The Oxford book of American poetry / [edited by] David Lehman. p. cm. Rev. ed of : Oxford book of American verse. Includes bibliographical references and. The Oxford Book of American Poetry Chosen and Edited by. DAVID LEHMAN Associate Editor JOHN BREHM OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS OXFORD . Here is the eagerly awaited new edition of The Oxford Book of American Poetry brought completely up to date and dramatically expanded by poet David Lehman. It is a rich, capacious volume, featuring the work of more than poets-almost three times as many as the edition.
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Here is the eagerly awaited new edition of The Oxford Book of American Poetry brought completely up to date and dramatically expanded by poet David. scrupulous assessment of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, and I am especially grateful to him the book, errors that one hopes future printings will correct. Victorian poetry) will discover all they need to know to orientate and ground .. citizen; Bliss Carman edits The Oxford Book of American Verse, includes.
So pervasive is this view that even a critic as generally hostile to Eliot as Harold Bloom has taken it to heart in elaborating his idea that a successful poet must overcome the anxiety-inducing influence of an earlier poet, a father figure of fearsome power, to the point that the newcomer can claim priority.
It stretches Bloom's theory somewhat, but only somewhat, to cite it in support of the notion that Wallace Stevens retroactively influenced John Keats, who died more than half a century before Stevens was born. Eliot's own poetry illustrates the point a little less hyperbolically. The tradition of English lyric poetry from the Renaissance to looked different in from the way it looked in , as a comparison of anthologies dated in those years would attest.
The paradox is that our sense of timelessness— of literary immortality—itself exists in time. The text of an important poem, or any poem that has lasted, may not change although poets who incessantly revise their work do create quandaries.
What is certain to change is the value we attach to the work; the value moves up and down and probably could be graphed in the manner of the Dow Jones industrial index. The canon of English lyric poetry that Eliot changed has changed again in the forty years since his death.
The changes reflect shifts and even revolutions in taste and sensibility, and sometimes reflect the emergence of figures long forgotten or previously little known. There has been a widening of focus, an enlargement of what it is acceptable to do in verse or prose. Disliking academic jargon, I resist referring, as some do, to American "poetries," but the point of the term is plain enough. Where once there was a mainstream that absorbed all our sight, today we see a complex pattern of intersecting tributaries and brooks feeding more rivers than one.
The posthumous discovery of an unknown or underappreciated poet keeps happening because new art occurs in advance of an audience and because some poets put their energy into their writing and let publication take care of itself—or not. It was in , a year in which she wrote a poem every day. She was thirty-one. She sent Higginson four of her works, including the famous one beginning "Safe in their alabaster chambers.
So much for the wisdom of experts. Though Dickinson's poems are now universally acknowledged to be among the prime glories of American literature, they were all but unknown at the time of her death in , and for more than half of the twentieth century they remained too unconventional in appearance to get past the copyeditors who thought they were doing her a favor by substituting commas for her characteristic dashes. The secretive poet had fashioned a brilliant system of punctuation, and it took a while for the rest of the world to catch on and catch up.
But flip the terms and you come upon an equally valid truth. Many readers, including brilliant ones, have the meaning but miss the experience of poems. They are so busy hunting down clues, unpacking deep psychic structures, industriously applying a methodology or imposing a theoretical construct that they fail to confront the poem as it is, in all its mysterious otherness.
The enjoyment of a great poem begins with the recognition of its fundamental strangeness. Can you yield yourself to it the way Keats recommends yielding yourself to uncertainties and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact?
If you can, the experience is yours to have. And the experience of greatness demands attention before analysis. Who is the owner? In what sense is Dickinson herself a "Loaded Gun"? But it would be a mistake to adopt an allegorical interpretation that solves these questions too neatly, or not neatly enough, at the cost of the poem's deep and uncanny mysteriousness. The aesthetic and moral experience of "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—" is greater than the sense one makes of the poem, though it is also true that the effort of making sense of its opening metaphor and its closing paradoxes may clear a path toward that incomparable experience.
Posterity, which is intolerant of fakes and indifferent to reputations, will find the marvelous eccentric talent whose writings had known no public. And distance allows for clarity if the reader is prepared to meet the poets as they are, 'more truly and more strange' in Wallace Stevens's phrase than we could have expected.
Reading a poem by Dickinson or by Walt Whitman in the year is an experience no one has had before: we read more aware than ever of the differences between ourselves and the selves we behold on the page. And because the poems have power, because they have genius, they can speak to us with uncanny prescience, as Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" does: It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not, I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence, Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd, Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh'd, Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the stiff current, I stood yet was hurried, Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm'd pipes of steamboats, I look'd.
The language changes; styles go in and out of favor. The poets of a new generation resurrect the deceased visionary who toiled in the dark. For these reasons and others, the need to replace the retrospective anthologies of the past is as constant as the need to render classic works in new translations with up-to-date idioms.
