Rita Dove’s anthology (The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry) is like all other anthologies in that it has good, bad and indifferent features. Two questions raised in Helen Vendler’s now-notorious review in The New York Review of Books and Dove’s even more notorious rebuttal have been on my mind today. The first, the definition of “American,” I have a strong opinion about; the other, which is a question of quantity, leads to more shadowy questions.
Three included poets whose work I greatly admire – Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott and W. H. Auden – seem clearly ineligible for a book with this title. Yes, they all moved to North America and [have] spent many years here, but moving a kangaroo over here doesn’t make it American. More to the point, every poem, every line, every phrase from the minds of these poets bears the indelible stamp of their upbringing and education. Muldoon does a better job at disguising himself in winking erudition, but the spark of mockery, his deployment of the American idiom is uaually arch, skewed, thrawn, to borrow an Irish word. And if the argument of “location, location, location” carries great force and indicates transformation, then why is the same not true for Eavan Boland or John Montague, both major poets, wherever you corner them? But if the goal of the anthology is to display the landscape of poets who are primarily American for readers who are trying to understand a nation’s poetry, then these poets belong in some secondary volume, along with other notable transplants. An anthology, perhaps, of 2oth Century Poetry in America.
Vendler questions the abundance of poets in the collection: “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading. . . .” Lest we forget, the world population in the 20th century is much larger than in any previous century, and the number of literate, even educated Americans in that century is a factor. But I’d rather focus on that “worth reading,” which seems ill chosen. In a year’s issues of The New Yorker, I find about a dozen and a half poems (usually by several different poets) that satisfy many aspects of my appetite for poetry. More than that in a year’s Georgia Review, and so on. How many in a hundred years? Probably Vendler is referring to the entire body of a poet’s work, but I’m not sure that will fly, either. I’m willing to suffer the almost to find the good poems.
Although I think there are double or triple that number of poets from the century whose work I’m delighted to have read, I wish there were fewer in the anthology, as Dove’s inclusion of many younger poets whose substantial work will surely come in the twenty-first century throws the survey off balance. So I want to have it both ways, I guess, to agree with HV that the anthology contains more poets than I need to believe the mission implied in the title has been fulfilled, but I want to celebrate the profusion of poets and poems from the 20th.
This does, however, bring up an age-old question. When asked to say something about the Irish poets of his generation, a young Yeats remarked, “The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.” So many poets, so little time, competition and networking and multiple submitting, “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere,” as Delmore Schwartz put it. With MFA programs certifying hundreds of poets a year, how’s a single voice to make itself heard? On a bad day, you’d almost want to stampede them and drive them over a jump as Plains tribes did with bison herds before they had horses, but then that would be the end of your readers, as well as many fine poems lost. The comment by Yeats reminds me of Little Father Time in Jude the Obscure. Putting his own spin on the hardships that beset a poor family of five, he hangs himself and his siblings, leaving behind a note: “Because we are too menny.” I read somewhere that James McPherson said his idea of heaven was (and I’m probably paraphrasing) “maximum access to stories unfolding.” Stories, songs, poems – I want a vast buffet, many and “menny,” and I’m happy to have the 175 that Dove offers up, but the meal is still unsatisfying in the absence of 25 or 30 whose work is at least as original and influential as half those in the anthology. I’m thinking of Warren, Gluck, Chappell, Siebles and so on, but that’s for another post, after further pondering.