The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry

Reviewed By

It is clear from Dove’s introduction to the anthology, and from her selections, that she just wanted an engaging, informative, high -quality collection. She succeeded.

Dear Readers:

Rarely does a review warrant a foreward, not to mention an afterword. I hope what follows explains
what I’ve done.

FOREWORD

In an uncharacteristically inept, mean-spirited piece in the November 24th New York Review of Books, Helen Vendler, whom I have praised here and elsewhere, failed to prove that her view of 20th century American verse should prevail over Rita Dove’s choices and thinking as expressed in The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, which Dove edited. Dove is a former U. S. Poet Laureate, and her December 23rd NYRB response was graceful, reasonable and pained. The poetry blogosphere, to no surprise, exploded in the time between essays, and people also noted Vendler’s final words in December : “I have written my review and I stand by it.”

It is clear from Vendler’s review that she wants a canon carved in marble. It is clear from Dove’s introduction to the anthology, and from her selections, that she just wanted an engaging, informative, high -quality collection. She succeeded.

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Not long ago I would have said of many, “Their work will last.” Now I believe it is more fair-minded to say, “Their work deserves to last,” because changes in the way we access words are taking place so quickly. The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is an immensely welcome addition to the mix and it covers A LOT of worthwhile, thrilling territory in a relatively small amount of space. Let’s hope it’s soon available electronically, or issued in paperback with a CD.

The collection is a valid model of an establishment icon. Guggenheims, Pulitzers, Lenore Marshall Awards, National Book Awards, Lannan Awards, Yale Younger Poets Awards, National Endowment For the Arts Grants and , Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, before and after the post was renamed U. S. Poet Laureate—these are among the accolades in brief biographies of most contributors. If I had the time, or an intern, it would be interesting to count how many have won each prize mentioned.

Dove notes that she has benefited from the poetry establishment even while feeling invisible at one of its hallowed institutions – The Iowa Writers Workshop, where many contributors also studied. “Invisible” always jumps out at me because I am married to a Chinese-American well-recognized in his field, and he sometimes uses that word to describe his early professional life. Dove is understandably sympathetic to writers who have felt that way, but her sympathies and ear are also broad.

The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry will be gratifying to teachers, novice readers or writers, and anyone wishing to know more about how writers responded to the twentieth century. Thanks to the age of Google, I can hope that the one fine poem by Olga Broumas will encourage those unfamiliar with her to hit the search engines . Broumas is especially intriguing because, like former US Poet Laureate Charles Simic, who is also included, English is not her native tongue. Thanks to “Facing It,” by Yusef Komunyakaa, I am reminded not just of the Vietnam War, but the memorial in Washington that caused such an uproar. The first few lines mirror the sculptor’s stated intentions and the poem continues, gaining a power as strong the memorial itself, and the offerings left at its base.

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit : No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.

T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens are of course represented, along with Robert Lowell, Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Denise Levertov, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and the barely visible (outside of poetry circles) but worthy Pulitzer-winner, Henry Taylor. I wish Dove had had more space, so that, for example, readers might learn that Maxine Kumin’s “How It Is ’’ was written for her dear friend Anne Sexton, and that the women studied together and critiqued each other’s poems. It’s worth mentioning that Frank Bidart, who has a poem here, also co-edited the defining Lowell collection and that Lowell taught at Iowa. Philip Levine, the current U. S. Poet Laureate, was among his students, and is well represented. In a recent talk in San Francisco, Levine mentioned Komunyakaa as someone who also deserves the post. Amen.

Much has been made about terrible screeds Dove chose, by June Jordan and Amiri Baraka. Part of what makes these choices so painful to see is that both have written far better poetry that addresses their anger than what these lines spew:

…..Look at the Liberal
Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat
& puke himself into eternity.

That’s from Baraka’s ‘’SOS’’, and June Jordan’s, “I am the history of rape,” is from “Poem About My Rights,” which is grandiose and unsubtle, accurate and sincere. The very good news is that these instances are anomalous and that there is so much compelling poetry in this collection that no review can do it justice, any more than any anthology as fine as this can do justice to every poet in it.

Sometimes there are reasons beyond the control and desires of editors when considering whom to include, so it’s a disappointment and a relief to have Dove note that estate complications kept Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Sterling Brown out of the volume . Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Palmer, Harryette Mullen, Frederick Seidel, John Ashbery, Stephen Dunn. All are in, thankfully. Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Chin. William Meredith. Robert Hayden. I’m not listing these poets in order of appearance. I’m saying READ THEM HERE. READ MORE OF THEM ELSEWHERE. In “Nocturne : Blue Waves,” Laurie Sheck writes that “There are times when the mind/knows no wholeness.” Fine poetry addresses that condition and with the kind of particulars Sheck goes on to name, begins the healing.

Jorie Graham, also high on my list for U. S. Poet Laureate, has a poem in this volume with a number of lines that serve as metaphor for why Dove has succeeded so well. I will end with lines from “San Sepolcro’’ :

This is
what the living do : go in.
It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening
from eternity
to privacy, quickening.
Inside, at the heart,
is tragedy, the present moment
forever stillborn,
but going in, each breath
is a button
coming undone, something terribly
nimble-fingered
finding all of the stops.

This IS what the living do, and this book is a welcome trail-marker on the way to going in.

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AFTERWORD : Anyone who has been seriously reading poetry for more than a few years will be glad to own this book and will probably wish for additional poets to be included, not at the expense of anyone else. Here are a few of my choices : Louise Gluck, Fanny Howe, Ed Roberson, C. S. Giscombe, Jane Hirshfield, Brad Leithauser, Amy Clampitt, Charles Martin, August Kleinzahler.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →