Raking up the century's best poetic leaves
AMERICAN POETRY: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker 986 pp., $35
Volume Two: E.E. Cummings to May Swenson 1009 pp., $35 The Library of America
There are more poems in the world
Than empty beer bottles.
So many millions of poems have been written!
What happens to them all? Who reads them?
I remember so many I have loved at one time or another
and then lost somewhere along the way.
So writes Lindley Williams Hubbell, one of more than 200 poets represented in what are just the first two volumes of The Library of America's anthology of 20th-century American poetry. Not a household word himself, Hubbell (1901-1994), who "corresponded extensively with Gertrude Stein" and eventually settled in Japan, is just one of the many all-but-forgotten figures included, along with the usual famous suspects, in this sprawling collection.
Hubbell (an aficionado of Eastern philosophies) goes on to claim he would "gladly sacrifice" Milton's "Paradise Lost" and Wordsworth's "The Prelude" for no-longer-read classics like Sir Edwin Arnold's "The Light of Asia." But must we be forced to choose? Ideally, the truly inclusive democratic spirit would have room for all voices: no need to sacrifice one poet for another. But, alas, the time that even dedicated readers can spend reading is not infinite and, at some point, choice is inevitable.
Some people - ideologically misguided or perhaps just tone-deaf - resent the idea that one poet's work is better than another's. Yet even their opposites, elitist advocates of a poetic meritocracy, must find it disturbing that sometimes it is not merit, but the vagaries of fortune that determine whose work survives and whose disappears from sight. The most famous writers may not always be the best, but merely the best at publicizing themselves. Thus, although making choices is ultimately necessary, it is also important not to rush to judgment and to consider a wide field of candidates for one's canon.
Foremost among the many virtues of this anthology is its inclusiveness. Of course, the editors give more space to the poets who are the most esteemed at this point in time: high priests of Modernism like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, William Carlos Williams, and the equally, perhaps more greatly, gifted poets who eschewed it, such as E.A. Robinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Robert Frost. There is, however, one rather astonishing omission: W.H. Auden. One can only suppose the editors deemed the British-born Auden insufficiently American, although he lived half his life in America, became a US citizen, and is reckoned an American by no less an authoritative source than "The Oxford Companion to American Literature."
In addition to acknowledged masters, we find once-popular poets whose stock has gone down, in some cases perhaps only temporarily: Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Elinor Wylie, Sara Teasdale, Stephen Vincent Bent, to name a few. Here, too, are African-American poets, like Claude McKay, Angelina Grimk, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, and Melvin B. Tolson.
There is even a sampling of songwriters, from blues and folk artists like Ma Rainey and Woody Guthrie to Tin Pan Alley greats like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, and Ira Gershwin.
And there's a host of others belonging to no particular classification - certainly not to any of the classifications currently in use, like the feisty freethinker Charles Erskine Scott Wood.
Selections are ample: from Stevens alone, 41 poems, including "Sunday Morning," "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," "The Auroras of Autumn," and "The Rock." The variety of styles is dazzling: the elegiac romanticism of John Crowe Ransom, the irony of Edgar Lee Masters, the harsh beauty of Robinson Jeffers, the coy inanity of Gertrude Stein, and the buoyant wit of Ogden Nash, who playfully scolded his poetic betters for overindulgence in simile: "No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;/ Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof woof woof?"
One poem I sorely missed, however, was Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Conscientious Objector," a pacifist anthem that goes beyond mere pacifism to a wider affirmation of life: "I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll./ I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either./ Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man's door./ Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death?"
The volumes are organized chronologically, according to the poets' birth dates. Volume One, beginning with Henry Adams (b. 1832), ends with Dorothy Parker (b. 1893). Volume Two leads off with E.E. Cummings (b. 1894) and ends with May Swenson (b. 1913).
The countless American poets born in 1914 or thereafter will vie for inclusion in volumes yet to come. The poignancy of such a process is hardly lost on the poets themselves, as can be seen in Conrad Aiken's "Tetlestai":
Is there a horn we should not blow as proudly
For the meanest of us all, who creeps his days,
Guarding his heart from blows, to die obscurely?
Say that I have no name, no gifts, no power,
Am only one of millions, mostly silent;
One who came with eyes and hands and a heart,
Looked on beauty, and loved it, and then left it.
The collection's format proves a mixed blessing. The reader, confronted with a vast spectrum of poetic styles and themes, looks in vain for any introductory remarks that would put the poems in context. The biographical sketches at the end of each volume provide only the kind of information one might find on a professional rsum. Although the dates of the poets' lives are given, the poems themselves are undated, making it more difficult to consider them in a historical context.
But there may be real wisdom in this editorial parsimony. Tastes change. Beliefs change. The criteria for judging or interpreting poetry are in constant flux. Perhaps it is best to let the poems, free from critical comment or explanation, speak for themselves.
*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society