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Review of Cary Nelson (ed.), Anthology of Modern American Poetry (New York: Oxford UP, 2000). 1249 pp.

    (How I hate subject matter! Melancholy,   intruding on the vigorous heart,       the soul telling itself you haven’t suffered enough ((Hyalomiel))         and all things that don’t change, photographs,           monuments. . . .

Frank O’Hara, “To Hell with It” (275)

Making my way through the 1250 pages of Cary Nelson’s monumental new Oxford Anthology (the book, which weighs in at almost five pounds, is heavier than my three-pound Dell Latitude laptop), I couldn’t help thinking of the above lines from “To Hell with It,” a poem not included in this anthology, in which, incidentally, O’Hara is allotted only eight pages as compared, to, say, the fifty-two pages devoted to Melvin B. Tolson’s eccentric epic “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia,” whose every word demands annotation, making it a kind of obstacle course for even the most dedicated reader. In Nelson’s anthology “subject matter” reigns supreme, as does what O’Hara, in his witty “Personism: A Manifesto,” calls “forced feeding”: [End Page 205]

Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I Don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.

(O’Hara 498).

The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, functions, I’m afraid, as just such a middle-aged mother. For whom, one wonders, can this solemn, ideologically charged anthology conceivably be designed? Today’s undergraduate, according to all surveys, has little familiarity with poetry and may well be intimidated by it. Even the book’s closest textbook rival, the equally thick Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (2d ed., 1988), which, like the Oxford, begins with Whitman and Dickinson, casts a wider net: it covers both American and British poetries of the twentieth century. But weight is hardly the only problem. How, one wonders, is the neophyte or graduate student, much less the “informed” general reader, to get a sense of twentieth-century American poetry—or, for that matter, of poetry tout court—from an anthology, a good portion of whose pages are taken up by texts classifiable as “poetry” only because they are lineated or, in the earlier part of the century, use meter and rhyme? Here, for example is “The Heart of a Woman” by the African-American poet Georgia Douglas Johnson:

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on; Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night, And enters some alien cage in its plight, And tires to forget it has dreamed of the stars While it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars.


These chug-chug iambic pentameter stanzas rhyming aabb remind one of a Hallmark card; indeed, so slack is the diction, so hackneyed the phraseology and sentiment of this little lyric, that the copy editors evidently failed to catch the error in line 7: the heart “tries” not “tires” “to forget it has dreamed of the stars.” Not that, in the scheme of things, it especially matters.

Or, for a late century equivalent of “The Heart of a Woman,” here is a snatch from the Native American poet Adrian C. Louis’s “Petroglyphs of Serena” (1997): [End Page 206]

About a year after Serena died in a car wreck I saw her again—sort of spooky, but Ghost sightings are common around here.


Suppose I get rid of the lineation:

About a year after Serena died in a car wreck, I saw her again—sort of spooky, but ghost sightings are common around here.

What makes the first version “poetry”? If lineation is...

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pp. 205-213
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