The Anthology Blues, or, A Very Modest Proposal

Andrew David King
August 16, 2013
Comments 3

It’s like the long-delayed return of a plague we were sure had taken its last victims: the debate over the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry has risen, zombie-like. Just a few days ago, the Poetry Foundation announced its list of prizewinners for the best poems, essays, and reviews printed in its page in the last volume-year. In particular, Michael Robbins’s pithy dissection of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, entitled “Ripostes,” caught my eye—partly because I couldn’t believe I’d missed it, and partly because pretty much any expository piece by Robbins is certain to be interesting, if not altogether charitable, coming as it is from a self-described “reactionary,” the printed equivalent of your brilliant poet-friend after a few whiskeys have sandpapered down the decorum. His is a critical tendency that rubs some people the wrong way, but is perhaps something we should be grateful for, especially when writing communities get their dodo-feathers ruffled when someone has the gall to list MFA programs based on pragmatic attributes (as if us serfs hoping to climb the ladder of Verse-Land’s feudalism might persist on the manna of lyric poetry alone), complain about the literary equivalent of logrolling that sustains the irritating cottage industries of blurbing and retweeting (an alarmist headline about non-news that somehow became news), or even write a relatively harsh review (see William Giraldi’s routing of Alix Ohlin for proof that doing the impossible is indeed possible, if not recommendable for one’s popularity in the blogosphere). In “Ripostes,” true to form, Robbins takes a pair of rusty scissors to Hoover’s anthology and, for the most part, holds the anesthesia.

The idea of seizing this hairiest of seven-headed beasts—the anthology, that chimera of poetry and publishing—by its twenty-eight horns gives me shivers, I have to admit: not just the infinite, silent acts of exclusion the anthology depends on for its existence as object and product, but its privileged status as a piece of ideological-historical propaganda, an artifact that usurps a multiplicity of narratives to squat, fat and happy in the here-and-now, with the pretension of posing as our singular past. So I had to hold onto my desk as I read Robbins’s piece, uncertain if I would make it all the way through. It’d been so long since Vendler’s review of Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, and the latter’s prolix response to that review (a friend said it better than I could: it proves all of Vendler’s points—quod erat demonstrandum!), that I’d almost forgotten whose side I was on. No one’s, really: first Vendler’s, then Dove’s, then Vendler’s again, I’d oscillated between thinking that the anthology was an ideal forum for the remediation of the writing world’s inequalities to thinking that, well, no, it wasn’t, that maybe the place to settle disputes about representation was elsewhere. In the end, without too much thought, I think I sided with Vendler, my reasons being that if you were going to take up the unfortunately prestigious role of crafting the next chapter of the canon as such, you can’t have the cake of socially-conscious sainthood and eat it too. That Dove seemed to try for this without preemptively answering to some debilitating criticisms she had to have known where coming—why does Tolson have more pages than Stevens, again?—irked me: her selection was a too-easy switcheroo that made no profound or, really, any attempt to articulate just why it was that, say, a titan like James Merrill only gets one poem. Like Vendler, “I wish Dove had directly addressed the hard questions of choice in her breezy chronological introduction, with its uneasy mix of potted history (in a nod to ‘context’) and peculiar judgments,” and not given her aesthetic preferences without answering for them or, even worse, thinking she would have to—or should have to—answer for them, as seems to be the case.

This assumes that people who want to alter the canon, whatever it is (I don’t deny its existence, just claim that its attributes vary), have to justify their arguments against the arguments of the canon, which some might see as unfair. I don’t. It’s how any alteration to the dominant whatever unfolds. Against centuries of critical judgment, however ideologically, racially, or politically informed, the burden of proof lies with the renegade. In the end, this is a good thing; nothing gets changed willy-nilly, and if there are any potent objections to the order of things, which of course there are, then the weight of the evidence of those objections can bring that order under scrutiny. It’s not enough to say, I just think these poets are more important. You have to have a reason. And you have to have a response for those who, defending the status quo, will say you’re wrong. To do otherwise is naivety at best and flippancy, or arrogance, at worst. Positive acts in the service of canon-editing are good, but negative ones are good too, and often more honest and therefore in the service of positive acts later: negative approaches let proposed changes be defined against something, so we can see what it is they’re changing, what it is they’re against. The Canon stays the Canon, and we keep it that way so we know who the enemy is. Dressing up a sea change as the status quo does the sea change no good and the status quo no damage.

