- The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry
A poetry anthology's table of contents is inevitably a "who's who" list talked about by serious poets and writers. But in the eyes of this audience, especially in those of its self-invested guardians of poetry, an anthology often is disappointing because of whom it leaves out or includes. An extreme example of this sense of intense disappointment is demonstrated in Helen Vendler's November 2011 review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, in which she slammed the book's "multicultural inclusiveness" that underrepresents canonical greats like Wallace Stevens and James Merrill. Who can forget Dove's equally biting response?
However, anthologies play more significant roles than simply constituting a "Hall of Fame" of literary achievement. This poetry anthology may one day be a historical artifact, a record not only of great twentieth-century American poetry but also of the literary climate of the early twenty-first century. And in this time of economic recession when government [End Page 166] programs are cutting costs, we cannot overlook the prevalence of anthologies in schools. Poetry anthologies promise high school and university students an affordable and thorough introduction to poetry.
It was while reading The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (2003), edited by J. D. McClatchy, in a college poetry course that I discovered the works of William Matthews, Kay Ryan, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Most students cracking open a poetry anthology for the first time recognize the names of only a few very popular poets—Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes. Students flipping through this anthology's table of contents, biographical notes, and almost four hundred poems will, teachers hope, be drawn in. What details might wow them to the point that they like poetry and want to write it? To which poets' lives and works will they most relate? Any poetry anthology can showcase exceptional poems from a particular place and time; an additional strength of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry is its commitment to telling powerful, encouraging stories about demographic trends in twentieth-century American poetry.
Comprising the works of a whopping 175 poets, this chronologically ordered anthology opens with selections from Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. Six male poets in, Amy Lowell's work appears. It is easy to count more than sixty female poets: oft-anthologized Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, and Sharon Olds, and less common picks like Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (famously married to poet Paul Laurence Dunbar), Roberta Hill Whiteman, Reetika Vazirani, and the hilarious Barbara Hamby.
These surprise picks add welcome variety to what could be a thin and predictable female lineup. Dunbar-Nelson's "I Sit and Sew" expresses a unique combination of respect and resentment toward women's traditional wartime tasks, and Hamby's irreverent "Hatred" pines for apocalyptic ruin during the "last vestiges of the tawdry twentieth century." Ten percent more women are represented in this anthology than in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, and 5 percent more than in McGraw-Hill's Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2003), edited by Dana Gioia, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke. Plus, this anthology's refreshingly brief biographical notes help explain the increase in the number of American female poets by describing the few early- to mid-century women featured—Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop—as "independently wealthy," a label that disappears from the biographies of many women who published between 1970 and 1999.
Men's opportunities to publish have improved as well, as evident in the education details of the biographical notes; although T. S. Eliot's and Wallace Steven's Ivy League diplomas were typical for male poets of their generation, Philip Levine's state school education and Etheridge Knight's self-education while in prison prove that poetry is less and less a means of expression for only the wealthy.
At first glance, not only female students but also students of color will be impressed. This anthology addresses race both in the content of...