A good anthology is like a dartboard in a crowded bar on a Saturday night. Everybody lines up to take their best shot. Everybody wants the chance to squint, aim and let fly.
The more august and monumental and definitive-seeming the anthology — the fancier its packaging, the more famous and revered its editor — the more it invites criticism, arguments, carping and nitpicking. That's the fun of an anthology. Indeed, the robustness of such a collection is measured not by a solemn, reverential hush descending upon its publication, but by noisy, lively, vehement disagreement.
The appearance of an anthology, then, is a good excuse to get rowdy. Contrarianism is a sign of life and health and relevance.
There is much to like about "The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry" (Penguin), which will be published Tuesday, and much to praise about the decisions made by editor Rita Dove. It's a handsome volume, with its pumpkin-orange cover and the names of nine indisputably great poets — versifiers such as Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks and T.S. Eliot — embossed in elegant, chocolate-brown capitals upon its broad back as a kind of sly come-on, a poetical tease.
But now it's time to fling a few darts, if only to prove that anthology-making is a competitive sport. I was disappointed by the absence of any poems by Robert Penn Warren, Eavan Boland, Kenneth Fearing, Nikki Giovanni or Maya Angelou. And light verse — surely worth at least a quarter of a page? — is nowhere to be found. How about a spiffy little ditty by Dorothy Parker? Or a clever bit of frothy rhyme by John Updike?
Although Dove, former U.S. poet laureate, has taken obvious and admirable pains to be inclusive in terms of race, gender and ethnicity, the book includes few poets from Appalachia. Regional bias, I suppose, is still acceptable. One of the best poets at work today is West Virginia's Irene McKinney. I'm waiting for the anthology that looks beyond Ivy League endowed chairs and Brooklyn brownstones for its contents.
Dove, it is true, doesn't play it entirely safe. I was thrilled to find Mary Oliver and Chicago native Albert Goldbarth, two marvelous poets whose work rarely seems to garner the High Culture Stamp of Approval by the Poetical Powers That Be. Sadly, literary critics are a bit like teenagers: We travel in packs, and few of us are willing to risk ridicule by going out on a limb and praising poets who subsist outside the golden circle of graduate creative writing programs and the pages of The New Yorker.
All of the usual suspects are here, as well they should be. You'll find giants from early in the last century, from Edgar Lee Masters and Gertrude Stein and Robert Frost to Carl Sandburg and Marianne Moore. Dove does a fine job of including some poems that are as familiar to us as our own street address — Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," Eliot's "The Waste Land" — and more obscure selections too. An anthology can't be just a hit parade. It needs some B-sides in order to show the range of a poet's ambitions.
If you're not an English professor — and maybe even if you are — you'll find poets in this anthology you've never met before. And it just might be love at first sight. I now wonder where Stephen Dobyns has been all my life. His poems "How to Like It" and "Lullaby" are achingly good, filled with sharp observations and epiphany-drenched ironies. "These are the first days of fall," he writes in the former poem. "The wind/ at evening smells of roads still to be traveled/ while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns/ is like an unsettled feeling in the blood/ the desire to get in a car and just keep driving."
Now, allow me to toss a few more darts Dove's way, just to keep me on my game: The biographical notes accompanying each poet read way too much like resumes. Who cares which fellowships the writers have been awarded? Also, I yearned for the inclusion of each poem's date of composition — or, if that's hard to pin down, because some poems may take years to complete, perhaps the date of initial publication. It's crucial to know the context in which a poem first appeared. What was going on in the world when it took its first tottering steps across the culture?
Anthologies, to be sure, are for browsing, for dreaming on, for picking up at odd moments. You're not supposed to read them straight through, the way you do a novel. You're supposed to let yourself be guided by glorious happenstance to a page that changes your life.
No matter how you read it, though, "The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry" has the solid, respectable, upright feel of a book bound for the syllabuses of myriad college courses. But it also has enough surprises to make it ideal for the rest of us too. It belongs on the bedside table as well as in a backpack.
Vibrant, inspired, this book generally does its job very well. That means it's bound to raise the same kind of excitement as if Dove had just announced she's buying a round for the house.
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