There’s much in Vendler’s review and Dove’s response I won’t touch, namely the accusations of race-mongering on either side, but despite whatever antipathies Vendler nursed while reviewing the anthology, she was right about one thing: the abomination of the introduction, with its pat summaries and tin-eared sentences. Perhaps its most inexcusable aspect is its progress narrative—“Manifest Destiny as poetic conquest” is how Vendler puts it—that runs like a steel rod through its frail backbone. After its heyday in the east, poetry (you’d almost think it a person!) went west to a “brave new world,” a “hardscrabble” one, as though the bounty of poetry were more geographical than imaginative. For all of Dove’s protestations against Vendler—the charges that her review was condescending, manipulative, somehow dishonest, and bore ill and perhaps racist intent—it’s hard to see how Dove’s sing-along history is any less offensive, with its caricatures of whole movements as set pieces and stage devices for what amounts to little more than a 30-second ad spot for Twentieth-Century American Poetry®. Maybe this isn’t wholly Dove’s fault; maybe Vendler is right, and more forgiving than she knows, when she says that this type of language (the “restricted vocabulary” that Dove takes as a slur) just might be what it takes to “sell” poetry to audiences now, and that Dove is out of her element writing essays. But Dove put her name on it and, in her response to Vendler, defends it. What’s more, when it comes to the Harlem Renaissance, she writes that “[black artists] felt empowered to explore all aspects of their humanity, no longer locked into the roles of militant or minstrel,” though this paves over the social and sexual schisms in its encasing milieu. Beneath the “empowering” consciousness of the Harlem Renaissance lurked social faults, political animosities, and poems just as heinous as whatever they purported to replace. If Vendler has to answer to her ostensible racism in critiquing the Penguin anthology, or in her critical work more generally, then Dove must at least answer to her inclusion of Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art,” which exhibits, to whatever end—and on this point, as to whether or not the poem might be read as political catharsis or parody or even sound, we’re left in the dark—blatantly anti-Semitic commitments. And she doesn’t.

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Going off Robbins’s description, Hoover’s introduction sounds about as platitudinous as Dove’s, but his situation is largely different. Racial animus doesn’t hang so explicitly over complaints with Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, though of course that doesn’t mean it’s not there. (It’s always there, though sometimes it takes sharp reviewers like Craig Santos Perez, who called out the absence of Native American, Chicano, Latino, and writers of divers ethnicities from Cole Swensen and David St. John’s anthology American Hybrid, to point them out.) Still, the peculiarly ad hominem and just generally nasty exchange over race is quieter here, and though its faintness indicates a larger problem with this anthology’s factory and its audience, it nonetheless allows unnoticed facets of the anthologies to come into clearer focus. We can get a better glimpse of the sort of in-group tomfoolery that goes into anthology-making today—a much greater number, presumably, of authors in Postmodern American Poetry being alive now than those in the Penguin—with the former edition under our microscope than the latter. As Robbins shows, it ain’t pretty, and mostly when it comes to the “soi-disant,” a descriptor he tags to the “avant-garde” twice in his review, and how they style their soi:

…[I]t is closer to the truth to say that this anthology, and others like it, have created the “other traditions” of “postmodern American poetry,” “avant-garde poetry,” “outsider poetry,” “new American poetry,” and the like. If the avant-garde historically represents a struggle against the institutional forms of cultural domination (in the case of “dominant and received modes of poetry,” these must include the major journals, English and creative writing departments, and publishing houses), what must we conclude about an “avant-garde” that is completely absorbed by and into those very institutions?

His prosecution gets more specific, and more robust, when he says that

insofar as the “postmodern American poets” share an aesthetic, it has become the dominant one, as a careful reading of the most prestigious journals and MFA workshops reveals.

Unfortunately this gives credence to some conspiracy theorists with near-pathological denials about the existence of anything even remotely resembling a “mainstream” or “quietist,” as Ron Silliman would put it, tradition. But that’s a caveat, and not a rejection, of Robbins’s sad but true assertion. His specificity on this count doesn’t wane; perhaps more damning than this litmus-test of swaths of MFA programs, journals, and academic institutions is his picture of these “postmodern” poets as the professorial equivalents of aging hipsters, “in love with their image of themselves as perennial outsiders,” even as their agonistics fade to complacency. I can’t agree with Robbins when he writes that “today’s ‘mainstream’ is a construction of today’s soi-disant ‘avant-garde,’” if only because that ‘mainstream’ construction is but one beam of the termite-infested house, one straw man in a whole ready-to-burn forest whose seeds have been sown by many different hands. If the postmodernists’ contention is, however, that there are other popular (though with vastly different audiences, demographically speaking) avenues of poetic creation and divulgence—the one that seems to really push their buttons being typified by an interest in the “lyric I,” “epiphany,” ideas of “accurate representation,” “beauty,” “truth,” and “emotion,” to name a few—this seems neither radical nor disputable. To return to my assessment of what I find to be Robbins’s more damning critique, the mark of the transition from activism to apathy, from commitment to indifference (or to different commitments, more having to do with the sundry proprieties of academe), is publishing under the sign of W.W. Norton & Company. It does indeed require “embarrassing contortions” to maintain one’s outsider-status when one’s backed by the sugar daddy of poetic supremacy, much like your uncle getting up at six in the morning so he can have his mohawk ready before he heads to the office.

