer’s sympathies, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Professor Barrows was my teacher and friend, and that his anthology formed my introduction to poetry and remains my own singular touchstone, the basis of countless first impressions of some of my favorite poets. I note this at the start because my comments on the Norton Anthology of Modern & Contemporary Poetry (Third Edition, Volumes I & II, edited by Jahan Ramazani, et al.) are guilty of voluntary and involuntary comparisons with my college text.

To begin with, the Norton my professor edited has 1,402 pages of poetry, starting with Anon. and ending with Leslie Marmon Silko. Ramazani’s book, by contrast, spans two volumes-the “Modern” and the “Contemporary,” crammed with 1,010 and 1,052 pages of poetry, respectively. Those tallies are somewhat distorted by comprehensive headnotes for each poet (a feature that Allison’s Norton lacks). Ramazani starts with Walt Whitman, breaks with Keith Douglas in the first volume, resumes with Charles Olson in the second, ends with Sherman Alexie. (Curiously, both Allison and Ramazani conclude with a Native American poet writing about Native American themes.)

Such a comparison of anthologies may strike one as disingenuous, if only because each book has a different mission statement, sealed in its title. Yet for this very reason, should not the Norton Anthology of Poetry (not merely modern or contemporary, but representing all English-speaking verse until 1987) be considerably longer than the Ramazani version? Using Ramazani’s yardstick-Whitman as the portal to the “modern”-I count 642 pages devoted to Whitman and afterward, and 760 for the foregoing period. So Allison’s anthology cannot be accused of indifference to 20th-century poetry, having a disproportionately large amount of modern and contemporary. There is no question that certain fine poets lack proper representation- the serving of Philip Larkin, for example, could have been tastier-but neither can the book be labeled spartan, weighing in at more pages than either the first or second volume of Ramazani.

For all their differences, both anthologies have an unassailable similarity. Both were constructed to appeal to a classroom audience, to be proliferated at the high school, university and graduate school levels. Ramazani explains his project thus:

Since no anthology can be boundlessly inclusive, additions have meant,
inevitably, excisions. A publisher’s survey of college teachers, showing
which texts were taught least often, provided some guidance in the painful
task of removing poets and poems to make space for new texts.

At this point, further qualifications are necessary. Ramazani should not be dismissed as a ”mediocre academic,” as has been suggested by the editor of this magazine (see “The Best Books of 2003″). His headnotes are typically well-written and welcome for their biographical information on contemporary poets. The “Poetics” prose sections are fun and rewarding-how often does one come across Pound’s “Blast” manifesto?-and by including Larkin’s “The Pleasure Principle,” Ramazani seemingly silences critics who might claim he ignores the non-paraphrasable essence of a good poem. Similarly, his inclusion of W.H. Auden’s 1937 “Spain” is something of a public service, as the poem is hard to find in most anthologies.

Yet these are qualifications, not justifications. The fact remains that a surprising quantity of the poems in Ramazani’s anthology, specifically in the second volume, seem destined to be forgotten. But then memorability is not his chief agenda; dutiful representation is everything. Despite Ramazani’s claim that “no anthology can be boundlessly inclusive,” he has attempted the impossible-at the expense of a finer critical faculty. As the full excerpt testifies, Ramazani (or his publisher) is guided in part by which poets are taught most often. The result is a Who’s Who of contemporary poets, representative in the sense that a phone book is representative. The novice reader of poetry, encountering an anthology for the first time, will get no pointers here on how to tell good from bad. After all, as Ramazani writes in his introduction, “the poetry of our own time is characterized by its pluralism, by its welter and crosscurrents. No longer can any single group or individual claim centrality, since contemporary poets in English have proliferated a vast array of idioms, forms, and movements. They have sometimes competed noisily, at other times forged surprising alliances across boundaries of ethnicity, nationality, and aesthetics.”

By granting equal “face time” to such various factors, Ramazani endows his project with a uniform blandness. Questions of discernment are suspended while we sleepily nod at every trinket on display. In culling samples from a wealth of diversity, should not the anthologist make choices about “good” and “bad,” and defend them if necessary, even if that means excluding several popular contemporary poets?”Those terms may be too primitive for today’s “welter and crosscurrents,” but surely a discussion of what constitutes merit deserves “centrality” in the debate, even if a “single group or individual” no longer can. Hefting the two volumes around campus, will our novice find love, the verb that Stevens deemed essential to reading poetry? (Incidentally, Ramazani includes the “Adagia” quote in his “Poetics” section; you see, he really has all his bases covered.) The novice will find it, intermittently, but first must cross pages of ephemera.[/private]

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- who has written 16 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.

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