[ back to Marjorie Perloff's homepage


Cary Nelson (ed.), Anthology of Modern American Poetry. New York: Oxford, 2000. 1249pp. $47.00

(How I hate subject matter! Melancholy,

intruding on the vigorous heart,

the soul telling itself

you haven’t suffered enough ((Hyalomiel))

and all things that don’t change,


monuments. . . .

--- Frank O’Hara, "To Hell with It"

Making my way through the 1250 pages of Cary Nelson’s monumental new Oxford anthology (the book, which weighs in at almost five pounds, is heavier than my three-pound Dell Latitude laptop), I couldn’t help thinking of the above lines from "To Hell with It," a poem not included in this anthology, in which, incidentally, O’Hara is allotted only eight pages as compared, to, say, the fifty-two pages devoted to Melvin B. Tolson’s eccentric epic "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia," whose every word demands annotation, making it a kind of obstacle course for even the most dedicated reader. In Nelson’s anthology "subject matter" reigns supreme, as does what O’Hara, in his witty "Personism: A Manifesto," calls "forced feeding":

Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I

Don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies. (O’Hara, 498).

The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, functions, I’m afraid, as just such a middle-aged mother. For whom, one wonders, can this solemn, ideologically charged anthology conceivably be designed? Today’s undergraduate, according to all surveys, has little familiarity with poetry and may well be intimidated by it. Even the book’s closest textbook rival, the equally thick Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (2d ed., 1988), which, like the Oxford, begins with Whitman and Dickinson, casts a wider net: it covers both American and British poetries of the twentieth century. But weight is hardly the only problem. How, one wonders, is the neophyte or graduate student, much less the "informed" general reader, to get a sense of twentieth-century American poetry– or, for that matter, of poetry tout court-- from an anthology, a good portion of whose pages are taken up by texts classifiable as "poetry" only because they are lineated or, in the earlier part of the century, use meter and rhyme. Here, for example is "The Heart of a Woman" by the African-American poet Georgia Douglas Johnson:

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn

As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on;

Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam

In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,

And enters some alien cage in its plight,

And tires to forget it has dreamed of the stars

While it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars. (1918)

These chug-chug iambic pentameter stanzas rhyming aabb remind one of a Hallmark card; indeed, so slack is the diction, so hackneyed the phraseology and sentiment of this little lyric, that the copy editors evidently failed to catch the error in line 7: the heart "tries" not "tires" to forget it has dreamed of the stars." Not that, in the scheme of things, it especially matters.

Or, for a late century equivalent of "The Heart of a Woman," here is a snatch from the Native American poet Adrian C. Louis’s "Petroglyphs of Serena" (1997):

About a year after Serena

died in a car wreck

I saw her again–sort of spooky, but

Ghost sightings are common around here. (p. 1137)s

Suppose I get rid of the lineation:

About a year after Serena died in a car wreck, I saw her again–

sort of spooky, but ghost sightings are common around here.

What makes the first version "poetry"? If lineation is the identifying criterion, why does the anthology include no greeting-card verse or some of the wonderfully clever lineated ads of the period? Why no folk or pop songs? The answer is that the above poems are included, not as poems but as exemplars of specific racial, ethnic, and political groupings and generally function as proponents of a radical politics. Practically speaking, this means, especially in the thirties and forties, the inclusion of poets who identified themselves as Communists, along with African-American poets protesting the condition of their people, women poets writing of their victimization, working-class poets writing of factory injustices and poverty, and so on. In headnote after headnote, we are told such things as that Herman Spector "worked for a year on the WPA Writers’ Project" (p. 371), that "Joseph Freeman worked for the Soviet News Agency TAAS from 1925-31" (p. 375), or that Sol Funaroff "was an important organizer for the proletarian poetry movement in the 1930s" (p. 626).

In the later sections of the anthology, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet system and the end of the Cold War, the Communist themes of Funaroff and Freeman gives way to a straightforward identity politics. Of the twenty-five poets born after 1946 who are included, twenty-one are poets of color. Adrian C. Louis, for example, whose poetry (cited above) gets sixteen pages as compared to John Ashbery’s eleven, is an "enrolled member of the Lovelock Paiute Indian tribe" who "opts to tell harsh truths about both white and Indian cultures" and "displays an articulate bitterness about the humiliation and demoralization his people continue to suffer." As for the four white poets in this section, Ron Silliman is presented as a working-class poet, C. D. Wright represents the poor rural South, Carolyn Forché was a human rights activist in El Salvador, and Mark Doty writes about what it means to be HIV positive.