If Robbins is right about most of this, as I think he probably is, then “talk of its [the work of the postmodernists’] oppositional value”—mostly talk by and for poets working under that banner—“is wishful thinking. Or, more precisely, it is ideology.” I don’t mean to make this meditation a punching bag for Robbins’s characterization of the poets in Hoover’s anthology, which has its own pitfalls, but—ouch. How can one move past this, the frustrating and perhaps inevitable realization that a counter-insurgency to “dominant”/“mainstream” aesthetics and ideologies has itself, in virtue of its attractiveness to relatively intelligent people, become ideological, dominant, and mainstream in its own right? We could, to start, note the massive overlap of authors between Dove’s and Hoover’s editions; we could highlight the damage this does to any claim to subversion on Hoover’s part. But does this observation—even if it gets made by people like Hoover, which, reliably, it never does—cleanse any sins?

I don’t have a good answer, at least not a positive one. But I made the case for the value of negative proposals before, and I’ll make it again: we need to get rid of the anthology. More precisely: we need to destroy—not rehabilitate—our concept of what it is, what it represents, and not only what it represents, but the motives that drive this notion of representation into existence. We won’t do this, of course; no one will, not even Language Poets like Ron Silliman whose commitments to apparently socially-aware formal structures permeate, so we’re made to think, their entire corpuses. The addiction to the material object of the book—its size, its physicality, its persuasive sense that what it contains is, in a sense, all that needs to be contained or read, what one might call its capacity to “bookend” knowledge—is just too strong. To quote secondhand an email from Oren Izenberg, author of Being Numerous, to Robbins, “such anthologies are bad literary history and facilitate bad poetic pedagogy.” By turning the avant-garde into a “walled garden,” they end up “relieving people of reading” as much or more than “giving people things to read.” “Considered as tools for writers,” he says, “they turn the narrow-minded past they (falsely) describe into a (true) description of the present.”

I’ll return to Izenberg in a moment, but first I want to contest a likely interpretation of what I’ve said above. Am I arguing that anthologies are a necessary evil? Not necessarily. I can imagine a world without anthologies, but it’s a world without any poets or, for that matter, any humans. We need something to, if not lay down the aesthetic law, give us the impression that our gossipier, clubbier instincts aren’t just gossipy and clubby. To paraphrase James Madison in his Federalist Papers on an unrelated topic: if men were angels, we wouldn’t need government; if government were angels, we wouldn’t need internal or external controls on it. Swap in the poetic variable and you might get something like this: if more poets and readers were persistent enough to seek out and read poetry not put out by big-five publishing houses and/or The New Yorker, we wouldn’t need anthologies; if more anthologies were open to publishing poets who haven’t been published by the big-five publishers, hordes of small-press outfits (yes, this includes “avant-garde” ones) that behave like them, or The New Yorker, we wouldn’t need people like me and Robbins to keep on carping. At the end of the day, though, I don’t want to class anthologies with death and taxes. It’s possible, after all, to imagine a world in which the pomp and circumstance that greets pretentious failures like those of Dove and Hoover is replaced by indifference or, even better, laughter; anything besides the pious rage that takes such publications as cues for new aesthetic Crusades. (If a copy of The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry falls off its plastic display stand at Barnes & Noble and no one’s around to hear it thud against the corporate-carpet floor, does it still exercise cultural hegemony?)

