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Essays

 

 


A Gathering: The Poets Laureate Anthology,
ed. Elizabeth Hun Schmidt,
by Carl Rosenstock

According to a well-regarded (albeit hoary) etymological dictionary (courtesy of W. W. Skeat), the word "anthology" derives from the Greek, and means literally a "gathering" or "collection" of flowers.

That established, let me start with a few basic premises with regard to these collections. First, I love anthologies. I own dozens of them … from the familiar Norton Anthologies, the stately Oxford anthologies with their blue and gold spines, Penguin anthologies, anthologies by Donald Hall and Donald Allen. … Even anthologies devoted to the more specific (a time, a place, a creative movement) … even the obscure, like an anthology of New York City subway poems —Token Entry. (Okay, I admit that's a cheap plug, since I'm in that anthology.) I even have an anthology of imaginary poets. Now, into those ranks, there appears a new (and ultimately fascinating) collection — The Poets Laureate Anthology — from the house Norton, no less.

There are some who disparage anthologies, particularly those of contemporary poets. But, truth be told, you can't read everything by everyone you find more or less attractive. There is simply not enough time, though anthologies often offer a fine introduction to individual poets. Besides, anthologies have an ancient pedigree — Tottel's Miscellany, the Greek Anthology … even (possibly) some books of the Bible … which leads me to …

… my second premise — any anthology is inherently an act of criticism, as important for what it excludes, as for what it includes. The best anthologies are like well-planned cocktail parties, where X is seen talking to A, and B is rubbing elbows with Y. (In that aforementioned anthology of NYC subway poems, several friends and I got to rub elbows with Paul Blackburn, Muriel Rukeyser, and Langston Hughes. Not bad company to be seen in.)

In any event, some anthologies are more exclusive, while others are more inclusive, just as some parties are large receptions, while others are small, intimate gatherings. Each good anthology has its own peculiar merits. It was through "exclusive" anthologies that I met Frank Bidart … that I met Geoffrey Hill … & it was through a particularly "inclusive" anthology — The Voice That Is Great Within Us, edited by Hayden Carruth — that I began to fully appreciate the genius of Robert Frost. What an anthology is not meant to do is allow you to fully know any given poet. You no more know that poet than you know everything about someone you meet at any party. For that knowledge, you have to explore more deeply their works … just as you would try to get to know better someone interesting you met at a party.

Once again, according to the aforementioned etymological dictionary, the word "Laureate" (as in "poet laureate") derives from the Latin word laureatus, meaning "crowned with laurel". Notice the curious etymological (& floral symmetry) in a book that is an anthology of poets laureate.

There are, or have been in various times, poets laureate for all sorts of locales, both official and unofficial. Laureates for cities and states (in this country) and for various other countries. For English speakers, perhaps the best-known poet laureate is that of England. English poets laureate have ranged from the renowned (think John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as well as C. Day Lewis, and Ted Hughes in the 20th century) as well as the eminently forgettable (think Nahum Tate, Colley Cibber, and Alfred Austin) — a mixed bag at best. And while all of this may be fascinating in its own right, it says little about the origins of our own "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry," which is at the heart of this anthology.

In the beginning, there was a chair, endowed by one Archer Milton Huntington, the purposes of which were somewhat murky at the time. Millington's philanthropy, along with all money contributed subsequently (including that of an anonymous woman "who delivered her $100,000 in a hatbox") continues to underwrite the position, which includes a $35,000/year stipend for the occupant of the position. (O ye of the ultra-right, take heed ! No lucre from the Federal coffers funds the position; no tax monies sully the palms of these poets laureate.) However, it wasn't until Archibald MacLeish became Librarian of Congress in 1939 that the position gained a title — "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress" — and something like a definition of the position. Then, in 1985, after 22 years of effort by Senator Spark Matsunaga (Democrat from Hawaii), the position was renamed "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress." Much of this information is found in the fascinating foreword by Billy Collins (2001 — 2003), and the introduction by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt.

So now to the volume at hand. The structure of the book is fairly straightforward. The Laureates are presented in reverse chronological order, beginning with W. S. Merwin (Poet Laureate when these flowers were gathered … as well as "Special Bicentennial Consultant," with Rita Dove and Louise Glück, 1999 — 2000), all the way back to Joseph Auslander, the first Poetry Consultant. For each poet, the first page of their entry is some sort of brief statement by the poet (of his or her aims for the position, or his or her aesthetics). This is followed by a brief précis of the laureate's life. The first poem for each poet (the title being set off by brackets in the table of contents) is the "signature poem". This is then followed by a generous selection of other pieces by the given laureate.

How good is this anthology, and how well does it compare to other anthologies? To begin with, the anthology is structured on a something of a conundrum. Most anthologies are organized around the poems — how those poems reflect a certain era, a certain language or country, a certain aesthetic movement … even a certain theme, e.g. NYC subway poems. All according to the critical apparatus constructed by the editor(s). Rarely are they organized around the poets, as this one is. As a result, this anthology (more than others) diverts one's attention to the poets, rather than the poems. And the results of this diversion are interesting.

