boundary 2

Summer 2001
28.2 (2001) 1-8

A Conversation with Geoffrey O’Brien

Charles Bernstein

Geoffrey O’Brien and I had this email exchange in August 2000 on the occasion of the publication of the first two volumes of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century by The Library of America. The collection follows The Library of America’s previous anthology of nineteenth-century American poetry. The advisory board for the anthology consists of Robert Hass, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Marjorie Perloff. O’Brien is the editor in chief of The Library of America. --CB


CB: The first two volumes of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century are extraordinary collections of work by poets born between 1838 (Henry Adams) and 1913 (May Swenson). I say extraordinary not just because I like the selection in this anthology—I do—but as a reaction to the remarkable range of poets presented. You have included poets who are in most other anthologies but also a striking number who are almost never seen in contemporary anthologies of American poetry. You include the popular and the radically innovative, the light and the heavy, poets well regarded in their time but less so in ours, and poets virtually unknown in their own time whose reputation seems to be on the upswing in our own. And there is an exemplary sampling of popular song lyrics, from Cole Porter to Robert [End Page 1] Johnson. In short, you have produced a historical or period anthology that does not claim to include only the “best”—by anyone’s lights—but includes poems that reflect the many directions poetry took during the first half of the twentieth century. I would differentiate this approach from a pluralist anthology, in which editors with different tastes pick their favorite poems. It’s my sense that some of the poems in this collection were selected not as favorites at all but for other reasons. Can you describe your sense of these “other” reasons? What are the precedents for this kind of anthology, both in terms of other historical anthologies of poetry and also other anthologies of this period?

GO’B: It would be easy enough to say that the anthology’s goals are historical—to give a comprehensive survey of styles, themes, social tendencies, et cetera—but clearly such an approach might have yielded an altogether different anthology. In fact, the inclusion of topical poems—such as Sarah Cleghorn’s quatrain on child labor, the World War I poems by Edmund Wilson, Robert Hillyer, and John Peale Bishop, or Witter Bynner’s poem on racial discrimination in the U.S. Army during World War II—was a distinct but relatively minor aspect of the editing. Thousands of such poems exist and could fill many carefully calibrated collections. You could do a whole volume on Sacco and Vanzetti. Likewise with form: We were happy to find sestinas or haiku or epigrams that worked, but that also was not a primary guideline. One reader of the anthology said it could be read as a kind of novel, and that’s closer to the mark. At a certain point, the anthology acquired its own imperatives as a book, and the poems that got in were those that seemed to supply some element—a phrase, a place, a texture, a point of view, a cadence, a design pattern, a character—that deepened the effect of the whole, that defined some accent or trait not otherwise evident. When I say “imperatives,” I don’t mean a set of preexisting guidelines but something more like the shifting requirements of a field of action, or a game of go; one poem would, as it were, elicit another poem in response; poems come upon by accident would seem to force their way into the book and thereby change its boundaries however slightly. It was a question of focusing intently on what each possible poem, or possible poet, would do to the overall effect. It became a kind of “Book of the World” created collectively.

There was a working assumption that minor poets do things that aren’t duplicated by major poets, and that each poem included would earn its place by striking a note or evoking an attitude not replicated elsewhere. Oddness and eccentricity were particularly welcome, and this was a period [End Page 2] of American poetry very rich in strangeness; the dutifully bland, even if well crafted, was as much as possible phased out. In other words, we weren’t interested in giving a guided tour of outmoded tastes, or in providing examples of kinds of badness, although obviously any reader is likely to find a certain portion of the work unpalatable. It’s almost impossible to imagine someone liking every poem in the book, although I must say that years of immersion have made me fonder than I could have believed of some admittedly very minor poets.

CB: I appreciate your increasing affection for the minor. One of the remarkable facets of this period is the reversal of fortune for many poetic forms and styles: Some considered marginal and eccentric not only in their time but until relatively recently now seem the most influential, while lots of the presumed majors now look more like held-over corporals from the previous epoch. Not that there wouldn’t be a lot of people who would give me an argument on any specifics I would care to name. The LOA [Library of America] anthology doesn’t abolish the categories of major and minor, at least if widely discrepant page counts are taken as the guide. Seventy-three pages of Wallace Stevens are bordered by twenty pages of Vachel Lindsay and three pages of Angelina Weld Grimké [the book is ordered by poets’ birthdates]. I understand what you are saying about not being simply historical, indiscriminately historical: It is clear that this book is assembled for reading and not just to create a representative record. But any good historian or editor makes precisely these kinds of judgments. I would say that you have picked exemplary works, but that only begs the question of what counts as exemplary: What, in the year 2000, seems interesting, relevant, informative, unexpected? In some sense, what remains alive? Along the way, I do think you are undermining the major/minor distinction, because if I read this anthology as a book, as you suggest, then the players with the smaller parts are indispensable. The whole has an ensemble feeling, rather than a set of star turns or continuous highlights. It insists that poetry is for reading, and if all you want to do is skip to the so-called good parts, you are missing the story. This, in turn, strikes a blow against a still prevalent reading value for poetry—that the only thing that really matters is masterpieces, those precious few. To read poetry filtered in that way is to take it out of the social field, to deanimate it. It takes away from Stevens as much as from poets overlooked. The spirit of poetry, not to say what matters about poetry, can be experienced only if one reads around in it, checking out not only the different types of work but also both the different orders of success [End Page 3] and the different measures of success. And this is not only because readers will disagree about what is the best, accusing each other of perpetrating minors as majors, so that one never will really be able to come out with consensus on just exactly who those elect might be. The problem is with the idea of the “few” itself: Poetry is a social field whose meaning comes, in part, from the relationship among poems. To remove that social field is to strip poems of the cultural context that lends them meaning. In contrast, the pluralism of many anthologies just takes designated domains and presents the “best of” each: It actually compounds the problem with the major/minor distinction. Another way of saying this is that an anthology such as this one from LOA helps to reclaim Stevens as minor, returning him to poetry again. Yet it can accomplish this only by the very precise selection not only of Stevens’s poems but also of the poems surrounding them. This process requires rather more editorial intervention than the more typical “greatest hits” approach, which often, just because of its lofty criteria, ends up coming up short. If anthologies are something of a shell game, the point is not just to uncover the peas but to present the shells as well, otherwise you may find that the dish ran away with the spoon.

