The Magazine

Rhyme without Reason

There's 'something-nasty-in-the-greenhouse' about this anthology.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The Oxford Book of American Poetry

Edited by David Lehman

Oxford, 1,200 pp., $35

NO PUBLISHER HAS PUT OUT better anthologies of verse over the years than Oxford University Press.

Even The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, edited by William Butler Yeats in 1936, perhaps the most controversial of all the volumes, was not without its good points. If Yeats had an eccentric view of what constituted the "modern," his special pleading for decidedly unmodern poets made for lively reading. Who but Yeats would have made such extravagant claims for Oliver St. John Gogarty? Of course, excluding Wilfred Owen on the grounds that "passive suffering is not a theme for poetry" was mad, and including the ramblings of Harold Nicolson's wife, Vita Sackville-West, didn't show the best of taste. But he included a good smattering of the fin de siècle poets that he had befriended in his youth. If Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson were not one's cup of tea, there was still that unforgettable introduction, which by any reckoning was a masterpiece of Yeatsian blather.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse, first published in 1900 and revised in 1939, epitomized the taste of the bookmen that John Gross wrote of so memorably in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969). Q may have had his blind spots, but he delineated a great tradition, which most readers still accept. Helen Gardner certainly accepted a good deal of it for her New Oxford Book of English Verse (1972). An incisive critic of T.S. Eliot, John Milton, and the Metaphysical Poets, she improved on Q's selection by adding ampler selections from Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, and Robert Browning, and restoring John Dryden and Alexander Pope to their rightful place. Yet in the same way that Q's selection evolved from Francis Palgrave, Gardner's evolved from Q. The newest collection by Christopher Ricks, published in 1999, brings their combined labors up to date. The advocate of the poet in Bob Dylan is an unrepentant traditionalist.

More recently, Oxford books have enriched the way we think of whole periods. Roger Lonsdale's New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (2003) showed what exuberant, unconventional, racy verse was being composed throughout a period that, for years, had been thought exclusively neoclassical. In his introduction, Lonsdale made an important point: Yes, he found much unfamiliar verse that was "vigorous, humorous, idiosyncratic," but he also found a lot of predictable dross.

Clumsy or insipid versifiers, feebly malignant dunces, slavish mimics of currently fashionable modes, opportunistic purveyors of doggerel on transient occasions, blank verse moralists of stupefying turgidity, religiose maunderers of such lameness as hardly to qualify as pedestrian.

Lonsdale reshaped our view of 18th-century verse not by simply admitting whatever was unfamiliar--he clearly acknowledged that most of what had been forgotten in the century's verse was deservedly forgotten--but by admitting of the unfamiliar only what was worth admitting and then letting it realign the familiar. His aim was less "to subvert traditional accounts of the nature and development of eighteenth-century poetry than to supplement them." One can see a similar continuity in the Oxford books of American poetry edited by F.O. Matthiessen in 1950 and Richard Ellmann in 1976. However much it might exasperate the present radicalized academy, anthology-making, by its very nature, is an evolutionary business. Its object is not to "redefine the canon," or make quotas supplant critical judgment, but to identify a living tradition.

If David Lehman had any tradition in mind in compiling The Oxford Book of American Poetry it seems peculiarly fractured, amorphous, amnesiac. Many of his choices seem based on a kind of sentimental bohemianism. On what other basis would one include so much of Gary Snyder or Allen Ginsberg? Lehman is profoundly impressed by the fact that Ted Berrigan never had a bank account or a regular job. Why the incompetent should have any special facility for poetry is never spelled out.

Then, too, he has a soft spot for the irrational. The more tortured the poet, the better the poetry. One can see this in the exorbitant space he accords Sylvia Plath. In a piece about Plath, aptly called "Horror Poet," Philip Larkin noted that "Plath was taken with the work of Theodore Roethke . . . She certainly picked up his something-nasty-in-the-greenhouse manner; she too, could find the creepiness in things. . . . She was also . . . ready to exploit her own traumas if they would make poems." For Lehman, this would be belaboring the obvious: Of course poets should exploit their traumas.