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It might be helpful to ask, in fairness and good faith, why one would want to keep the anthology as an apparatus, ignoring the appeals for its retention from those it already serves. Why would one want to be in an anthology? For one, the benefit of exposure, and to obtain the reputational currency necessary to join the poetic aristocracy, however base and boring a goal that is. Why would one want to edit an anthology? Ideally, to provide a lattice for the soft shoots of an infant aesthetic—to get things going. Groups that haven’t had much poetic representation—which, as Robbins continually cites, the “postmodern” “avant-garde” does not count as—may find an anthology a solidifying step toward edifying the public and potential readers. But this is idealistic. Anthologies and canon-makers are at their most insidious when they pump out their anthologies as “recollections,” when they stake particular—and often revisionary—claims on history. Though we can surely differentiate between these two modes, it’d be hard to argue that we see the former more than the latter. Most anthologies, it seems to me, are backwards-looking; they posit a document of something that was, is, or is at least busy becoming. Very, very few anthologies, no matter how “new” the writers they contain, are going to take real leaps of faith and publish writers they know little about, whose aesthetics are unpredictable, or whose allegiances are undetermined or indeterminate. Very few anthologies are going to hypothesize. Most, then, make cases not against “the” or “a” status quo but offer mere substitutions for the current status quo’s slots. This is a very different thing from taking palpable risks on new writers, though many anthologies pretend to do exactly this, often as a marketing scheme. At the heart of my difficulty with anthologies is the realization, by no means new, that they are, like encyclopedias, somebody else’s interpretation of primary and secondary sources. When a colleague of mine asked a Wikipedia representative if he’d fail a student for citing Wikipedia, the rep said he’d fail a student for citing any encyclopedia. As much as I rely on encyclopedias as sources for sources, and as much as I’d like to believe in a board of editorial übermenschen capable of Rolodexing the archives for us, I can appreciate the saliency of his point.

Thinking forward to positive models, what to do if we want to—or if we even can—get over our Nortoniphilia? It may be practically impossible, but that doesn’t mean ideas can’t be entertained. First, an attempt to understand more lucidly what’s gone wrong with the anthology as we know it. The problem is that its modus operandi, its method, is reduction: it shows the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but in a bad way. These aesthetic CliffsNotes, Dove’s and Hoover’s included, are usually prefaced by a trotting-out of the provisos and qualifications that good taste requires—the claim that every anthology is a representation of the editor’s aesthetic inclinations, for instance, as if this weren’t blazingly apparent or, for what it’s worth, unworthy of discussion due to its commonality—but these do nothing to allay the acid-wash of the ridiculously small spaces and intellectual property shenanigans that most books afford their editors, prompting a selection process that makes Swiss cheese of centuries and traditions. Why do we need to put up with this? Is any dedicated reader of American poetry really going to miss out by not buying the Penguin or Norton? Are we really at risk of losing our most valuable poetic ancestors if we don’t shove them all, demon-like, into a badly-made paperback edition of Pandora’s box?

No, I’m not saying we should boycott Norton and their ilk; I’d be hard-pressed—and this is the first criticism coming my way, I know—to turn down an opportunity to be included in a Norton anthology, if by some inversion of divine favor I managed to secure an invitation. Maybe this is what one should do in order to divest these conglomerates of their influence; I’m amenable to this line of thinking. Still, the venues for poets are few. You can pass out zines and shout lines on the street, but anthologies like the Norton and Penguin have, for better or (often) worse, a death-grip on their own frequencies in the cultural broadband. They’re the cable news networks of publishing, when what we should be doing is searching out the indie theaters to see the latest Herzog or Dogme 95 flick. Sure, we watch the “lamestream” media (to borrow a phrase from that oracle of our time, Sarah Palin), but most of us know better. Some of us turn on the TV at all—yes, I’m an unrelenting anti-TV snob—but know better. We buy a Norton anthology, hopefully, and know better. But the thing is, we should be going there, if we do go there, to get to other places—not because it’s late and you’re tired and, well, it’s just easier to go with what’s in front of you. It shouldn’t matter what’s on CNN or whether or not Ginsberg or Plath, two of the most important 20th-century American poets in 20th-century American poetry, are in your Penguin anthology because, well, neither is a serious cultural document anyway.

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Michael Robbins

Would that it were so. As usual, the revolution will not be much labored over. But there need not be much labor to find vibrant, amorphous, squirming-with-life poetry communities in venues not as withered by the strangleholds of power and capital. Take the internet, though it’s true that the online poetry scene is a wasteland as well as a jungle. At times it’s no less parochial than its meatspace counterparts. At times it’s like that island of trash floating in the Pacific: it’s supposed to be the size of Texas, but nobody’s really seen it. And it’s no more immune to absurdity or pettiness than anything else. A recent Flavorwire list, “23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013,” which would have been more accurately titled “23 Mostly New York City-Based Poets The Author Knows,” includes some poets whose work reads like morning-after dispatches texted bewilderedly by survivors of the world’s wildest frat party: I drank alcohol, I did drugs, I didn’t feel so good afterward, I am financially secure enough to have existential angst, and so on. Thanks, but I’d rather read the anthologies Dove and Hoover put together. (To be fair, there’s an argument to be made that this kind of poem—is it a kind of poem after all, or a privilege, or maybe even a neurosis?—“critiques” the culture it purports to mimetically reproduce. You’d never know it, considering the religious dedication that practitioners of the so-called “K-Mart realism,” of which writers like Tao Lin are the high priests, apply to avoiding any serious discussion of their work, aim, intentions, or really anything else, ad infinitum, as if being a case study of Sartrean bad faith were a full-time job. But that’s a rant for another day.)

