America’s coming-of-age in poetic form.
Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By WYATT PRUNTY
The Open Door begins with Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and zooms from there, highlighting 100 years of modern poetry, including that of Louise Bogan, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, H. D., T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and William Butler Yeats.
Descendants of the modernists are even more numerous: A. R. Ammons, W. H. Auden, John Berryman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Basil Bunting, Seamus Heaney, Randall Jarrell, Donald Justice, William Meredith, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Richard Wilbur, Charles Wright, James Wright.
The list goes on.
Poetry is a monthly that publishes many more poems per year than quarterlies and other little magazines. Add to that its being in continuous production for 100 years and numbers alone make the case for just how representative the magazine is. This new anthology provides a broad range of practice, extending from formal to free verse (Auden and Wilbur to Moore and Williams), and from a poetry of self- expression (Plath’s occluded fronts, for example) to the dry weathers of Donald Justice and Thom Gunn.
Harriet Monroe founded Poetry in 1912 with the stated purpose that it remain “free of entangling alliances with any single class or school.” The editors of The Open Door, Don Share and Christian Wiman, have remained faithful to Monroe’s principle. That said, The Open Door is nevertheless a child of Poetry magazine, which, in turn, was the offspring of modernism, a movement with many “alliances.” One modernist trait that involved “alliances” is experimentation, and that activity is readily evident in these pages, as the title suggests.
Over the course of the 20th century, a number of schools experimented with poetry: Imagists to Confessional poets, the New York School to the New Formalists. And while The Open Door emphasizes no one movement, there are numerous examples of innovations which characterized different parts of modernism.
Poetry may have started as a little magazine, but it has grown into an institution. Today it enjoys a large circulation and a generous endowment. It does, nevertheless, still retain the accessibility (one part of which is simply small size) of the little magazine; Poetry’s editors do remain interested in new work and are eclectic in choice where subject and style are concerned. Its century-long run has given the anthology a large net to pull through a modern and late-modern sea of poems, and, facilitated by a thoughtful introduction, The Open Door offers an interesting sample of that sea. (Meanwhile, also in the spirit of accessibility, Poetry keeps all past issues of the magazine online and free to the public.)
While The Open Door could be larger, the decision to limit it to 100 poems led to careful selection. Share and Wiman have operated in the spirit of Glenn Miller, who said that his band would make it on good arrangements. The first poem is an early version of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” which appeared in Poetry in 1913. That choice plays in response to what readers are accustomed to seeing in print today. Poetry’s version, reproduced by The Open Door, reads:
Today’s standard anthology reads:
The vividness of Pound’s description, along with his brevity—and, in the early version, his use of spacing—indicate his interest in exact language and in the power of the image—what Pound famously called “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
These are classroom matters today, but they were not so when Poetry published Pound’s poem in 1913. The spacing seen in the earlier printing of “Metro” reminds us of Pound’s restless innovation and of the artistic influence he had on succeeding generations of poets. So, to emphasize the point, while Poetry may have striven to avoid “alliances” and “schools,” the poets who gave purpose to its pages did not.
Pound, as an example once again, was a great proponent not only of Imagism but of T. S. Eliot, H. D., James Joyce, and others. The Open Door reminds us of the vitality of modern and late-modern poetry. Poetry “makes nothing happen,” as Auden famously observed. Certainly poetry’s language is non-utilitarian. But by that measure, it is free to look to the center of most anything that is happening. And by covering 100 years of poetry, The Open Door offers an ample record of such observation.
Another early modernist landmark included here is Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Poetry published that poem in 1915, and its unique power was felt immediately. Pound and Eliot, plus the other modernists included here, amount to a well-earned crow on Poetry’s part, celebrating the large changes that resulted from little-known writers publishing in a little magazine.
Wallace Stevens’s early contributions provide other examples of success. When asked by Harriet Monroe for information about himself to be placed in a contributor’s note for the publication of “Phases,” Stevens wrote in reply, “My biography is, necessarily, very brief; for I have published nothing.” In fact, Stevens had published before. (And with this exchange in mind, one smiles over the inclusion of the Stevens poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” in which the speaker states, I was the world in which I walked.)
Then there is Marianne Moore’s “No Swan So Fine,” in which Moore says,
The spareness of language and the clarity of eye evident in Moore’s poem supplants what the modernists considered to have been 19th-century windiness. Starkness and clarity became benchmarks for generations to follow, and examples of it have been published regularly in the pages of Poetry.
