I mean really.
The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is such a travesty, why bother to say anything about it at all?
I call it the 2 by 4 effect: an event or phenomenon so incomprehensible, so utterly perplexing and inexplicable as to be mentally indigestible, that one feels as if some malefactor slammed the back of one’s head with a 2 by 4. I’ve been feeling that a lot lately. Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, a president who, as a former constitutional law graduate from Harvard decimates our civil rights and flushes Habeas Corpus down the toilet, a blockbuster series of movies about teenage vampires in love, Bob Dylan doing an ad for Cadillac Escalade, the list is long. Long, long, long. How can anyone survive all these blows to the back of the head?
So, in view of what a hideous and psychotic landscape the United States has become, should it be that surprising that an anthology of American poetry would exclude, oh, I don’t know, Howl?
No Howl!!???? Not even a sampling from “Howl,” or one of the other poems in Howl, “A Supermarket In California,” “America,” or “Sunflower Sutra?” How can you frigging exclude “Howl” from an anthology purported to be representative of poetry in the 20th century? It is not possible to overstate the importance of that poem from the development of 20th poetry. I would argue that the anthemic power and reach of Diane DiPrima’s “Rant” is also of vital significance, and could easily have set the tone for the entire anthology. It might have substituted for the lack of "Howl," or any of Ginsberg's work. I'm sure there are others. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The question remains: why no Howl?
Penguin’s editor, former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, argues that HarperCollin’s permission fee was prohibitively high in the case of Howl. If this is the case, then shame on HarperCollins.
Though it seems more than a little suspicious. How high did HarperCollins go? Is Penguin strapped for liquidity? Can it be that HarperCollins has their own anthology of 20th century American poetry in the works, and are trying to torpedo Penguin’s anthology? Are they planning to publish one in which all the poets Dove excluded will be included?
Dove’s exclusions are breathtaking: Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Niedecker. Basically, nothing at all from the Objectivist movement, except for William Carlos Williams. Dove has stated that she is averse to schools and isms as a guiding principle. But also missing are poets of great originality who do not fit into any niche or school or ism, poets such as Riding, Loy, Bronk, Blackburn, Eigner, Enslin, Dorn, Mac Low, Spicer, Plath, Rexroth, or Robin Blaser. Others conspicuous by absence include Schwerner, Lamantia, McClure, Whalen, Will Alexander, Corman, Guest, Schuyler, Padgett, Kaufman, Rothenberg, Kelly, Eshleman, Antin, Lansing, Hoover, Perelman, Armantrout, DuPlessis, Joans, Wieners, Tarn, Coolidge, Sobin, Sanders, Taggert, Bromige, Irby, Yau, Cortez, Chernoff, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Grahn, Kleinzahler, Waldman, Warsh, Bernstein and Bernadette Mayer.
Wait a minute. No Rexroth…??!! Let me go back and check.
Nope. No Rexroth. The poet, translator and essayist who is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and was once dubbed the “Father Of The Beats” by Time magazine, is not in an anthology of 20th century American poetry.
The mind boggles.
Was this another instance of a permission fee being too prohibitive?
I have a strong feeling that these names and many others are being bandied about even now with the same magnitude of incredulity, and with an equal amount of stunned speculation.
Helen Vendler has vigorously criticized the anthology, admonishing Dove’s bias toward multiculturalism as a guiding principle and being overly inclusive of poets of “little or no lasting value.”
Vendler further criticizes Dove’s bias toward accessibility: “Not to be ‘accessible’ is now to be chastised. Perhaps Dove’s two years as poet laureate helped foster the impression that poetry should be written in ‘plain American that cats and dogs can read’ (Moore, satirizing English views of America). But a poem can communicate while it is still imperfectly understood (said Coleridge), and Dove trusts her readers less than she might.”
Vendler criticizes Dove’s introductory essay as being breezy and shallow: “The simplest thing to say about Dove’s introduction is that she is writing in a genre not her own; she is a poet, not an essayist, and, uncomfortable in the essayist’s role, she strains for effects (alliteration the favorite) on the one hand and, on the other, falls into mere boilerplate.”
Dove counters these criticisms by saying that her representation of 175 poets is not overly indulgent, but that “when one considers the number of American poets (124) in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry—which includes other Anglophone poets as well—or the number of poets who have received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book or the National Book Critics’ Circle awards, 175 doesn’t seem an unreasonable number for a century’s worth of poetry—that is, if you are a mere mortal not satiated by a steady diet of ambrosia.”
Dove goes on to say that “The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry is not meant to be an in-depth scholarly study of pick-your-ism; it is a gathering of poems its editor finds outstanding for a variety of reasons, and by no means all of them in adherence to my own aesthetic taste buds; my intent was to offer many of the best poems bound into books between 1900 and 2000 and to lend a helping hand to those readers wishing to strike out on their own beyond this selection.”
