Showing posts with label anthologies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label anthologies. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Many people first encounter poetry in kindergarten or grade school, of course, but their first adolescent or early adult encounter with it may occur when they dip into an anthology, as opposed to a volume by one author. Opinions vary about anthologies, which can seem like cemetaries, full of familiar headstones (famous poems) underneath which lie famous dead writers. They can also seem like beasts--enormous, expensive creatures full of undigested verse. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, for example, is now huge, heavy, and expensive. In the U.S., at least, it is the most famous anthology, representing "the canon" of Anglo-American verse, and therefore it may also be the most infamous. Anthologies can also help to reform canons, however; they can be revolutionary, revisionary, path-breaking. James Weldon Johnson's anthologies of African American poetry worked that way. So have a variety of avante-garde anthologies, anthologies of anti-war poetry, and collections representing specific schools or movements in poetry, such as the Beats, the Black Arts Movement, or the Black Mountain School. Sometimes anthologies are accompanied by manifestos or statements, often full of fervor.

I still like to pick up an anthology I first encountered as an undergraduate. It's A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, third college edition, edited by Oscar Williams and published in hardback by Scribners in 1970 (but first in 1946). I still like the physical "feel" of the book. It's compact, with a nice cloth binding and black spine. I can't be sure, but I think it's the first place I encountered the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, A.E. Housman, Wilfred Owen, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Karl Shapiro, and Randall Jarrell, so when I pick it up, I feel as if I'm walking past a cafe where I first met old so-and-so. It has some great black-and-white photographs of the poets in the back, all looking very craggy and serious. Out of 40-some poets photographed, only Vassar Miller, Marianne Moore, James Dickey, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Dylan Thomas are smiling, although there are some mild grins, including T.S. Eliot's. There are many deliberate frowns, and many poets refuse to look at the camera. The anthology is, of course, dominated by the work of white men. The work of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Brooks, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes is included. Unless I'm mistaken, there are no Latino/Latina, American Indian, or Asian American poets represented, so the book is typical of that post-World War II-to-late-Sixties era. Of course, almost all of the poets represented are read now only in colleges, if at all, and there are several who aren't even read in colleges: John Drinkwater, Charles Causley, Gene Derwood, Anne Ridler, and Peter Viereck, for example (Viereck won the Pulitzer Prize, I believe).

It's nice having any anthology like this on a shelf nearby, just in case you're looking for one of the old chestnuts: "The Windhover," "God's Grandeur," "To An Athlete Dying Young," "Sailing to Byzantium," "Richard Cory" (once set to music by Simon and Garfunkel; it must be on the Internet somewhere--if you find it, let me know), the famous ones by Frost and Stevens and Williams, "Snake" (Lawrence), "Shine, Perishing Republic," our friend Prufrock, and so on. . . . .

Oscar Williams, a famous editor of anthologies, was a poet himself, and he included poems by himself, something I always found rather charming. One of them is "A Praying Mantis with a Penthouse." Oscar died in 1964, so either someone else helped with the 1970 edition, or Oscar worked from the Other Side.

I was the kind of student and of a generation that tended not to sell books back, so books like A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry became keepsakes, valued for their tactile quality and for the little scribbles in them, made by a version of oneself one can hardly remember.

I think most of my students sell almost all of their books back, and I don't begrudge them that. Times are hard, money is tight, and education is expensive. I do hope a few hang on to poetry-anthologies, however. They may or may not read the poetry later, but they may see the book on a shelf, pick it up, and be transported years or decades back. The anthology will look funny. It will have little scars. It will probably feel good there, resting in the hands. The choices the editor made will seem odd. A poem the student liked "back then" will not seem particularly good "now." But the book, the artifcat itself, will carry its own cryptic meaning, almost like a poem. . . . Thanks to Oscar (R.I.P.) for editing A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, warts and all, and thanks to my professor Elmo Daley, for inducing me to purchase the book.