Are These the Poems to Remember?

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Topham/The Image Works
Attending a reception for Edith and Osbert Sitwell (seated at center) are, clockwise from top right, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Charles Henri Ford, William Rose Benet, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, Gore Vidal, and Jose Garcia Villa, Gotham Book Mart, New York City, November 9, 1948

Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.

Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?

Anthologies are wonderful for the young: a single page catches fire, and a new attachment—sometimes a lifelong one—takes hold. And since space is limited, the famous poems understandably end up being the chosen ones: for Robert Hayden, “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday,” “Those Winter Sundays,” “Frederick Douglass,” and “Middle Passage”; for Robert Lowell, “‘To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,'” “Skunk Hour,” and “For the Union Dead”; for Marianne Moore, “The Fish” and “Poetry.” Coming as a young person to this anthology, I would have loved finding such poems. But I would still have been hungry for more than the six pages here of Wallace Stevens, more than the single poem by James Merrill.

Dove not only decides for many, rather than few, poets. She also decides (except in certain obligatory moments)…


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