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.

But surely "the peanut crunching crowd" has had enough of the traumas of confessional poets. Larkin represents a more civilized point of view when he says that Plath's poems may be "to the highest degree original," but "How valuable they are depends on how highly we rank the expression of experience with which we can in no sense identify, and from which we can only turn with shock and sorrow." This is a welcome reaffirmation of the essential sanity of art.

The notion that art should be irrational, irreverent, nihilistic, ugly, formless, offensive--in fine, provocative nonsense--has stultified poetry as much or more than it has so many of the other arts. Lehman fully subscribes to this hare-brained aesthetics. How else can he justify subjecting his readers to the ravings of Anne Sexton, Bernadette Mayer, and Sharon Olds?

Many of the poets featured here have been subsidized by writing programs, and it shows. In 1985, Kingsley Amis wrote to the Times protesting that "Subsidy damages art by tending to foster irresponsibility, showiness, cliquism and self-indulgence in the artist. At the same time the public's power to choose what art it wants by financial pressure on the artist is dangerously weakened." A typical product of these mills of imposture is Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney's successor at Harvard. For those who might find her poems somewhat elliptical, Helen Vendler explains that when Graham "comes to a concept not yet conceivable she leaves a gap in the middle of a sentence." How little this lazy-mindedness resembles Shakespeare's enraptured air:

which, but for vacancy

Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too

And made a gap in nature.

The anthology is marred by cronyism. Lehman, the editor of The Best American Poetry Series, repeatedly puffs this dubious publication and its approved poets. There is back-scratching here on an Olympian scale. No less than a third of the thousand-odd pages are given over to the people whose reputations Lehman makes his living touting. No wonder so much of the book showcases our own "clumsy or insipid versifiers," "slavish mimics of currently fashionable modes," and "opportunistic purveyors of doggerel on transient occasions."

Many of the entries have been oddly chosen. "America the Beautiful" is included because, as Lehman says, "it is both easier to sing and less bellicose" than "The Star Spangled Banner." A man named William Bronk is included for no apparent reason other than that "his poetry is concerned almost obsessively with epistemological questions." Not all readers will understand why the campy loquacity of Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler merit such generous representation. Or why we need quite so much Theodore Roethke.

A steady storm of correspondences!

A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,

And in broad day the midnight come again!

A man goes far to find out what he is--

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,

All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

If this were a deliberate spoof on Yeats it would be amusing. But no, Roethke meant it to be taken seriously, as does Lehman. In his introduction, Lehman says that posterity is "intolerant of fakes and indifferent to reputations." It is also intolerant of editors who traffic in false reputations.

Richard Ellmann excelled David Lehman in two crucial respects. He knew how to anthologize major talents, giving readers a good critical sense of their development and variety. His Robert Lowell, for example, is much richer, less uniform, than Lehman's, even though Lehman had the advantage of being able to choose from Lowell's last things. And he favored poets over poems, which suits a good anthology, designed as it should be to acknowledge achievement rather than herald promise.

Lehman too often misrepresents his major poets by selections that are either perfunctory or perverse. While there are no surprises in his Eliot, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens, he misrepresents Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, who, for all their unfashionableness, remain two of our most talented poets. And he pays too much attention to small fry. Where Ellmann included 78 poets, Lehman includes 210. One can appreciate Lehman's boldness in trying to treat the new with generosity; but, after all, too much of it is mediocre--even though we can all agree with James Merrill that

The eloquence to come

Will be precisely what we cannot say

Until it parts the lips.

Meanwhile, readers will question Lehman's erratic editing. Why give so much more space to Kenneth Koch than John Crowe Ransom? Why give 10 pages to Billy Collins? Why give any space at all to Robert Bly? Why include W.H. Auden? If residency makes foreign-born poets eligible, why not include Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney? And if one insists on including Auden, why dredge up something as waterlogged as "In Memory of Sigmund Freud"? For all the Britons convinced that Wystan lost his groove when he moved here and became, in Larkin's words, "too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving," this poor poem could be Exhibit A. Why an American would want to include it in an American anthology is baffling. And there is no justification for giving 26 pages to John Ashbery's "snapped-off perceptions."

In the preface of his recent Oxford Book of English Verse, Christopher Ricks reaffirmed the special place of anthologies in our lives: "Each of us remembers what, once upon a time, an anthology did for her or him. I shall not myself ever forget the anthologies that--an age ago--gave young me such pleasure, and affably trained me to find new pleasures for myself." It is impossible imagining Lehman's book having any comparable effect on the young today. Or on anyone else. It is an ill-conceived, incoherent, unrewarding book. Lovers of poetry deserve better.

Edward Short is at work on a book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.

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