All this reminds me of a story. A couple of critics were speaking of their ideal anthology. The first critic compared two anthologies. The first anthology was described as containing only the most perfect works, sublime content married to consummate craft. The other anthology was described as a ragtag and noisy affair of the good, the bad, and the promising, the overstated or too ambitious, the utterly discountable and the at-best-okay. Finally, the second critic got up to speak and said that he agreed completely with the first critic: The two anthologies were accurately described. The one anthology was indeed very crowded and boisterous, and, no question, the other was pristine and solitary, unmarred by imperfection. The only problem was that it was blank: there wasn’t a single poem in it.

Something of this is suggested by Grimké’s poem “Dawn”:

Grey trees, grey skies, and not a star;
    Grey mist, grey hush;
And then, frail, exquisite, afar
    A hermit-thrush.

In the anthology, this poem immediately follows Stevens’s “Of Mere Being”—the poem that famously begins with “The palm at the end of the mind.” And it’s as if the two poems are in conversation, as if the whole book is in wild Bakhtinian dialogue (to turn Bakhtin on his head): [End Page 4]

. . . A gold feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

GO’B: The idea of dialogue, of poets listening to and responding to other poets, is pretty basic here. Sometimes explicitly—Hyam Plutzik writing an open letter to T. S. Eliot about anti-Semitism (“Come let us weep together for our exile”), or Carl Sandburg paying tribute to Adelaide Crapsey upon her untimely death, or Max Eastman getting mad at Genevieve Taggard, or Genevieve Taggard making a city map out of poetry (“Myself, I’m living now on Fearing Sq. . . . I hear the rents are unusually high out in the Tate section”), or Wilson savaging Archibald MacLeish in his parody “The Omelet of A. MacLeish,” or Lindley Williams Hubbell free-associating about forgotten poets (“and there was Mina Loy, whom Ezra Pound / considered quite as good a poet as Marianne Moore, / now quite forgotten [she might make a comeback, though]”). Then there are the shadow-poets who were read, absorbed, and forgotten—Donald Evans, whom Stevens knew and read, and whose “En Monocle” may have filtered into “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” or Alfred Kreymborg, who at one point was regarded by many as pretty much indistinguishable from William Carlos Williams:

To have reached
the ultimate top
of the stalk,
single and tall;
to hang like a bell
through sheer weight
of oneself;
to have six petals . . .

At some point in the thirties, you can hear Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry being bodily lifted into American poetry (out of Eliot and Hart Crane via James Agee, Louise Bogan, Yvor Winters, Delmore Schwartz). Or you can trace a particularly stark and unadorned American iambic coming down the pike from Edwin Arlington Robinson (“Here was the room again where he had been”) through Frost (“The shattered water made a misty din”) to Elizabeth Bishop (“The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored”). Again, the [End Page 5] Whitmanic echo reverberating through folks like Charles Erskine Scott Wood and Arturo Giovannitti and, more harshly and pointedly, Robinson Jeffers. Jack Spicer’s words have been a kind of motto for this project: “Poems should echo and reecho against each other. . . . They cannot live alone any more than we can.”