Such inclusion and the larger roster it represents would be perfectly acceptable if the Oxford Anthology were upfront about its political agenda, if it presented itself explicitly as a collection of the writings of subject and oppressed peoples as well as social and political activists. Nelson’s earlier Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945, published in 1989, succeeded in its more modest aim, which was to open up, and rethink the restrictive Modernist canon–a canon, so Nelson pointed out, largely elitist, white male, and bourgeois–in the interest of the revival of a host of "lost" poets of the period who published in the alternative press, wrote broadsides, union songs, and so on. If the Established Greats (T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost) played no part in Repression and Recovery, the argument was that they are so well-known that there’s surely room for a revisionist study of those whose voices have been lost.

As such, Nelson’s study constituted an important opening of the field. But in the case of the Oxford Anthology, Nelson obviously had to satisfy the corporate interests of his very mainstream capitalist publisher. And therein lies the rub. "This collection," we read on the back cover, "is the first to review the twentieth century comprehensively. It presents not only the canonical poetry of the last hundred years but also numerous poems by women, minority, and progressive writers, only rediscovered in the past two decades." Here the "not only . . . but also" format is something of a trap, implying as it does that those good old "canonical" poets were not "progressive" and that there were not sufficient numbers of women or minority writers among them.

What, in this scheme of things, is poetry anyway? And if "modern American poetry" is, as Nelson claims, "one of the major achievements of human culture" (a phrase that reminds me of nothing so much as Al Gore’s claim that "our army is the greatest in the history of the world"), what makes it so "major"? One is hard put to find answers to these basic questions in this anthology, which lurches uneasily between the extremes of High Modernism and agitprop. There is nothing revisionist, for example, about the selections from Eliot and Pound, which are almost identical to those in the Norton or Prentice-Hall anthologies of American literature. Even the annotations, Nelson tells us, are taken from Prentice-Hall, so that "Prufrock," The Waste Land, Pound’s Usura Canto and the first part of Canto LXXXI ("Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom") have a wholly familiar look. Frost, Stevens, Marianne Moore, H.D., and Hart Crane, are treated with similar benign neglect.

Fortunately, there are a few exceptions. Nelson’s selection from William Carlos Williams is revisionist, presenting, for the first time in an anthology the complex experimental prose/verse medley of 1928 "The Descent of Winter." Again, the anthology provides us with the entire text of Gertrude Stein’s "Patriarchal Poetry" (not, to my mind, one of her best works despite its modish title), and with a generous selection from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, with its dramatic collages based on actual court records. The Sylvia Plath selection includes, aside from the usual anthology pieces, all of the difficult and fascinating Bee Poems.

But on the whole, Nelson plays it safe with the Moderns and more than safe–let’s say conservative–with their post-World War II successors from Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, to Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, to Robert Bly, W. S. Merwin, James Wright and Charles Wright, Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass. The anthology gives no indication that the Modernist aesthetic of the earlier generation and its diluted form in the Lowell-Berryman generation that follows is precisely the aesthetic of non-engagement Nelson has taken such pains to castigate in Repression and Recovery. The converse is also true: the poems in the post-1946 section, in which the anthology shifts over to excluded or underrepresented minorities, are largely those that a Roethke or Merwin, a James Wright or Charles Wrigh,t would castigate as sloppy, badly written, sentimental, overtly and annoying ideological, and excessively shrill and/or bathetic. Finally–and this is especially regrettable, the anthology gives short shrift to those radical poets who were in fact on the Left but wrote in unconventional and experimental forms. Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, and George Oppen are allotted a mere six pages a piece, as compared to eighteen for Roethke, a poet whose reputation has steadily declined as the derivativeness of his long sequences has been more fully understood! Evidently, the radical politics of the Objectivists are not sufficiently overt. The omissions in the next generation are even worse: what about, for starters (alphabetically), Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, John Cage, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Jackson Mac Low, Bob Perelman, Jack Spicer, and Rosmarie Waldrop? This list comprises a mere ten of dozens and dozens of poets much more accomplished and challenging than are Sandra Cisneros or Sesshu Foster. And what about–to take African American poets not included, evidently because they are male poets who don’t write straightforward lyrics about oppression and victimization– Will Alexander, Ted Jonas, Nathaniel Mackey, Clarence Major, or Lorenzo Thomas?

