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.
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.”