But what may sound like an obligation quickly becomes an enormous promise, an opportunity to renew the perhaps unexpected pleasures of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Edwin Arlington Robinson; to revisit and reassess the conservative Allen Tate and the liberal Archibald MacLeish, two eminences who argued out their positions in civil verse; to read Emma Lazarus's sonnets and realize just how good they are—and what a masterpiece is "The New Colossus," which gave the Statue of Liberty its universal meaning; to consider Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower" in relation to his friend Leonie Adams's "Bell Tower," or to be struck once again by how much Crane's "Emblems of Conduct" owes to the poem entitled "Conduct" by the poor, consumptive, self-taught Samuel Greenberg, who died young but lives on in Crane's work as well as in his own.
It is also perforce a critical statement performed by editorial means.
There are readers who will say that I overrate Gertrude Stein, the mother of all radical experimentation, who retains her power to shake the complacent and give any reader a jolt, or that I underrate Fiddler Jones or Madame La Fleurie or So-and-So reclining on her couch. The editor must make difficult choices—must even omit some poems he greatly admires— simply because the amount of space is limited and the competition fierce.
The task is difficult almost beyond presumption if you hold the view, as I do, that it is possible to value and derive pleasure from poets who saw themselves as being irreconcilably opposed to and incompatible with each other. William Carlos Williams clashed with T S. Eliot, and the split widened to the point that in the s, the decade when the two men died, the whole of American poetry seemed divided between them in an oversimplification that felt compelling at the time.
Eliot was understood to be the captain of the mainstream squad—the standard-bearer of the traditional, the formally exacting, the intellectual as opposed to the instinctive , the poetry of complexity endorsed by the New Criticism, the poetry that the academy had assimilated.
Williams was at the forefront of the opposition, call it what you will: the nontraditional, the "alternative," the colloquial, the adversarial; Williams was what the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance and the Black Mountain movement had in common. Williams felt that Eliot's "The Waste Land" was an unmitigated disaster for American poetry, but the reader today who falls in love with Williams's "Danse Russe" or "To a Poor Old Woman" or "Great Mullen" need not renounce the aesthetic of fragmentation and echo and the collage method that made "The Waste Land" the most revolutionary modern poem.
American poetry is larger than any faction or sect. You can love the poetry of Richard Wilbur and have your Robert Creeley, too.
What you need and do not often get, he emphasized, is "taste. Some decisions made by anthologists defy reason or seem to be the result of pressure, whim, sentiment, committee deliberations, or intrigue.
At the same time, editors would be foolish not to exploit their circles of acquaintance. Even the most receptive reader will have blind spots. The editor is lucky who has friends with areas of expertise that do not narrowly replicate his or her own. To learn from a Richard Wilbur essay that "Fairy-Land" was Elizabeth Bishop's favorite poem by Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is not inconsequential if the information prompts one to look up the poem and see just how good it is.
Nevertheless Jarrell's larger point remains valid. There is no substitute for taste, where that word means something more developed than a grab bag of opinions. Auden wrote in an early poem. What makes a good poem great?
The questions are simple enough to express, but the "hard to remember" part is that no listing of criteria will satisfactorily dispose of them.
I prize, as do many readers, eloquence, passion, intelligence, conviction, wit, originality, pride of craft, an eye for the genuine, an ear for speech, an instinct for the truth. I ask of a poem that it have a beguiling surface, but I also want it to imply something more—enough to compel a second reading and make it a surprise. And perhaps on a wide scale that is what this anthology means to do: to assemble the touchstones of American poetry. Discussing the merits of a poet ultimately not included, I told the book's associate editor, John Brehm, that I "couldn't find anything that was truly great, exceptionally interesting, or not done better by someone else.
Yet we know these can be dismissed as merely rhetorical and thoroughly subjective. That is why I have long felt that Frank O'Hara's advice in his mock-manifesto "Personism" might make a suitable motto for any anthologist: "You just go on your nerve.
If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep. Twenty-six years earlier E O. It is an honor to join the company of two such accomplished scholars and skillful anthologists. Matthiessen , a renowned Harvard professor, wrote an early book expounding T S.
Eliot's achievement. He also wrote American Renaissance , a classic study of five nineteenth-century writers.
Ellmann, who died in at the age of sixty-nine, held a titled professorship at Oxford and later at Emory University. He was justly acclaimed for his biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Less well-known are Ellmann's excellent translations of Henri Michaux, which introduced American poets to this hero of the French prose poem. Though my task in creating this book necessarily involves overhauling Matthiessen's and Ellmann's, I mean to build on both. It is my good fortune to inherit their work, which has served my own as scaffolding or source.
The words canon and canonical acquired layers of unfortunate connotation during the culture wars of the past quarter century, but we should not shy away from such terms when they fit the case, as they do here. The goal of this volume is to establish a canon wider and more inclusive than those that formerly prevailed, but to do so on grounds that are fundamentally literary and artistic in nature. Not one selection was dictated by a political imperative.
Matthiessen in picked fifty-one poets.