Which is not in any way to detract from the singularity of the individual poem or poet. Quite the contrary: The specificities stand out all the more strikingly when the poets are allowed to bounce off each other. The reverberations go on forever, and in a sense such an anthology could be infinitely long. If it isn’t, it’s because not too many people could stand it. The length is not a cutoff, a way of saying that there isn’t any more there, but a concession to the limits of attentiveness. Because the more one reads, the more does keep emerging, as for instance in the single poem by Skipwith Cannell that found its way (at the eleventh hour, I might add) into the book, where I now cast my eye and find:

There is no land and the sea
Is black like cypresses waiting at midnight
In a place of tombs

A perfect stanza for the great unending imagist poem that American poets have been working on since Whitman, I guess. There are also those many premonitory echoes of the future, of the poetry of the fifties and sixties, and of the twenty-first century, being written in 1920 or 1936. “The knave of diamonds, in his darkened room, / Holds in his hands a key,” sang Bob Dylan to Conrad Aiken. All this leaves unanswered the major/minor question, but in many ways it seems a false question. The major poets were those whom everyone involved in putting these books together felt to be so. On closer examination, they were those whose work was profuse and profusely interesting; they gave the impression of imposing their presence, of not submitting to be cut back. (I would apply this also to a poet such as Lindsay, who demands a certain amount of room and does not thrive with less. Charles Olson undoubtedly wanted more room than we could give him; that was a tussle.)

CB: There’s no question that the reading of twentieth-century poetry suffers under the idea that it is a lonely art of self-contained works; the writers have known all along that that isn’t so, and readers are always finding out. Those who dislike anthologies, whether period anthologies like yours, or more aesthetically directed ones like Jerome Rothenberg’s, may miss that fact. [End Page 6] (The companion anthologies to yours, which I would recommend, would be Poems for the Millennium, volume 1, edited by Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, and Revolution of the Word, edited by Rothenberg.) As to Olson, don’t you know that lack of anthology space is the central fact for poets born in America! Olson’s thirty-one pages in volume 2 can’t really begin to give the sweep of Maximus, which represents a third of the selection, while Elizabeth Bishop’s thirty-one pages, neighboring Olson, as she is just one year his junior, probably represent her poetry better. That’s inevitable, given the differing nature of the work. Still, there is a delicious justice—after years of comparative neglect—in having all of George Oppen’s “Discrete Series” and Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” the first major works of each, even if readers will have to get their books to see the full extent of the later work. Similarly, Lorine Niedecker and Sterling Brown may have only nineteen pages each, but their work glimmers here, while Melvin Tolson’s thirteen pages send you in the right direction. And while Abraham Lincoln Gillespie and John Cage have only three pages each, those pages are explosive enough to open up whole new textual possibilities. And then there is only one page given to Eugene Jolas, but what a page: It’s an American response to Hugo Ball, and it rocks: “illa mala rulidala / singa rusta prilanala / buina ruli astara.” But I don’t want to get into the counting game or even to naming my favorite game, or I want to but I object to the reflex reaction. Still, it’s worth noting that volume 2, which begins with e. e. cummings, born in 1894, has a strong representation of some of my favorite “sometimes overlooked” poets. Indeed, this second volume is filled with more nooks and crannies than you find in Central Park; of the two volumes, I think it’s the most intriguing and surprising, since the great triumph of eccentricity among these second-wave modernists has for too long been overshadowed by their immediate predecessors. And I was delighted that you included one of my favorite Ogden Nash poems, his great but unrecognized manifesto against metaphoric language and for linguistic materiality, “Very Like a Whale,” which very nearly ends, “The snow is a white blanket. Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm.”

GO’B: The naming of favorites, or of favorite conjunctions, is hard to resist. I love the way two relatively obscure contemplatives, Robert Francis and Lindley Williams Hubbell, brush up against each other with meditations-on-the-edge-of-extinction like “Museum Vase” (Francis) and “Waka” (Hubbell). The second volume, as you note, was by far the greater stimulus, since so [End Page 7] many of these poets have not been anthologized extensively. I hope, for example, that the scope of Yvor Winters’s work, which has been presented selectively or, increasingly, not at all, will be more apparent with more of the early imagist poems in place. David Schubert is another poet who has been mostly—or perhaps entirely—skipped over by anthologists; as Ashbery and others have said for years, he’s distinctly a harbinger of the tone associated with the New York Poets. Mary Barnard—a living poet writing very much in the tradition of Pound and H.D.—likewise has been ignored. I would hope that all these juxtapositions of things that are often kept apart and sometimes not included at all might have a kind of irrigating influence. The cadences and images do begin to reflect each other in unexpected ways, as, for example, glancing across the page from Lightnin’ Hopkins to May Sarton, her “With solitude for my domain” suddenly sounds like a blues line. Such happy accidents and seemingly random connections can be as fruitful as finding what was consciously intended, either by the poets or, for that matter, the anthologists. Each reader, each reading, makes new maps.

I should note, by way of concluding, that these volumes have been extremely successful and have already gone into second printings. The purpose of The Library of America is not only to publish but to get the books into people’s hands on as wide a scale as possible, and in this case that purpose has been met in gratifying fashion. I hope that it won’t be too long before we’ll be able to add a third volume to this ongoing project, a volume that would extend into the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. Of course, such a volume would require a more rigorous culling, given the expanded number of poets who would likely be under consideration. But it would be exciting to extend the approach of these volumes into more recent decades, leaving only our contemporaries and juniors to be dealt with in yet a fourth volume. In the meantime, it would be nice if these two volumes spark some further exploration and excavation of these poets, so much of whose work remains out of print. The period was too rich to be represented by a score of individuals.

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