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Raking up the century's best poetic leaves

By Merle Rubin / April 13, 2000



AMERICAN POETRY: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

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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.