- The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945–1985, and: Poets at Play: An Anthology of Modernist Drama
To anyone not well versed in poetic theatre, the publication in 2010 of not one but two such anthologies—roughly 900 pages of poetic plays—may come as a surprise. And while theatres from New York to San Francisco, and various points in between, continue to stage contemporary US poetic theatre for a motley assortment of theatre and poetry fans, critical assessments of both texts and productions lag far behind. So the near simultaneous appearance of The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945–1985 and Poets at Play: An Anthology of Modernist Drama begs two interrelated questions: Why poetic theatre now? And what are we to do with this windfall?
Each of these new anthologies suggests, in its framing and presentation, different answers to these questions. The Kenning Anthology is edited by two creative writers, Kevin Killian and David Brazil, and published by a "small" poetry press; it focuses on US poetic theatre after World War II. Poets at Play is edited by theatre scholar Sarah Bay-Cheng and poet Barbara Cole and published by a scholarly press; it examines modernist poetic drama. Aimed at an academic audience, Poets at Play offers a critical reconsideration of the relationship between dramatic text and theatrical performance in modernism. The Kenning Anthology makes no pretense of critical assessment, but instead casts itself as a treasure trove of unpublished and hard-to-find plays offered up for readers' delight.
Despite having long been regarded as a mere footnote in both theatre and poetry criticism, poetic theatre has recently enjoyed a spike in scholarship and productions. But because the field is still emerging, the proper term has not been definitively settled: is it poetic theatre, poetic drama, poets' theatre, or something else entirely? Each choice might be construed as an argument. In referring to its subject as "poetic drama," Poets at Play challenges conventional understandings of poetry in modernist drama: as such, it is well suited to college drama and theatre courses, especially modern US drama. The collection gathers together examples ranging from the apparently anti-theatrical, closet dramas of H. D. and Wallace Stevens that test the conventions of the material stage, to poetic plays by Edna St. Vincent Millay and e. e. cummings that draw on popular performance practices such as vaudeville and minstrelsy.
Placing these plays alongside others by Marita Bonner, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, Poets at Play argues that poetic drama—usually dismissed as a minor practice in the discourse of American modernism—must instead be understood as an essential component of modernism and as an important departure from representational theatre. Poetic theatre is presented as an antidote to the mimetic stage, as an anti-absorptive strategy, and as a link between realism and postwar experimental performance. "Unique among other forms of verse plays," the editors assert, "modern poetic drama attempted to make the poetry visible as the hallmark of truth within the theatrical illusion of realism" (21). In this view, the combination of poetry and performance enacts some of the key tensions of modernism itself—tensions between the private and public, between texts and bodies, and between formal experimentation and real experience. While each of the plays in Poets at Play has been collected elsewhere, this anthology makes its unique contribution in recasting them collectively as an important contribution to our understanding of US theatre and literary history.
The Kenning Anthology, by contrast, wants less to make critical arguments than to offer readers a feast of poetic theatre, from Jack Spicer's adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" (1946), only recently uncovered by the editors among Spicer's papers, to Kathy Acker's Arabic-inflected The Birth of the Poet (1985). Editors Killian and Brazil, themselves active in San Francisco...