None of these setbacks to our alternatives, though, mean we should keep holding out for the anthology to somehow metamorphose into Utopia—maybe they mean, to the contrary, that there just isn’t a workable, equitable concept of the anthology that we can attain. Who wants to put their name on an anthology of 20th-century American poetry that doesn’t include Ginsberg, Plath, and Zukofsky, or a “postmodern” anthology that doesn’t include Plath, Lowell, and Seidel? Permissions issues aside (and Dove made much of these, taking up, to my chagrin, a whole spread in The Writer’s Chronicle to lament them), the question stands—you can’t publish a selected Yeats without “The Second Coming” and absolve yourself by saying it was just too darn hard to work with the estate. Meanwhile, the knee-jerk response to anthological fury—I’m inclined to call it “anthologitis”—seems to be to call for various but comparably unsatisfactory changes. Where is the Norton Anthology of Unjustly Neglected Female/Non-Male/Ethnic Minority/Working-Class/Lower-Class/Immigrant/Non-College-Educated Twentieth-Century American Poetry, we ask, in all seriousness, in response to Hoover? Where is the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poems by American Poets Supported By Manifold Critical Assessments We Have Carefully Studied and Weighed Before Arriving at a Responsible, If Not Entirely Uncontroversial, Selection? Walk, don’t run, to your nearest bookstore. In the long absence that lingers meanwhile, though, what to do? I’m reminded of something Brian Henry said in an interview with Poets & Writers a few years ago:

The worst younger poets are those consciously trying to write like—or be—a Louise Glück (or a Jorie Graham, a Rita Dove, a Philip Levine, or practically any another recent winner of A Very Big Prize) in the hope of securing the laurels that poets like Glück have received. A lot of younger poets do this unconsciously—they play into the game because they don’t know anything outside the game—and end up failing because the poetry establishment cannot handle so many aspirants. The key, I think, is to take another route altogether, create your own community, and forget about pedigrees and prizes. If the mainstream shifts to accommodate you—as it has done to accommodate so many non-mainstream communities of writers—then you at least arrived there on your own terms.

We need not put up with “what happens when the avant-garde ceases to function as a historical category and becomes a fetish object,” as Robbins phrases it, when fashionable resistance becomes a “lethal period style.” To those with anthology-bound aspirations, two words: nota bene; the ground’s apt to open up beneath you any minute. In the meantime, we can craft our own alternatives and seek out those of others, whether we know them as our peers or not. When enterprises like those of Dove and Hoover become as silly as of late, it’s difficult to imagine them persisting as anything more than time-stamped pictures of the whirlpool of American poetry taken from various angles. It’s true that I’m not wholly optimistic about these alternatives in light of the tribe-like nature of the poetry scene (or of any scene, really), and in light of the fact that every act of writing, criticism, speech, and thought is an act of selection, an act of inclusion that predicates itself on the possibility of exclusion. But I figure airing my anthology blues can only do good—chiefly if, as I suspect, there are others out there suffering in silence along with me. Canonization happens, but we can fight fire with fire, or overpriced editions with more reasonably-priced ones, ones we’ve made ourselves—volumes that include the poets you want to see, that you want to take risks on, and aren’t museum displays of dinosaurs who long ago had their day. “Hoover and Dove deserve each other. The rest of us can do better”: so Robbins ends his review. We can, and we can start by tearing down the walls of the room that we’ve all, for some reason, been cramming and clamoring to get into. So few bodies pressed together only a mausoleum make.

3 thoughts on “The Anthology Blues, or, A Very Modest Proposal

  1. Interesting piece. I would only say, living in Hawai’i as I do, that there is a plastic trash patch, and it’s been seen. Much evidence of it at South Point on the Big Island, for instance. And from ships in the Pacific. No chimera there.

  2. Just to clarify, there aren’t any in-house Poetry Foundatn awards! Robbins et al were recipients of Poetry magazine prizes for work published in its pages this past volume-year.

    Thanks for this engaging and thoughtful piece!

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