NOTE: I'm posting this from a remote location, and so I have a lot of links and photos and diagrams and I can't include them at the moment. I'll update this post next week to include more of the visual stuff to go along with this big lump of text. AND I should be able to get up the Vrzhu Research Bureau's recent product research in the realm of robopoetics, and unmanned poetry delivery apparatus. Thanks for you patience! -
Don Chiasson in the NYT this Sunday pans David Lehman's anthology Best American Neurotic -- sorry! -- Erotic Poems. Part of his attack is unfair since he namechecks W. H. Auden, who settled in, for a while, but is not, American. And he also briefly attacks anthologies (of one poem per poet) in general:
"single poems in anthologies . . . cannot possibly convey a great writer’s force."
Now, anthology bashing goes on around here all the time: in blogs, at conferences, on street corners and in pool halls. These rants fall into two camps. In the first, like Mr. Chiasson above, they assert that anthologies suck because they cannot represent, or they misrepresent, a poet's esse, his essential being qua poetry. Thus, they perform a disservice to the poet and reader both. Anthologies lie.
In the second camp, it is argued that anthologies are tools of repression, hiding and disappearing those disenfranchised poets or groups of poets that are excluded from them. They present a history whitewashed of undesirables, poets who are effectively silenced because they cannot be heard. Anthologies are the Big Lie.
I am sure both these positions have merit, but I have yet to see either of them argued 100% convincingly. The problem with the first objection to anthologies -- that they misrepresent a writer -- is that it views poems in anthologies strictly from the point of view of the poet, and not from the reader's POV. Yes, this is a grave disservice to the poet, but from a reader's perspective, I suspect it matters little.
The general reader, to the extent she still exists, differs from the more specialized poetry reader. The general reader is apt to be not only satisfied with a single poem by an author, but considers this one of the defining characteristics of being literate. The difference between the general reader and the more specialized poetry reader is that the former probably knows "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," Sandburg's "Fog" and perhaps a half dozen others ("Richard Corey," the beginnings of "Hiawatha" and "The Wasteland") and the latter is, of course, a poet.
The General Reader, in general, is immune to the value in reading all the works of one author, and sees little advantage to reading an entire oeuvre, whether is it Dickens, or Hardy, or Pound. This is not intended to denigrate the GR-- it is a perfectly defensible and reasonable position. And, if we wished to be harsh and Draconian, why shouldn't a poet have to stand or fall on the basis of one poem? I'm pretty sure Frost would be able to endure having Stopping By, and nothing else, survive the ages. Unfair? Yes. Your point is . . .?
On the other hand, the second objection to anthologies probably has, or had, some merit. Most people in the U.S. are going to be exposed to poetry in school only through some kind of Norton-ish anthology. And such anthologies tend to the canonical in the worst sense.
But for two reasons, I don't think this objection has a lot of purchase these days. First, I can't think of a group, hitherto excluded from the canon, that does not now have at least one anthology of its own. While ALL these anthologies can't be part of the curricula, they are available, and give all sorts of poets a chance to be heard. Second, I'm not sure how to solve the problem of a student's first exposure to poetry being through something like a Norton. You can't assign everything ever written. And to replace Norton with an anthology of poets excluded from the Norton is to exchange one oppressive regime for another. Surely that's not the gist of the objection, not that some are excluded, but that I'M excluded?
Anyway, three more points in this review of a review.
Mr. Chiasson doesn't like theme-based anthologies:
"Theme-based anthologies have the unintended effect of making poets seem trapped by their subjects: there is no more variation among poets in this book than there would be in a book called, for example, 'The Best American Patriotic Poems.'"
There sure are a lot of theme-based anthologies out there, it's true. Like, for example, every single anthology ever collected, whether the theme is "best" or "dogs" or "English" or "15th century." Yup, all themes, and all trapping poets like flies in molasses. Maybe he means some themes are worse about this than others, if the theme ends in -ic for example.
Next point. What is the reviewer trying to say in this sentence?
"Lusty poems by straight men are, in our era, usually prone to failure — though a cat lover might appreciate the literary power, lost on me . . . "
Is he saying that lusty poems about cats by "straight" (the quotes are everso needed) men can be appreciated by other "straight" men who love cats? Men who love cats and the lusty poems they write? Lusty poems by straight men stink, but poems about catlove might have real power, though I wouldn't know because I'm not into that? The "but" in the quoted sentence tasks me. I cannot for the life of me parse it.
Last point. This:
"The first is a sampler of faultless poems about sex by dead Americans like . . ."
And here are the first main definitions of the preposition "by:"
- Close to; next to.
- With the use or help of; the agency or action of.
- Up to and beyond; past.
- In the period of; during.
- With respect to.
- In the name of.
I tried substituting each of the above phrases for the word "by" in the sentence, and, I got to tell you, the results were pretty icky.
* * * * * * * * *
Among the vast holdings here in the Vrzhu Research Bureau are thousands of files from now defunct poetry organizations and poetry investigative groups. The VRB is in the process of converting these files to indexed CD-ROMs to preserve what are already fragile and decaying documents that have been stored in damp basements, airless attics, and garages across the country for decades.
Although many of these files are of little interest to the non-professional archeopoetologist, there are occasionally findings that are certain to be of interest to general poetry aficionados (such as yourselves).