As a survey of our century, in any case, the Oxford anthology is not likely to convince anyone that our poetry "is a major achievement of human culture." Indeed, there is a good deal of just plain bad writing here. Take, for example, Genevieve Taggard’s 1940 poem about America’s refusal to accept refugees from Nazi Germany during World War II called "Ode in Time of Crisis." Here are the first two verse paragraphs:

Now in the fright of change when bombed towns vanish

In fountains of debris

We say to the stranger coming across the sea

Not here, not here, go elsewhere!

Here we keep

Bars up. Wall out the danger, tightly seal

The ports, the intake from the alien world we fear.

It is a time of many errors now.

And this the error of children when they feel

But cannot say their terror. To shut off the stream

In which we moved and still move, if we move.

The alien is the nation, nothing more or less.

How set ourselves at variance to prove

The alien is not the nation. And so end the dream.

Forbid our deep resource from whence we came,

And the very seed of greatness. (p. 339)

This earnest outcry about immigration policy would not qualify as a newspaper editorial or political speech because it so vague and cliché-ridden. "Fright of change" is not exactly graphic, and those unspecified "bombed towns" predictably "vanish / In fountains of debris" forcing the "stranger" to come, of all things, "across the sea." The poem is not even accurate: children don’t "say their terror," and the immigrants who once came freely to the U.S. are said to constitute "a stream / In which we moved," a locution that suggests that coming to America was a process characterized by its steady even flow. Even politicians would have to have better phrases that "our deep resource from whence we came" or "the very seed of greatness."

"Ode in Time of Crisis" does nothing with rhythm or sound and defies every notion of the mot juste that had prompted and animated the revolution of Modernist poetry. More important: far from being "language charged with meaning," as Pound would define poetry, Taggard’s vague phraseology testifies to the simple-mindedness of her message. I write here as myself one of those refugees whose plight Taggard claims to address, although my family, like thousands and thousands of others, was one of those lucky enough to be admitted to the U.S. We arrived in the fall of 1938 and were treated with a decency and kindness toward the "stranger" unparalleled, I believe, by any other nation at the time. In England, for example, we would have been interned as enemy aliens; in Argentina, we would have been left to fend for ourselves. True, U.S. immigration policies hardened by 1940 and one can make a case for the cruelties of American isolationist policy in these pre-War years. But one would never know from Taggard’s meaningless phrase-making what was at issue, who was concerned, what the politics in question were all about, and so on. Hers is just vague rant, as inaccurate and bland as the patriotic sloganeering it opposes. To expose students to such discourse cannot, I submit, turn them on to poetry.

Why is Genevieve Taggard in the anthology? According to the headnote, she worked for various Communist causes in the twenties and in 1934 married Kenneth Durant, "who headed the American office of Tass, the Soviet News Agency. This placed her at the center of left politics in the ‘red decade’ of the 1930s. Tass would employ several Spanish Civil War vets, including poet Edwin Rolfe, in the 1940s, and Taggard came to know them well," and so on. What, precisely, are undergraduates of 2001 to make of these facts? Are they to admire the "radicalism" of what were at best idealists duped by one of the most repressive and violent totalitarianisms of modern times? Are they to believe that this is "poetry" despite its reductive ideology? Or conversely that its poetic blunders aside, this poetry carries an "important" message?

One may argue, of course, that Taggard’s poems constitute a tiny fraction of what is a wide and catholic selection of texts and that, furthermore, a very different anthology like the Library of America two-volume American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (on whose editorial board I served) also included some six pages of Taggard’s work (although not this particular ode). But here the difference is instructive. The Library of America volumes devote some 2,000 pages to American poets from Henry Adams to May Swenson (born 1913). In such an encyclopedic anthology–an anthology where the major poets like Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams get roughly a hundred pages a piece, it is imperative to include every poet of every persuasion so as to fill out the historical picture. As such American Poetry serves as a reference tool as well as a collection of major authors. Then, too, the Library volumes have no headnotes or explanatory material; they merely present. It is the packaging and relative weighting in the Oxford anthology that seems so problematic.

