An Excerpt from “Devotion and Witness”

David Wojahn

Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry. Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, eds. Yale University Press, 2013. 425 pp. $35.00.

Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500–2001. Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, eds. W.W. Norton, 2014. 641 pp. $29.95.

I think it is safe to say that the days of the Big Canonical Poetry Anthologies that for much of the last three quarters of a century dominated the market—at least the college textbook market—are numbered. Partly this is because few academics, poets, or editors can agree on what constitutes the canon. For evidence of this you need to look no further than the dust-up that recently took place between the venerable critic Helen Vendler and Pulitzer–prize–winning poet Rita Dove over Vendler’s review of the Dove-edited Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. This was played out—with a lot of ingenious verbal fireworks, with name-calling on both sides, and in Dove’s case with a lengthy self-justification—in two issues of the New York Review of Books. But the pair’s major disagreement can be stated very simply: Dove included a considerable number of writers of color in her anthology; Vendler thought the number was too many and that the general quality of the work Dove selected—both among “establishment” figures and writers of color—was poor.

The blogosphere concerned with poetry is not generally a place where one goes for scintillating reading, but the subsequent rows between the Dove-ists and the Vendler-ites, of which there were many, were filled with a lot of juicy invective. And perhaps the only irrefutable truth that can be gleaned from all the literary cat-fighting is that you’d have to be nuts or hubristic to think that you could edit a comprehensive anthology of modern and contemporary poetry that anyone but the poets included and a couple of your friends could honestly profess to like.

Flawed as the Dove anthology may be, its shortcomings aren’t any more egregious than those of the other anthologies that aspire to definitiveness. The two-volume third edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, which has been out for over ten years now and outsells all the competition, does a respectable job of representing the modernists, but its selection of poets born after 1950 or thereabouts is hapless at best. Then there’s Paul Hoover’s blinkered and problematic second edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, a compendium of what used to be called experimental poetry. It gathers, among others, Beats, Black Mountaineers, Language Poets, and various Flarfists, and is touted by its publisher as “the essential collection for a new generation of reader.” The net effect of the volume is to prove only that avant gardism, with a few noteworthy exceptions, continues to devolve into soporific ritual. On the other hand, A. Poulin Jr. and Michael Waters’s Contemporary American Poetry, now in its eighth edition, focuses almost exclusively on “mainstream” writers of the sort that Hoover omits and disses: among the language poets only Michael Palmer is represented. The same deficiency pertains to J. D. McClatchy’s Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry.

Mind you, I’ve used some of these anthologies in poetry surveys I’ve taught, given that the alternatives aren’t significantly better. And I’ve assigned these books with reservations that are ethical as well as aesthetic. Both the third edition of the Norton and the Poulin/Waters anthologies cost a small fortune—the two-volume set of the Norton currently lists for $82.50, the Poulin/Waters at $107.25. There are lots of reasons for the hefty price tags, but permissions fees bear much of the blame. From a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense for Norton to charge an arm and a leg to allow a Norton poet such as Adrienne Rich to appear in the pages of Vintage’s McClatchy anthology and the Poulin/Waters volume, which is issued by Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt—of course you’d want to make the competition hurt. Interesting enough, the reason that Dove does not include Ginsberg or Plath in her anthology is that the permissions budget she was given by Penguin—a big multinational that now bears the grandly oligarchical-sounding official moniker of the Penguin Group—didn’t permit her to include these two writers. Say what you will about “Howl” or “Daddy,” a contemporary poetry anthology that doesn’t include them probably isn’t worthy of its name. Way back in 1928, in a wonderful bit of bile titled A Pamphlet Against Anthologies, Robert Graves and Laura Riding make the definitive case for why poetry anthologies can never be anything but defective. In fact, they get so worked up about the subject that the “pamphlet” goes on for 128 pages. And what is their definition of an anthologist? Someone who “contrive[s] to dupe and impress the general reader.”

Given that your product is likely to be condemned by a fair percentage of your readership, and given the likelihood that many in the literary establishment will see you as a species of grifter or con man, what is a would-be anthologist to do? The prevailing answer these days is to think smaller, devoting your focus to a school or a topic and eschewing claims to definitiveness. In 2013, at the very same time Hoover brought out his big triumphalist postmodernist tome, Charles Henry Rowell published his Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, a reliably comprehensive selection, and one that has been needed for a good long while. And then there are the topic anthologies. Kevin Young has edited some of the better recent examples in this category, with a volume devoted to blues poems, another to poems about eating and drinking, and The Art of Losing, a collection devoted to poems about grief and mourning. This sort of anthology is surely cheaper to produce than the behemoths that try to represent the canon, and their intended audience—whether they be foodies, blues aficionados, or the grief-stricken in need of consolation—is clearly more diverse than lit survey students and their teachers.

. . .

Read the rest of this review in the Kenyon Review Sept/Oct 2015 issue, on sale now!

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