- Identity Poetics? or, The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry
Authors are the sentimental background of literature.—Laura (Riding) Jackson
poets are retreating into—or is it out of?—academia, beset by the
usual pit-bulls and well-meaning little old ladies in tennis shoes. And discovering
and assimilating new bastions of indifference and comprehension. What else?
That was some storm we had last week. The webs intersect at certain points where baubles
are glued to them; readers think this is nice. What else? Oh, stop badgering—
where were you in the fifties?—John Ashbery, Flow Chart
Ten years ago, in his long poem Flow Chart, John Ashbery surveyed the literary landscape with a mild surmise: so much for the poetry wars. Yet the critic can hardly afford to greet missionary zeal with this melancholy bemusement. The position of the academic anthologizer is still more difficult. It has long since become common knowledge that the “anthology wars” (marked by the appearance of Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry and Hall, Pack, and Simpson’s New Poets of England and America) divided American poetry into two armed camps. (A recent update on this tradition of conflict is provided by Marjorie Perloff’s “Whose New American Poetry?: Anthologizing in the 1990s.”) John Guillory’s work on canon formation assumes the university literature department to be the institutional locus of canonization, but to my mind such a claim becomes increasingly untenable in the post-WWII U.S. poetry scene, where the aforementioned anthologies, among others, testify to the co-presence of academic canons and anti-academic poets’ canons, a pairing best seen in the context of various related sets of polemic adversaries from the recent literary past: Beat vs. academic, raw vs. cooked, margin vs. mainstream, and so on.1 Given this history, a basic problem remains for any teaching anthology published in 2003 that seeks to encompass the past century’s poetry: on the one hand, its own institutional frame is academic; on the other, it must acknowledge contemporary poetry’s foundational narrative of division, this blesséd or curséd break, seeking to contain (in both senses of the word?) both sides within its bipartisan pages. Jahan Ramazani seems to meet the challenge head on: he opens the second volume of the new Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry with substantial selections from Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Olson, a pairing straight from central casting. Olson’s harpoon, Bishop’s bit of ivory: the lady, in the role of minimus, gets more pages.
A prefatory observation: in what follows, I’ve chosen to neglect the question of cuts. Even a not entirely cynical critic might believe, with Marianne Moore, that “omissions are no accident,” while noting that they are also invisible to theory: the experience of classroom teachers is always invoked to explain them. We are more forthright about discovering neglected poetry of value than about discovering that what we once thought valuable no longer seems as necessary. The relative number of poets from Canada and Great Britain has dropped considerably in the latest Norton. (Writing, for this moment, as a Canadian, I note that Earl Birney, A.M. Klein, Irving Layton and Al Purdy have been expunged; P.K. Page, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje remain; Anne Carson has been added.) This particular set of cuts might suggest that gender was an important factor; but other decisions I find arguable obey different logics. To name only one: Ramazani is unwilling to remove even relatively minor poets associated with the New Criticism or with the Movement—to name a few: Ransom, Tate, Winters, Penn Warren, Delmore Schwartz, Davie, Amis—poets peripheral to the revival of modernist studies in whom I can hardly think my own generation of university teachers is heavily invested.
This newly revised Norton appears at a moment when “mainstream” poetry is marked by a bewildering heterogeneity, while questions of eclecticism, pluralism, rapprochement have been the subject of much debate at the “margins.” The entry of a...