And finally, there is the issue of confusion. Suppose a prospective student has read, for the first time, Stevens’s "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (pp. 127-28) and the brilliantly devious and racy (but not race-based) "Songs to Johannes" by Mina Loy (see pp. 150-61)? In order to do so, s/he has presumably learned something about what Olson was to call the "lyrical interference of the ego," and the need to "tell all the truth but tell it slant." Her reading in Whitman, Dickinson, and Eliot would have taught her that a poem is not a direct statement, that although, as Wittgenstein put it, it "is written in the language of information, it is not used in the language-game of giving information." She has been taught by reading Moore and Crane that word choice is central to poetry, that poetry thrives on intensity, density, complexity, and especially the relatedness of one item to another, of meaning to sound as well as to its visual representation, so that it can become "news that stays news." She has encountered irony in its various guises. Loy’s "love songs" are nothing if not ironic as in "My finger-tips are numb from fretting your hair / A God’s door-mat / On the threshold of your mind" (p. 150). And she has learned that twentieth-century poetry is characterized by its rejection of Received Truths. Stevens’s "Thirteen Ways," for example, deals with the myriad ways the consciousness tries–and fails-- to find a constant that governs the flux of daily life. "When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles" (p. 128).

It is difficult for the survey-course student to absorb all these ideas so as to read modern poetry with some degree of competence. But what happens when, after weeks of studying the above, the instructor assigns, say, Ray A. Young Bear’s "It is the Fish-faced Boy that Struggles," which has passages like the following:

He knew it was the next day

when he woke. He could hear the chickens

shuffling about. It was no longer warm.

the daylight dissipated as it came in

Through the hole in the center

he turned on his side

and bumped into a small tin bucket.

he reached over and drew it close.

a first smell,

he couldn’t define it, but gradually

as he slushed it around, he recognized

his vomit, yesterday’s food. (1166)

This, I would maintain is not "bad" poetry; it isn’t poetry at all, at least not by any understanding of what poetry is from Aristotle to Agamben, Sappho to Sapphire. It is merely prose chopped into line lengths–essentially reportage. And there is something condescending about the claim that we should call Young Bear’s text poetry just because he’s a Native American or that the haiku written by Japanese Americans who were interned in camps during World War II can be treated as a "collective enterprise" (see pp. 718-20) that bears witness to their sufferings. Japanese literature after all, is itself one of those "major achievements of human culture" Nelson talks about, and so Japanese Americans don’t need this kind of faux-patronage. Indeed, there is something deeply troubling about the notion that Asian-American students in the year 2001 want a poetry that presents their forebears as so many outcasts fifty years ago or that African-Americans can only be "represented" by the poetry of victimage and complaint.

No doubt, it is this earnest do-good mentality Frank O’Hara had in mind when he quipped, "Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. The movies are good too." All that "cooked meat" and "potatoes with drippings" may make us forget that the writing and reading of poetry is a form of passion, that it is one of the great pleasures of life afforded to anyone who cares to partake of it. But pleasure was obviously a low priority in the making of this anthology. As a visual object, the book is ugly, its paper thin, its annotations crowded and hard to read. As for the accompanying website (http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps), it makes the task of reading the poetry in question even more forbidding, including, as it does, selections from advanced scholarly essays guaranteed to make the work to be analyzed even more remote, more difficult to digest.

If the numbers on amazon.com are to be trusted, thus far the new Oxford Anthology is lagging way behind the 1988 Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, so far as sales are concerned. Neither is really satisfactory as a textbook but since the Norton covers British as well as American poetry, I suppose it would be more usable in beginning courses. The Oxford Anthology, in any case, provides us with a cautionary tale, which is that editors and their publishers must have greater respect for their actual readers. Recent studies and newspaper articles suggest that students are once again drawn to the pleasure of the text, to the aesthetic quality of literary work. The buzz is that book groups are burgeoning around the country–book groups that read Proust and Joyce, Kafka and Faulkner, Eliot and Moore. New experimental poetries are flourishing on sites like the Ubuweb, and avant-garde conferences are taking place in out-of-the way spots around the world, assessing the impact of Dada on Language Poetry or of the Situationists on Canadian visual poetics.

In this context, it is hard to imagine that young people are going to be excited about poem X just because it recounts an industrial scandal in a Southern factory during the Depression or poem Y because it bears witness to the poverty that forced a particular African-American woman to have an abortion. These issues matter but it isn’t clear how or why they profit from being versified. Indeed, they belong to the world of "prose" also known, as Gertrude Stein put it in the prose poem reprinted here, as Patriarchal Poetry. "Patriachal Poetry resign resign," we read in this text. And again, "There is no use at all in reorganising in reorganising. There is no use at all in reorganising chocolate as a dainty."

mperloff@earthlink.net | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage