The Cambridge History of American Poetry ed. by Alfred Bendixen and Stephen Burt (review)
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The Cambridge History of American Poetry.
Edited by Alfred Bendixen and Stephen Burt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

The editors of The Cambridge History of American Poetry, Alfred Bendixen and Stephen Burt, provide a twelve-page introduction to their 1,306-page tome. They emphasize its comprehensive and inclusive scope and rely on such mantras as “multiplicity,” “diversity,” “variety,” “pluralism,” and the like. Their introduction frames the history of American poetry as “unframeable,” but [End Page 262] such an approach subverts the very project of a poetic history. Thus, the question remains whether an American poetic history is even possible.

The volume collects essays by various hands, from multiple perspectives, and with different agendas on a range of poets from the seventeenth through the twentieth century. The introduction does not equip us to read this material: it neither adequately defines its terms nor shows where the editors draw their lines. First, what is American? Is it a quality “of these United States” (8)? Or does it designate a hemispheric entity, or just North America and the Caribbean? These questions arise the minute one steps outside the US: Anne Carson, for example, is American, as is Claude McKay, but Derek Walcott is not. The editors might have defined the territory of “American”: is it a US citizen, an English-speaker working in the US, or a native of the land? Reading this collection without an idea of what coheres all this “inclusivity” is not easy.

A second question concerns what is poetry. Children’s verse gets adequate attention, but song lyrics are out—“We do not discuss song lyrics” (9)—as are rap and hip-hop (10). Why omit these genres of poetic production, which reach the widest public of all ages, in a volume that promotes popular genres and aims to work outside the dividing line of popular/elite? After all, such popular work says more about how poetry gets redefined in “these United States” than children’s verse, with its English and Continental sources.

Finally, what is “history”? With unintentional irony, here history begins with a long, twenty-six-page essay on Native American poetry from before the arrival of the colonists. Since literary history traces lines of influence, which in this case are the oral traditions of many different native tribes with their different languages, the question of where such work belongs in a history of poetry in English, the official language “of these United States,” becomes an important issue. The interesting opening chapter might have been better placed around the time when such work became available in English in the twentieth century.

The Cambridge History of American Poetry is divided into four parts. Part I, “Beginnings of Poetry Before 1800,” begins with “Native Poetics and the American Indian Oral Tradition” (Betty Booth Donoghue). This section also covers poetry in languages other than English in early America, before it proceeds to writings in English: Puritan poetry and Southern poetry up to the Revolutionary era.

“The Emergence of Romantic Traditions,” by Alfred Bendixen, nicely opens Part II, “A New Nation: Poetry from 1800 to 1900.” Part III, “Forms of Modernism, 1900–1950,” also starts with an essay presenting a broad view of the period, but without helping the reader understand the editors’ decision-making. Their guiding light seems to be William Carlos Williams, along with Gertrude Stein, who is appended to the Williams chapter. These poets emerge as influences on poetic practices that the editors seem to favor. For I fail to understand why Williams gets a twenty-six-page essay (as well as part of an essay on “East Coast Projectivists”), while T. S. Eliot, for example, gets a fifteen-page essay, with only one page on Four Quartets, an immensely influential poem on many poets writing after modernism, John Ashbery in particular. The most glaring omission in this part is Ezra Pound, who does not get his own chapter; [End Page 263] he makes only a cameo appearance in the essay on “Projectivists.” This is absolutely baffling. Given Pound’s singular influence on twentieth-century poetry in the US and around the world, the decision to, in effect, edit him and...