Here below we provide the extant remains of what appears to be a monograph from the legendary American Poetry Coalition. The APC was the successor organization to the early 20th century ASPCA – The American Society for the Promulgation of Culture to Anybody. Due to its acronymic similarity to another, more well-known, organization, the ASPCA suffered severely declining membership throughout the 1930’s and officially disbanded in late 1938. Some members of the literary wing of the ASPCA formed the APC just prior to the US entry in World War II.
There have always been persistent rumors that, after the war, the APC was funded by certain federal law organizations or intelligence gathering centers, or both. Although the VBR is in not in a position to either confirm or deny these allegations (we merely spread them), the document below may shed some light on some of the APC’s more, shall we say, covert efforts.
Forensic evidence places the date of this monograph not earlier than 1957 and certainly no later than 1960, possibly early 1961.
Monograph on the Nature and Operation of Poetry in the United States, with Addenda on its Infiltration of [illegible].
There have been insistent allegations of the existence of poetry in the United States. There have also been denials.
The purposes of this monograph are threefold:
1. to explain what poetry is
2. to present the evidence indicating poetry does exist in the United States
3. to describe how poetry operates.
Fortified with this knowledge, all persons charged with critical and cultural responsibilities should be in a better position to cope with poetry.
This monograph is written in two sections. The scope of the first [illegible section] and (d) basic current forms through which [illegible].
It will be [page ii] understood that poetry is a highly clandestine operation most difficult to penetrate by informants. Therefore this study was not limited to data secured from informants. It goes beyond this source to include all available material emanating from other cultural organizations and public sources, both in the United States and Europe.
[page xiii] . . . -day poetry controls [illegible] to the extent that it dominates certain cultural operations wherever it can, pushing poems to the limit [illegible] would mean either [illegible] of a productive society upon which is feeds or a popular rising against it in a wave of indifference that would encompass the destruction of its elements.
1. Poetry is a [illegible] traditional combination of words and rhythm and pseudo-[illegible]. It imposes an invisible weight on communities, depending for its authority on the self-importance it inspires in its members through domineering control of local journals and “coffeehouses.”
2. The most typical poetry figure is the poet. The power he commands is slight in comparison with the local Laureate (or “prizewinner”). The latter has risen from the ranks and enjoys a relationship to other poets like that of a feudal [illegible] to the local community is also one of prestige and power. He expects to be deferred to at readings and local ventures, from which he extracts a percentage of the credit or praise. He may be sought by non-poets for articles or interviews on cultural, political, or other matters, and for arbitration of “contests” though in doing so the winners become obligated, sometimes dangerously so, to the Laureate.
3. The basic and often only unit of poetry organization is the “school.” A school is usually geographic or local in nature. Members are admitted to it if they are acceptable to the local [illegible]. Prerequisites for admission include proof of capacity for lyric [illegible]; adherence to the traditional code of “Homerta,” i.e., silence in the presence of bad poems and dependence on “poetic justice,” an elaborate exchange of ritual praise or “blurbs;” and mentorship by [page xiv] someone already a poet.
4. The traditional poetry school is not a compact, centrally organized society or party such as the Communist Party, but a collection of poets autonomous in their own practices and loosely federated when federated at all. The pattern of connections among local “schools” depends chiefly upon the existing relationships between individual poets and prizewinners. Powerful poets meet occasionally to hold court or give readings, and they often defer to a poet of supreme prestige. The poetic system of administration is primitive. The leader is the one with the “psychological drop,” i.e., the one who inspires the greatest envy and [illegible].
5. Recently, poetry has been accentuated and has become better organized in Universities than it was formerly. The possibility exists that poetry has begun to achieve greater centralization and hegemony through the establishment of MFA programs and regional/local workshops and writing centers.
6. Poetry incursions have included [illegible].
7. Chief among poetry’s modus operandi are readings, open mics, workshops and many other [illegible] though persistent emphasis over many decades has been upon publication and the operation of journals and [illegible].
8. Poetry is distinguished from other arts and cultural activities by its traditional exclusiveness; close ties among its adherents; [page xv] its consistent modus operandi; the outstanding opaqueness of its elements, and the proclivity of small groups of its elements to claim tradition and authenticity over much larger numbers of other groups.
9. [illegible] . . . exists between [illegible] fails to indicate that [illegible] but this does not mean that Chicago, New York City or any other metropolitan center can be considered the “world headquarters” for poetry.
10. The [illegible] elements [illegible] has never been successfully accomplished. Reasons for failure have included: (1) the [illegible] . . . of others; (4) the traditional and consequently chiefly tacit and understood nature of poetry; (5) the institutional [illegible] i.e., as known practitioners are suppressed, new opportunities are favored by a conditioned public, especially its [illegible] elements and those are made vulnerable by adherence to [illegible] opportunities that enrich some poetry leaders and increase their power; and (8) the perennial problem faced by a literate public in attempting to prove that poetry either means something or has some individual or social use. Although poetry presents the ostensible appearance of a single, cohesive society, it has no written constitution, nor does it operate in formal fashion. Admission is by informal understanding, advancement is by prestige and [page xvi] self-imposition.
13. [illegible] . . . exists as the most [illegible] and extensive [illegible] ever to have been foisted and imposed upon the public. To [illegible] represents the most deeply entrenched and [illegible] to have manifested itself in the [illegible]. This challenge extends [illegible] to all [illegible] in the United States.