Book Review: The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry

October 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm , by

All of us collect things. Assets or debts, memories and mementos, to-do lists and checklists—collections speak to us about who we are and who we wish we were. Our collections define us.
I collect many things—hats (which I wear), books (which I read), words (which I speak). Among the many hats I wear there are several I don at the office. Not too bizarre, considering that most of us wear many—at least more than one—hats at work nowadays. I am associate managing editor, copy chief, adjunct professor, writer, translator, advocate, spectator and audience, reader. And reciter. Reciting is important because there are times when only a poem can speak the thought you want to say with precision, unambiguously, without denial or loss of meaning or intent. A poem is both truth made manifest and “earwash,” a refreshment that is an afternoon or morning tonic as well as a pick-me-up to send the blues packing. Life without poetry would not be worth living. So among the books I collect are volumes of poetry (in several languages, both dead and living) and among my volumes of poetry I prize anthologies. These I have in spades, in bound black and white in Ancient Greek and Latin and Old English and Old Norse from university days, Medieval French, Provençal and Middle English from more recent times and now in British English, French, German, Spanish (bilingual) and American English. You probably have a couple of my favorites within reach (if not on your own shelves): The Norton Anthology of Poetry (worldwide English), The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair; chiefly modern British and American poetry from Dickinson and Whitman on), The New Oxford Book of American Verse (chosen and edited by Richard Ellmann without Bob O’Clair).

I value these anthologies for their wide inclusiveness and explanatory abilities—their poems have been filtered through experienced editors’ eyes and ears (Ellmann for instance has written definitive biographies of Yeats, Joyce, Wilde and Beckett—who better to trust with modern Irish writers and poets?) and include notes and glosses that bring many a poem whose subtleties might otherwise go unnoticed to life. I have in fact come to rely on the poetry editor to be sure I know about all the poets including those so new to the scene that I might not have heard their work or come across it on my own. And that is the principal reason I welcome Rita Dove’s new American poetry collection—The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (656 pages, $40 hardbound)—to keep me up to date on those poets whose work may have been overlooked in earlier collections and others whose work might not have been heralded earlier owing to the politics of a sometimes-cold and often-brutal marketplace.

Since Dove is herself a poet (she won the Pulitzer in 1987 for Thomas and Beulah), I wondered whose work she would select as representative of the “American Century.” I knew I would also learn a lot from her insofar as her selection would differ (perhaps radically) from her male counterparts’. And since Dove is an African-American, her verse selections and explanations might resuscitate voices drowned out by a plethora of other, more mainstream poets. “Two historic events precipitated a social and interpretive sea change [in the poetry of the ’60s]: The first was the civil rights movement,” Dove writes in this volume’s Introduction, and “the second was the Vietnam War.” It was against this social backdrop, she continues, “against such clamor and thunder that introspective black poets had little chance to assert themselves and were swept under the steamroller.” Not only that, but “as feminist writing became more vocal and more politicized, some poets,” she writes, “began to dismantle the myths of the male-centric culture.”

So Dove’s selection of representative poets and poems is one I want to read, both to see who I missed or overlooked and to fill in any gaps in my comprehension of nation and poetic community among all groups, men and women. Not that the second half of the century heard too many such voices: It seems that many more were considered radical or way out there or too cool to be hip—you name it, poets came to be the countercultural voice whose presence served as a national conscience in a war-torn society. So I have a lot to learn. Dove’s selection includes most of my favorite poets, some whose work I am only familiar with and a few who are new to me—these are the poets I intend to read first in her brand-new The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry.

3 Responses to “Book Review: The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry”

  1. I love what Tom wrote re collecting things. So true! And I agree that peotry can be an uplifting tonic! Thanks for the great review


  2. Getting ready for my Jersey holiday weekend.


  3. Life without poetry will be boring. It’s so lovely when a poet comes up with creative analogies. It’s a talent which I myself wish I had.