Not all modernist poetry is spare, however, so one wonders why
“I see no objection to cutting down,” Stevens wrote Monroe. But, using language that resonates with another great Stevens poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” he did require a certain order for the stanzas, saying, “The order is necessary to the idea.” As Pound’s early and late versions of “Metro” suggest, and as Stevens had in mind when he wrote Harriet Monroe, ideas that gave order were foremost to the modernist enterprise.
There are other poets here who provide great moments—Auden and “The Shield of Achilles,” for example, or William Butler Yeats and his late poem “The Fisherman.” But perhaps the most interesting poems are ones that are not so well known. “Look” by Laura Kasischke has a jammed-prose appearance and a fierceness of account that makes it a high-speed chase through a domestic odyssey of near-Biblical violence.
The poem opens, Look! I bear into this room a platter piled high with the rage my / mother felt toward my father!
And it concludes:
Or there is Craig Arnold’s “Meditation on a Grapefruit,” which finds that, in an early morning’s ritual over a grapefruit in the kitchen—when all is possible / before the agitations of the day—one encounters
One distinguishing characteristic of the younger poets is a tendency to rely upon personal experience. Although Auden and other moderns can be quite personal, the focus found in the poems by the younger Kasischke and Arnold, for instance, is different in degree. Some of this was initiated by the modernists’ first offspring, the poets of Randall Jarrell’s generation and those somewhat younger: Robert Lowell, who is not included in this anthology; John Berryman, who is included; W. D. Snodgrass, who is not; Sylvia Plath, who is. It should be added that Auden played a significant role in Jarrell’s thinking, as Jarrell’s essay on Auden, “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry,” makes clear. But a perspective which, at first, was mostly unique to Jarrell has become general, and, if anything, focused at an even closer range, making Jarrell a pivotal figure for what has followed.
Jarrell’s poem “Protocols,” which is about Birkenau, is placed in the consciousness of a child: They had water in a pipe—like rain, but hot, the child tells us. Then, in a voice from the dream-like state in which the child has been for part of the time, we are told, The water there is deeper than the world / And I was tired and fell in in my sleep / And the water drank me. That is what I think.
The poem ends by fusing two levels of consciousness (dreamlike and sentient) in order to state one fact:
The alternation between italics and roman type is just the sort of physical tinkering modernists like Pound and Eliot, or H. D. and cummings, would employ. But in Jarrell’s poem, the scale of drama—the Holocaust—has been condensed to a child’s helplessness. That shift reflects an increased reliance upon a personal perspective for a poem’s authority. One reason poets writing after World War II have given experience an increased emphasis has been their increased doubt about the reliability of reason, language, the tradition, and
On the other hand, here is a poem that, despite the author’s displacement during World War II, is personal in focus yet farsighted in expectation: Lisel Mueller’s “In the Thriving
The poem ends, Now in the thriving season of love / when the bud relents into flower / . . . / love grows by what it remembers of love.
In a darker vein of family recollection, here is Anne Stevenson’s “Inheriting My Grandmother’s Nightmare”:
And Belle Randall’s “A Child’s Garden of Gods,” part of which reads,
Belle Randall and the others are to be admired for the control they maintain over complex situations. Much of that control is the result of such modernist virtues as spareness in description and statement. Randall’s “china dolls” and “birds on wire” are good examples.
The focus on children reminds one of Randall Jarrell again, in such poems as “Protocols,” “A Sick Child,” “Moving,” “The Lost Children,” and “Mother, Said the Child.” The concision Mueller, Stevenson, and Randall display suggests modern control, but their subject matter involves vulnerability. There is a degree of understatement here worthy of the moderns, but it comes with an emphasis on things personal.
Then there are more recent, and perhaps more distilled, versions of the personal. A. E. Stallings puts matters this way: To leave the city / Always takes a quarrel. . . . But if instead / Of turning back, we drive into the day, / We forget the things we didn’t say. Her poem “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia” ends:
This last line exemplifies another way modernist objectivity persists in what otherwise are the mostly quieter and more personal realizations of those poets who have followed the modernists.
The Open Door gives good representation to several generations of poets. It allows an insightful read of poetry’s barometric pressure over the last century, and it reminds us what a large role a small beginning (such as a little magazine) can play in a culture in which poetry may “make nothing happen,” but it makes sense.
Wyatt Prunty, Carlton professor of English at the University of the South (Sewanee), is the author, most recently, of The Lover’s Guide to Trapping.