This is the way of bird’s-eyeing the whole scene. Buy an anthology, check what you know and find out things you don’t. Have your prejudices confirmed, have your mind stretched. Discover new roads, find that the alley you are in has a dead-end. Be excited. Be bored to death.
Poetry anthologies have always been the great markers of their age. Editors rush to have their selection end up being the one. And out there are some great selections (although inevitably not everyone will agree). Donald Allen and George Buttrick’s The Postmoderns, Mike Horovitz’s Children of Albion from 1969, Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 from 1970, Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos from 1996, Hulse, Kennedy & Morley’s The New Poetry of 1993, Armitage and Crawford’s The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945 from 1998.
The editors of these books have become the taste makers of their age. They are the ones who have decided which names should mean something to the wider public. This on the basis that the wider public are not capable of buying individual books but will chance their arms on an anthology, I suppose. They are also the markers of trends and new departures. Is it time now to leave the mid-century middle-class white male dominance? Should we shift across to poetry from immigrants, travellers, mobile populations, work translated from minority tongues, regionalist, feminist, non-academic rather than university researched, the output of creative writing departments instead of work from the genuinely inspired, wild edge pushing texts in place of measured steady verses, performance work rather than verse from the page?
The anthologists make these decisions. Unconsciously we follow their leads. Sometimes we do.
And if you are operator on the scene, a writer in the field, is your work included? Or have you once again been left out in the cold? I’m in Ric Caddel and Peter Quartermain’s Other – British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 and Allnutt, D’Aguir, Edwards and Mottram’s The New British Poetry but not in Keith Tuma’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry. There you go. Am I upset? I don't know.
Does any of this matter? If you are not included in one book then you’ll be in the next, perhaps. If you are not then set out and edit your own. That’s the way the poetry scene rolls and tumbles.
I’m not included in the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove either. Dove, her of the Pulitzer prize, former poet laureate of America and star of Barak Obama’s White House poetry evenings (yes, there have been such things). But then I’m not American but even if I had been I would have remained out in the cold. Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath didn’t make the final cut either. Not important enough to Dove’s world view. Dove is on record as saying that “the entire poetic trajectory of the century flashed before me.” From that arc she made her choice. I can see what she’s trying to achieve, to redress a balance. But with something as significant as this anthology perhaps not quite the thing to do.
Doyen of critics Helen Vendler has taken Dove to task for these and other exclusions. Dove’s selection, Vendler claims, “expressed a clear preference for “multicultural inclusiveness that would shift the balance away from the centrality of the century’s acknowledged titans of English-language poetry—Eliot, Frost, Stevens…—by introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors”. Dove, Vendler goes on, has included too many writers for “ their representative themes rather than their style.”
Dove, of course, does not agree. She has issued a point by point rebuttal claiming that Vendler has “allowed outrage to get the better of her, leading to a number of illogical assertions and haphazard conclusions”. Not including Ginsberg and Plath was the logical thing to do, obviously. Their work does not fit with Dove’s new twenty-first century view of the past one hundred years of US verse. The small matter of Dove having run out of permissions fees and therefore not being able to pay the copyright charges and then failing to sort this out with her publisher is something else. A lot of people have now had their noses put out of joint.
But, of course, anthologies are supposed to do this. Upset some of, enrage others, as well as enthralling and exciting everyone else. Controversy is the stuff of poetry, it ought to be. If poetry is predictable then it has failed.
Meic Stephens edited the great anthology of Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh poetry for the Library of Wales. Poetry 1900 to 2000. We are now a decade down the line. Time for some of the new voices to be seen as well as heard.