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Shelf Life | The Nation

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Shelf Life

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In her 1988 lecture “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” Toni Morrison coined a memorable conceit: “Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense.” In The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry ($40), former poet laureate Rita Dove takes up the challenge of expanding the canon of American poetry to include those she says have been “sidelined from the mainstream’s surging currents.” But she does so in a manner that sidesteps the polemical implications of Morrison’s statement, justifying her selections instead in terms of historical inquiry and social diversity.

About the Author

Jeremy Bass
Jeremy Bass (www.jeremybass.net) is a musician and poet based in New York City. His poems and reviews have appeared in...

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Dove’s anthology begins with selections from Edgar Lee Masters’s iconic Spoon River Anthology (1915) and concludes with recent work by two young, widely acclaimed poets, Kevin Young and Terrance Hayes. In its bookends alone the anthology illustrates a remarkable sweep from dispossession to reclamation, from dramatic monologues about a moribund Midwestern town at the turn of the century to poems by two African-American poets that predate, by little more than a decade, the election of the country’s first African-American president. Along the way, Dove charts the dimensions of what she calls “my panorama of twentieth-century American poetry,” selecting work based on criteria that are at once wholly subjective and inarguably necessary: “Is this a voice that will be remembered? Did he or she make an impact that mattered?”

It is a comprehensive and broad-ranging anthology: many poets whose impact has mattered are here. In the open letter that precedes her introduction, Dove constructs an imaginative vision of the twentieth-century canon as a “fold-out book” in which, within the forest of American poetry, each tree represents a different major voice, each branch a descendant: “A brilliant autumnal maple tree marked Langston Hughes bearing leaves called [Michael S.] Harper, [Lucille] Clifton, [Gary] Soto…. Terrance Hayes latched onto the thick coiled tubers of Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell.” In the introduction Dove discusses the history of American poetry in the twentieth century not as a purely aesthetic phenomenon but as one decidedly and unavoidably linked to social, cultural and political events. Alongside the six “Caucasian males” who laid “the framework for modern poetry”—Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings—Dove includes most of the major players of the Harlem Renaissance, while alongside the familiar figures of the Black Mountain school she gives space to the more famous voices from the Black Arts Movement, among them Etheridge Knight, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti. She also makes room for outliers whose status as important American poets is often minimized or ignored, “the poor, the nonwhite, the female voices” who were kept “from being heard for much of the century,” or those white men who were overshadowed by their peers in “the cultural elite.”

Dove is so scrupulous about including traditional canonical figures as well as the outlying and dispossessed that, by the end of her journey through the century, her omissions become increasingly worrisome. She acknowledges the two most glaring ones, explaining that the fees charged by the publishers of Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath made their work prohibitively expensive. Yet the omission of other important voices is passed over in silence. James Schuyler is turned away from the New York School he helped to create; Lorine Niedecker is left to languish in the obscurity in which she spent most of her life. Thom Gunn, whose pitch-perfect poems of homosexual love and Eros guided the work of many poets included in the anthology, is absent. Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom, poets whose theories challenged and provoked Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell and John Berryman, have been lopped off the family tree. And in a volume that includes some of the most accomplished contemporary poets—Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart, Sharon Olds and Jorie Graham—where are the indispensable poems of Louise Glück and Jean Valentine? Finally, what literary anthology of twentieth-century American verse could be complete without Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen or Donald Justice, each of whose work embodies an inimitable aesthetic without which American poetry would appear languid?

Compared with its painstakingly coherent early sections, the anthology’s later ones grow increasingly haphazard, their selections almost whimsical. The work Dove has chosen by poets born within the past fifty years seems at times more a cross section of cultural diversity than of literary achievement. Her suggestion that she chose many of these writers because they were “suddenly and loudly ‘in’” warrants considerable skepticism. How is a shift in something as fickle as taste proof of enduring artistic achievement? Dove even excuses herself for including work from younger poets that fails to meet her exacting aesthetic standards, stipulating that these lesser poems “represent the earlier work of poets yet to reach their peak.” Whether this argument is worthy of its own intricate presentation, it fails to explain how these poets merit a place in an anthology where others who made an impact have been excluded.

“All of the interests are vested,” Morrison said. The problem with Dove’s anthology is not that she shirks responsibility. She has assumed it fully, but for the wrong reasons. Her omissions present themselves more as conscious efforts to shape the appearance of modern poetry, or as a kind of willful laziness at best. If we are truly to be inclusive, we must include work beyond the comforting confines of our political and aesthetic assumptions, preserving and uplifting American poetry’s difficult and various whole. n

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