& I’ll Cry If I Want To

Posted on December 21, 2011


Social pecking orders. (Too) Few human societies are without them. If you’re not invited to one party, you’re feelings may be hurt. So you hold your own party and invite whomever wasn’t invited to the party you weren’t invited to. But then no one comes to your party. Do you even attend? And then, those who were invited to the original party, what do they do? Of course, at some point they talk about who’s not there — whether by lack of invitation or they wouldn’t deign to come or whatever. If you’re not there, you’re fair game. And then, everyone can read about the party in the gossip pages — those invited, those snubbed, everyone else…

which brings me round to the topic at hand: anthologies. In the end, they constitute a social microcosm upon a particular event. “So-and-so should have been invited” or “look who the cat dragged in” etc., etc. Each party celebrates a different event, and each event has its own protocols and expectations. A birthday differs from a baptism from a bar mitzvah from a housewarming and so on. The host(s) decide on who’s invited. The list reflects their interpretation of the event and serves also to situate themselves into society.

So, we’re all agreed that an anthology will reflect the editor’s or editors’ taste. And on how they will want to be viewed by the “society” around them who will attend to their event (i.e., the “book,” or their register, if you will). Also, as we all know, the event can be used to pay (or repay) societal debts, or generate a debt (“you owe me one”).

(I know I keep wandering in and out of my analogy, but the concepts for me are so intertwined, I jumble them, and gleefully and respectfully decline to keep their delineations neat.)

And, I think we’ll all agree that no one is perfect, and no anthology (a product of human action) is by extension perfect.

So if you’re the editor of an anthology, you are setting yourself up. You’re not going to please everyone. I certainly learned that lesson when I put together a small collection of contemporary Belgian prose poetry. I consciously steered away from calling it an anthology (in the title but it crept into the acknowledgements). My intent was to provide a collage of snapshots, nothing comprehensive, nothing with an underlying theme to the event. Of course, that’s the equivalent of grabbing people randomly off the street and setting them down to a dinner party. It could be a disaster…

So, in the case of Rita Dove, her anthology is her celebration of twentieth century American poetry (of which Penguin cagily does not present any info from the table of contents on who [and what] is included, no “Inside the Book” here). It represents her vision, her take on the arc of poetry in that century. The problem comes when we expect too much out of these anthologies, that they should please everyone, that we should all agree. I have not read her anthology, but let me now interject that I’m fairly sure that her anthology would probably not please me on the basis of who was included and excluded. But I really don’t want to take pot shots at her, or Vendler for her anthology, or Allen’s New American Anthology, or Kelly/Leary’s A Controversy of Poets [of which I tended to agree with more].

The problem, from my vantage, is how much power we give these anthologies. For me, I really can’t get worked up about the Dove anthology — pro or con. If I wanted to explore 2oth century American poetry, I know enough to go looking on my own. Or if at an impasse, know who to ask. But how about those who don’t know where to start? The clueless start with anthologies. In that way, the anthology becomes a road map (goddamn it, another effing metaphor…). Do we, collectively, who know better, have a responsibility to those who know less? How about broaching the discussion in these terms? I haven’t seen much but preening on either side (pro/con) and little about how we show the uninitiated what 20th century American poetry can be all about.










I’m thinking now of one anthology that had a profound effect on my learning, and on my writing. That would be Michael Benedikt’s The Prose Poem: An International Anthology. Dell published it in 1976. I had been working in the form for a half-dozen years (starting in high school), not knowing exactly what I was doing. In college, I was introduced to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Lautréamont. That was incredibly eye-opening, but I was reading their work in French. What was more spectacular was that Benedikt’s anthology showed me not only what was being done in English (hello, Russell Edson) but also what was being done throughout the whole world. Finally, I felt less alone, more in a community. And even better, with solid models showing me what could be done. This anthology did what any good anthology should do: it got me to find and read whole books by the represented authors, and through them to discover other authors who were not invited to the original “party.” It opened everything up.

So, I guess that would be a good question to pose to any anthology: How much does this anthology open things up? Or does it close things down (trying to be the last word…)?

(Now would be a good time for someone to take a look at some late 19th or early 20th century anthologies of 19th century American poetry. It’d be interesting to see who those old editors included, and examine the long-term effects of their choices.)

Note: As a publisher, in principle I’m against anthologies. The same old argument: Better to read whole books by an author, which guarantees sales. It’s much harder to make a buck as a publisher selling off permissions rights here and there for a couple poems at a time. I’m also against them if anthologies are used as shields by timid instructors who don’t want to offend anyone (on their tenure committees) by ignoring their favorite authors. And I’m also against anthologies if they serve as a dead end, where that’s as far as students will go (which says I’m not a fan of survey courses, but that’s another subject).

Note of Full Disclosure & Axe Grinding: Speaking of anthologies as parties, I am really really really truly pissed off I was never included in these prose poetry anthologies: Models of the Universe, The Party Train, Great American Prose Poetry, and Rose Metal Guide to Prose Poetry. Editors of these anthologies, you are on notice that you will not be invited to any of my parties in the immediate future. So there.