Ellmann's anthology contained seventy-eight. There are two hundred and ten in this volume. The discrepancy in the number of poets included is not attributable to the difference in cutoff years alone. Naturally, I needed and wanted to include poets born since , the birth year of Ellmann's youngest poet, but I was determined also to rescue many who had been eligible but were overlooked in previous editions.
To make room for the new you need to subject the old to stringent reevaluation, and so I needed not only to reconsider Ellmann's selections but to ask whether such major figures as Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Moore, and Bishop can be better represented than they were formerly. It is especially vital to reassess the selection of poets who were barely hitting mid-career when Ellmann made his selections— poets of the magnitude of A.
Amnions, John Ashbery, and James Merrill. In Matthiessen the youngest poet was born in ; in Ellmann, Needing to advance the cutoff date, I settled on , which virtually replicates the previous interval and has the additional advantage of being both the exact midpoint of the twentieth century and the year Matthiessen's selection was published. Making an anthology involves making a lot of lists—beginning with a list of the poets too young to be considered by Ellmann in Thirty years have gone by since then, and I can hear America clamoring.
Scores of fine poets born since are rapping on the doors, pressing their case for admission. It would be tricky enough to accommodate the impatient newcomers under any circumstances. But what makes things infinitely more complicated is that the list of outstanding poets who were eligible in but were not included may be even longer. Missing from Ellmann is W. Matthiessen had included him in , but Ellmann—in the single parenthetical sentence he devotes to the question—explains that he considered Auden "English to the bone.
Nor in Ellmann are such smart-set poets of wit and satire as Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash, who lacked gravitas at a time when that quality was deemed essential, as though real poetry as opposed to light verse had to be as deadly as a press conference with a presidential hopeful. Phelps Putnam, Leonie Adams ; some may have struck a donnish reader as Caliban crashing the muse's party Charles Bukowski.
Others may have seemed too eccentric John Wheelwright, William Bronk or were underrated until somebody else made it his or her business to champion them Weldon Kees or were better known for their work in a different field as were Lincoln Kirstein, the director of the New York City Ballet, and Edwin Denby, the foremost dance critic of his time. Some were overshadowed by a great contemporary, as Josephine Miles born and May Swenson born were overshadowed by Elizabeth Bishop born Some may have been resented and therefore overlooked because of their perceived editorial power Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker ; some were just plain overlooked Donald Justice, John Hollander.
Yet others never got the attention they deserved Ruth Herschberger, Joseph Ceravolo or were acknowledged or dismissed for reasons having little to do with their actual writing Laura Riding, who was Robert Graves's companion and collaborator and who later renounced poetry and became a first-class crank.
What many of these poets have in common is that they stood outside the prevailing tradition, the mainline of American poetry as the academic literary establishment conceived it in It was not very difficult to leave them out. Matthiessen in his introduction to the edition said pithily that his first rule was "fewer poets, with more space for each.
In Ellmann, the major figures get star treatment—thirty-nine pages for John Greenleaf Whittier, including all of "SnowBound," twenty-nine pages for William Carlos Williams, twenty-eight for Robert Frost, twenty-three for Marianne Moore—while minor figures such as Stephen Crane and Trumbull Stickney are lucky to get two pages apiece.
To the extent that hierarchy is an inescapable ordering principle, some of this is inevitable. Walt Whitman is and should be the gold standard in number of pages allotted, Emily Dickinson in number of poems included.
They are our poetic grandparents, these two, and yet no two poets could seem less alike: on the one hand, a robust and expansive bard who wrote in long lines and proposed his poems as a visionary embodiment of American democracy, and on the other hand a reclusive shut-in who wrote in short-breath utterances broken by dashes and made her interior life a cosmos.
People who habitually divide everything in two may contend that all poets make themselves in the image of one or the other of these two great predecessors. And it is likely that the leading poets of our time have all read certain poets—Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Williams, Frost, Bishop, Ashbery—whom we must therefore take pains to represent at length. Nevertheless there are alternatives to the star system. That is the path I have elected to follow.
As comprehensiveness tends to vary inversely with focus, the gain in variety and ecumenicism may not come cost-free, but then the making of an anthology is neither an exact science nor a pure art but instead is a vision projected and sustained to fulfillment. There are other rules governing this anthology besides the requirement that the poet be born in or earlier. The poetry has to be written in English. This is a rule that would not have required articulation in the past. I am inclined toward a construction of "American" that is broad enough to include poets who were born in other countries but came to the United States to live and contributed tangibly to American poetry.
The example of the Canadian poet Anne Carson, who has taught in the United States and has a wide following among younger poets, reminds me that the word "North" is invisible but no less present in the phrase "American poetry.
Auden, who became a U. The way the two poets traded places in parallel career paths—Eliot from Harvard to London, Auden from Oxford to New York—marked a high point in Anglo-American literary relations: the last time the two cultures seemed to have a common poetry.
It is, I think, one of the finest anthologies of American poetry ever made. Cummings "next to of course god america i". I have restored seven poets who were in the Matthiessen canon in but fell out in Phelps Putnam, Edna St. The irony is that I generally agree with his reasoning and yet in practice find myself frequently obliged to do the opposite.
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