By this point I expect most readers in the American poetry community have heard something of the Rita Dove-edited Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. I’ve made remarks about the need for a discussion on anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation, but I wanted to make a point about anthologies of American poetry for American readers, which I think is pertinent to a discussion about anthologies of foreign language poetry, as well.
The Dove / Penguin anthology has been getting it from all sides (and when you criticize Dove and Penguin, you can hit two birds with one stone). You may have read Helen Vendler’s rightwing criticism of the anthology in the New York Review of Books (as well as Dove’s righteous riposte), but the first I heard of it was Robert Archambeau’s leftwing take on all the anthology’s sins of omission (to which Dove’s husband Fred Viebahn gave lengthy replies in the comments)—in part, at least, because of rival press HarperCollins’s demand for high fees for Penguin to reprint its authors. This cannot account for all that Dove left out, however; Clayton Eshleman, with whom I translated a collection of Bei Dao poems, wrote to me and several other writers and translators with a list, adapted from his 1990 essay “The Gospel According to Norton,” of a systematic absence in the anthology’s table of contents:
Just to let all of you know what a travesty it is, here are some of the most significant people whose work does not appear in it: Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Riding, Loy, Bronk, Blackburn, Ginsberg, Eigner, Dorn, Kerouac, Niedecker, Mac Low, Spicer, Plath, Blaser, Bernstein, Schwerner, Lamantia, McClure, Whalen, Corman, Guest, Schuyler, Padgett, Towle, North, Rothenberg, Kelly, Eshleman, Antin, Lansing, Perelman, Armantrout, DuPlessis, Wieners, Tarn, Coolidge, Sobin, Sanders, Taggert, Bromige, Cortez, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Grahn, Kleinzahler, Waldman, Rexroth, Joron, Gander, Will Alexander, DiPrima, Notley, Equi.
After I responded about Vendler’s review, he wrote back saying, “Thom Gunn and William Everson are also missing, as is Paul Violi. And Bukowski (who I do not care for at all, but he is certainly a much-read figure in 20th century poetry).” Later, he wrote to add “Penn Warren, Hollo, Ceravolo, Lauterbach, Hoover, Berssenbrugge, Scalapino, Harryman, David Shapiro, and Brenda Hillman.”
Part of the problem, I think, has to do with anthologizing in general, and our expectations as readers that what we consider good or important should also be considered good or important enough to be disseminated through anthologies. I think this is both right and wrong. I have no problem with Rita Dove or anyone coming up with a list of poets she thinks will stand the clichéd test of time, but once that comes out with the word Anthology on the cover—and under the imprimatur of Penguin, which has the institutional pull to put its books in classrooms—then questions of responsibility are in order.
And this is where, I think, the tension over who’s included and who’s excluded—if that’s the right word for it—comes from: will my view and ethics of poetry be taught, or will someone else’s view and ethics of poetry be taught? Vendler wants a limited, and limiting, view of American poetry (“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?”), whereas Dove presents herself as upholder of a view and ethics rooted in civil rights-style inclusiveness (faulting Vendler’s review for “its condescension, lack of veracity, and the barely veiled racism”; for more, see Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s post about the history of white denial of black poetry). But there are at least two wings on the left in American culture, hence the critique of Dove’s anthology for what it leaves out.
Considering this issue, one poster to the Buffalo Poetics List remarked:
Why worry about the nearly-unchecked perpetuation of bias for decades or who has been omitted from the canon / the publishing world down the years because of that bias (something Dove is cursorily addressing in the making of this anthology) when we can focus on the in’s and out’s of how Plath and Ginsberg have been left out in the cold ad nauseum…
There has been a lot of detailed, micro-discussion over why Plath and Ginsberg were omitted and how to remedy that, AT THE EXCLUSION OF the very appearance & existence of this anthology and how it’s a drop in the bucket towards addressing (remedying?) a publishing / canonical history that has excluded numerous writers who were never supported / encouraged and only peripherally published, if at all.
As I understand it, the point is that it’s easier for us to complain about Ginsberg and Plath being “excluded” because it keeps us from recognizing the canon’s denial of certain ethnic and gendered identities—and we have bigger ethical fish to fry. This is true, but I think aesthetic diversity is not only important, it plays a role in creating and maintaining social diversity, as well.
In other words, diversity is more than simply a matter of biological fact. It is better—from the p. o. v. of diversity as a good—for the only black Supreme Court Justice to be Thurgood Marshall than to be Clarence Thomas, and any number of non-black judges could do more than Thomas to support the cause of diversity and inclusiveness in the American body politic. I don’t want to deny Thomas his “blackness” (as this interview discusses); nevertheless, the question is about culture and mentality more than it’s about the skin we were born into.
Along those lines, while most of the writers that comprise the list above, from Louis Zukofsky to Elaine Equi and Brenda Hillman, are white (many are Jewish, which may complicate matters, and I think it’s a bit over 2 : 3 :: male : female), it presents an aesthetic diversity and vision and ethic of American poetic openness that stands in favor of inclusiveness and equality beyond the biological racial makeup of its members. Also, because it is an example of certain writers left out of the Dove / Penguin anthology, it does not exist as its own table of contents, but rather as an addendum to that list to push it towards greater inclusivity and a higher level of diversity. Here in the wilds of Hongkong, I haven’t had a chance to see Dove’s anthology firsthand, so I can’t make claims on how monolithic I find its aesthetic view to be—and I wouldn’t want a table of contents to represent aesthetic diversity while only presenting writers of one biological ethnicity, either—nevertheless, I want to emphasize that just as a black Supreme Court Justice such as Thomas can do damage to the American black community, white American poets such as Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Rosmarie Waldrop make American poetry more inclusive. They are on the side of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nathaniel Mackey, both of whom are in the Penguin anthology.
This is where the issue ties back to anthologies of poetry translation, and not only because so many of these poets have been involved with translation in the narrow sense, but also because they have been involved with expansion, diversity, and internationalism in the larger sense. Like Zukofsky, Rexroth, Corman, and Eshleman, translation expands the possibilities—and the vision, and ethics—of poetry in the language. An anthology of American poetry can legitimately leave translations out, but insofar as they are also a part of the history of American poetry, I would like to see an anthology that could consider them central, primary, and put translations in.
When I refer to the discussion we need to have about anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation, I’m thinking along the lines of asking: granted, most of the anthologies that have been published so far have had some big problems, but will another anthology make up for these problems or just make the whole situation worse? But the underlying question, I think, has to do with the place of translation in the system of American poetry as a whole: do anthologies of Chinese poetry at this point expand the field of American poetry, or exist at a sequestered, even ghettoized, remove? This is, of course, a different question from whether a given anthology is sufficiently representative of the breadth of American poetry, but at a fundamental level, it is the same: how broad, or how narrow, are our vision and ethics of American poetry going to be?