Dove’s most heated response is to Vendler’s criticism of Dove’s handling of the Black Arts Movement: “It is astounding to me how utterly Vendler misreads my critical assessment of the Black Arts Movement, construing my straightforward account of their defiant manifesto as endorsement of their tactics; she ignores a substantial critical paragraph in which I decry the fallout from the movement (‘Against such clamor and thunder, introspective black poets had little chance to assert themselves and were swept under the steamroller,’ I write in my introduction) and instead focuses on that handy whipping boy, Amiri Baraka, plucking passages from his historically seminal poem ‘Black Art’ in which he denigrated Jews, thereby slyly, even creepily implying that I might have similar anti-Semitic tendencies. Smear by association…sound familiar? I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth. (I could argue equal opportunity offensiveness by having printed Hart Crane’s ‘A liquid theme that floating niggers swell’—but perhaps that makes me racist as well.)”
I don’t know what to make of all this. My mental wheels are spinning. There is no traction. All I find is the immobility of total incomprehension.
Dove’s counters to Vendler’s criticisms are animated and sharp, but do not shed light on the many exclusions from the anthology that are conspicuous by their absence. I applaud her efforts to give pages to underrepresented voices and groups, but few of her choices within this parameter can be justified by the quality of writing. The anthology could have been a fabulous gallimaufry of disparate voices and human perspective such as Rothenberg’s Technicians Of The Sacred. Diversity is vital to poetry. I have sharp aesthetic differences with Vendler, and sharp differences with Dove, but there comes a point where the sheer quality of writing transcends its culture and dazzles the mind by the scorch of its imaginative force. These are the samples you need to find. It’s as if Dove went fishing in a very rich ocean but rather than bring back some scintillating samples of rare tropical fish she returned to port with the same old cod.
The issue of aesthetics is a prickly one. How does one overlook one’s preferences to locate a quality and strength of writing that goes beyond the walls of its garden and reaches and brings in a landscape of thrilling dimension? I think I just answered my own question. You’ll know it immediately. It will be there. Huge and wild and uncontainable. It will sing in your blood. Burn holes through your brain. Leave you trembling like a newborn wildebeest.
Dove argues repeatedly in her response to Vendler’s criticism that her primary concern was one of reaching beyond her own aesthetics to attain a truly representative sampling of poetic culture in 20th Century America. But this is precisely where I am most perplexed. If accessibility was a central criteria, which I read as a form of dumbing down, I can see now why poets such as Zukofsky or Eshleman or Blaser were excluded, not that their poetry is excessively difficult, but because their poetry is rigorous in its force and density. It requires a quality of attention our current Twittering generation is significantly lacking. Yet Dove did include many poets of notable sophistication: Ashbery, Palmer, Silliman, Rukeyser, Mackey, and Harryette Mullen.
I hope I’m utterly wrong about the current generation. The young poets I’ve met are all eager for experiment and intellectual rigor. They’re a very bright group of people who, despite the seductions of the Internet and Smartphones, have a love of books and language. I feel for them. I see them as a keen exception, ennobled by endeavoring at the far margins of American society where there are very few rewards or compensations, monetary or social. They do not have the social support that I enjoyed attaining adulthood in the late 60s. Poets were revered. The staid middle-class revered poets such as Frost and Sandburg for their wisdom. Frost recited poetry at Kennedy’s inauguration. Younger poets revered poets such as Snyder and McClure for their freedom and exuberance. As Larry Keenan’s photo of Dylan, McClure, Ginsberg and Robbie Robertson standing in back of the City Lights bookstore attests, there was nary a sliver of difference between a poet and a rock star. It was Dylan’s ferocious lyrics that brought me to poetry. Before that, I had it in mind to become a painter.
I worry to what extent this anthology will be taken seriously by schools and especially by young people with a flair for writing. They will find a lot of good poets in the anthology. But it seems an awful shame they won’t find those aforementioned names that were excluded.
Anthologies are curious repositories. They’re a lot like museums. They have that hushed quality of solemnity and canon. Whatever is in them on display bear the weight of historical importance. It is for that reason that I’ve always found anthologies appealing (I love museums), but also places where the very criteria for inclusion does something to the vitality of the items put on display. There is the acute sense that life is elsewhere. That the items in the museum - pots, butterflies, skeletons, scrimshaw, ancient flowers embedded in stone - have been long displaced from the worlds in which they once had a vital and authentic existence.
I remember when, somewhere between age 15 and 18, I had acquired a taste for literature, and what joy I had when I discovered Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, McClure and Corso. I admired the canonized poets, Frost and Sandburg and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but with the exception of Dickinson and Whitman, they were just plain dull. Which is why, when I entered a bookstore or visited the house of a middle class family and spotted a “Best of” or “Anthology of” modern American poetry on the shelf, I took no interest in it. What I looked for was far outside the canon. I had a gut feeling that the poetry that really mattered and lit my nerves on fire was not going to be found in an anthology of contemporary poetry. How could it? What I was looking for was savage, raw, and wild. I was looking for words that would get me drunk. Get me high. Stir me up. Make feel more alive. And when I found that poet, he wasn’t even American. He was French. And his name was Arthur Rimbaud.