First there are the small details tucked away in those biographies, and the insights they offer into the evolution of American poetry during this seventy year period. (The dates in parentheses are the dates these poets served as laureate.) Here one can trace the genetic strands that connect Louise Glück (2003 — 2004) to Leonie Adams (1948 —1949) — at 18, Glück enrolled in a workshop run by Adams. And as is better known, she subsequently studied with Stanley Kunitz (2000 — 2001, and 1974 — 1976). And it was a delightful surprise to discover that William Meredith recommended as his successor Allen Ginsberg — no two poets could be more different. In Meredith's words, "Looking back over the last thirteen appointments, since Robert Frost, I see a kind of establishment pattern, of which I am perhaps a good example. As visible as this position is, here and abroad, I think it should be representative."

One is also diverted by the seemingly never-ending consideration of who was not included in this anthology … who was not invited, so to speak, to this gathering of literary glitterati. In most anthologies, if one quarrels with who was included and who was not, the argument is with the editor. Here, it's not. Here, the quarrel is with the process by which the Poets Laureate are selected. Why William Carlos Williams (who never actually served in the position), and not Wallace Stevens ? Why Elizabeth Bishop (1949 — 1950), and not Marianne Moore ? Why Steven Spender (1965 — 1966) and not W. H. Auden ? Not being privy to how the laureates are selected, who declined, and who was passed over, it's not possible to address the omissions, which are also clearly beyond the purview of the editor.

That said, I do have one small quibble with the editor. Archibald MacLeish is closely identified with the position of Poetry Consultant. After all, he created and defined the position, though he was never actually a consultant. As a result of his not having served, he is not included in the anthology … despite my humble belief that he was a better poet than some who were. If room could have been made for that first consultant, whose name now seems to have been lost beneath the dust of time, room could have been made for MacLeish … though I should add that a quotation from MacLeish's Ars Poetica does appear as an epigraph for the anthology.

All that said, virtually all of the poets who appear in this volume were well regarded in their lifetimes, and many are still well regarded. (We're not talking here about contemporary poets, about whom it is too soon to speak.) There are surprisingly few exceptions to the above comment. Though one that springs most immediately to mind is Louis Untermeyer (1961 — 1963). In the words of the editors, "He was better known as an editor and anthologist" than as a poet.

Having constructed this elaborate edifice, let me repair to my initial metaphor. How good a party was it ? To begin with, and pace William Meredith's comment, the guest list includes a broader a spectrum of American poetry than expected. It is more diverse, both aesthetically and demographically, than some better known anthologies, though perhaps not quite as diverse as others might want. Various currents in modern American poetry — Beats, the New York School, Black Mountain — are not represented; and various groups in an ever-increasingly diverse population are likewise not represented. That said, all through the years the position has existed, there were safer choices to be made … choices more acceptable to a so-called "establishment" — better known, and often more popular, poets. The Benet's (Stephen Vincent and William Rose), or Edgar Lee Masters … even Edgar Guest … come to mind. Granted, as you move toward the present, some of the poets seem almost predictable, as are their selected works. The presence of Robert Hass (1995 — 1997), for example, is not a surprise. He has been an important figure in contemporary American poetry, as poet, critic, and champion for poetry, for a long time; and "Meditation at Lagunitas" — his signature poem — is a touchstone in an impressive body of work. But then Robert Frost's presence at the party is likewise not a surprise, nor is his signature poem — "The Gift Outright".

Just as the guest list never quite matched the tastes of the "establishment" (if such a thing has ever existed), the list was never meant to represent the "cutting edge"; and, to be honest, that's how it should be. The laureates hewed to a certain level of quality, not fashion. And just as the position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry has brought to greater public attention poets such as Kay Ryan (2008 — 2010) and Ted Kooser (2004 — 2006), this anthology may also help in the reconsideration of poets who have since seemed to drift from the light … such as Karl Shapiro (1946 — 1947), Josephine Jacobsen (1971 — 1973), or Reed Whittemore (1964 — 1965). Weighing in at more than 750 pages, the anthology offers a generous selection of poems per poet, a selection largely covering the whole of their careers. More than you will find in similar anthologies. On average, 14 poems for each poet — some a few more, some a few less — regardless of where they stand in the line of laureates.

So, how good a party was it ? Well, I now own the anthology — I get to be a fly on the wall at this somewhat extraordinary gathering. The conversations between poems, the conversations between poets, the conversations between eras, is something to behold. And the anthology will hold its own on my bookshelves.

 

Carl Rosenstock was born in Albany, New York, and grew up on a farm near there. He received a BA in Asian History from Union College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. He lives and works on the westernmost end of Long Island, in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies; he helped curate the Village Reading Series, and then curated the Night-&-Day Reading Series. http://books.wwnorton.com/books/978-0-393-06181-9/He is the Poetry Editor of Memoir Journal, as well as being on their editorial board.