- Whose New American Poetry? Anthologizing in the Nineties
In the two-year span 1993–94, no fewer than three major poetry anthologies appeared that featured the poetry of what has been called “the other tradition”—the tradition inaugurated thirty-five years ago by Donald M. Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945–1960. These three anthologies are, in order of publication, Eliot Weinberger’s American Poetry since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry, and Douglas Messerli’s From the Other Side of the Century. A New American Poetry 1960–1990. 1 In 1994, moreover, there were two other large anthologies of alternate poetries by “younger” poets, 2 these two in the tradition of Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree: Language, Poetry, Realism and Douglas Messerli’s earlier ‘Language’ Poetries: An Anthology. They are Peter Gizzi, Connell McGrath, and Juliana Spahr’s two-volume anthology called Writing from the New Coast, 3 and Dennis Barone and Peter Ganick’s The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets.
Five volumes, then, of the “new” alternate poetries. And a sixth—this time a real blockbuster—is in progress: Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’s two-volume Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry, which differs from all of the above by covering poetry and poetics of the entire twentieth century and from around the world. The first volume of Poems for the Millennium, From Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude (1995), takes us from such “forerunners” of Modernism as Blake, Hölderlin, Dickinson, and Rimbaud through the Futurisms, Dada, Surrealism, and Objectivism, along with complex “galleries” of individual poets, while the second—and sure to be more controversial—volume (1997) brings us up to the global present.
A new avant-garde thus seems to be in the making—indeed, oxymoronic as it may sound, a new avant-garde consensus. Yet the countercanonizing of the recent anthologies is not without its own aporias. What these are is my subject here.
The Modest Opposition
My starting point is that of the avant-garde anthologists themselves: Donald Allen’s New American Poetry of 1960. From the vantage point of 1995, the most startling thing about the Allen anthology—still acknowledged by all later anthologists as the fountainhead of radical American poetics—is its modesty. The New American Poetry runs to 454 pages, including statements of poetics, biographical notes, and a short bibliography; it contains forty-four poets, all of them having come to prominence in the period between 1945 (the [End Page 104] end of World War II) and 1960 (the date of publication). The four-page preface opens as follows:
In the years since the war American poetry has entered upon a singularly rich period. It is a period that has seen published many of the finest achievements of the older generation: William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, The Desert Music and Other Poems, and Journey to Love; Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos, Section: Rock-Drill, and Thrones; H. D.’s later work culminating in her long poem Helen in Egypt; and the recent verse of E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and the late Wallace Stevens. A wide variety of poets of the second generation, who emerged in the thirties and forties, have achieved their maturity in this period: Elizabeth Bishop, Edwin Denby, Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, and Louis Zukofsky, to name only a few very diverse talents. And we can now see that a strong third generation, long awaited but only slowly recognized, has at last emerged.[xi]
Note that Allen introduces the “new” American poetry, not as an “alternative” to anything else but as the successor of two preceding generations. He does not quarrel about the Moderns: if Eliot isn’t included in the above list, it is because he had stopped writing lyric poetry after Four Quartets and had turned to the theater. The cited second generation, moreover, is more “diverse” (Allen’s word) here than it will ever be again in the anthologies: Bishop and Denby, Lowell and Rexroth and Zukofsky. And the third generation, presumably following in the footsteps of the first and second, is now said to...