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  • American Poetry:What, Me Worry?
  • Meredith L. McGill (bio)

Stephen Burt is worried about American poetry, but I’m not certain that I understand his fears. One of the coeditors of an ambitious new collection of essays surveying the history of American poetry from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, Burt expresses an exasperation common to editors and anthologists: there are too many poems worth talking about to include in such a volume; the proliferation of topics and approaches makes the field of study feel incoherent; and difficult choices about inclusion and exclusion have to be made, making the final shape of the volume feel no more necessary, no more legitimate than a number of foregone possibilities. Burt seems to be worried that his and Alfred Bendixen’s snapshot of the state of the field in 2015 might constrain future scholarship, that their choices will be taken as authoritative. But he is also concerned that their Cambridge History of American Poetry won’t be authoritative enough, that a variety of forces—in particular, contemporary critics’ and poets’ commitment to thinking about poetry as process— are arrayed against our continuing to value the poem-as-object. And if the poem-as-object fades in importance so will the anthology itself, that box of precious gems that has long been a staple of middle-class poetry-reading and university instruction [Figure 1].

But, as John Guillory long ago reminded us, no anthology can hope to capture the dynamism of a literary tradition that is always in flux. A canon of literary works “never appears as a complete and uncontested list in any particular time and place;” canons are always shifting, as “everything that counts as ‘knowledge’ is a selection from a continually expanding aggregate” (30, 32). If syllabi and reference works such as The Cambridge History of American Poetry always project a misleading coherence—they are “given a specious unity by reference to a whole from which they are supposed to be a representative expression” (33)—then there is nothing particularly [End Page 288] unusual about the plight of American poetry. Burt’s worry indexes his structural predicament, one that would be shared by the editor of a comparable volume of essays on American drama, the American novel, or any other collection that “retroactively unifies disparate cultural productions” (34).

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Fig. 1.

Frontispiece, The Female Poets of America (1848), ed. by Rufus Wilmot Griswold.

In 1993 Guillory distinguished between canon and syllabus— the imaginary totality of literary works and a particular institutional tool that is necessarily finite and exclusionary—to shift critics’ attention from competing lists of works to the cultural anxieties that fueled the canon wars, arguing that “the concept of a given tradition is much more revealing about the immediate context in which that tradition is defined than it is about the works retroactively so organized” (34). If Guillory is right to suggest that literary canon formation offers an unusually sensitive screen for the projection of social and cultural pressures that aren’t proper to literary works themselves, what kinds of pressures might currently be impinging on The Cambridge History of American Poetry so as to make it feel more dangerously incoherent than similar ventures? What changes in scholarship or in the broader cultural arena might lead Burt to fear that the imaginary totality invoked by his account of American poetry might be taken either too seriously or not seriously enough? [End Page 289] Burt identifies the beginning of the end of poetry’s status as a self-evidently interpretable object as somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century, a time when poems began to display what Charles Altieri calls a “resistance to artefactuality” and critics shifted their attention to the social and cultural contexts in which poems circulate. But these developments seem insufficient causes for Burt’s discontent, in part because each can and does find representation in the pages of his anthology; neither of these alternatives to his preferred way of thinking about poems-as-objects disrupts the project as a whole. Perhaps he should worry more about other sources of potentially disquieting critique, among them: the challenge to...


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pp. 288-294
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