Anthologies and Anthologies

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?

14 thoughts on “Anthologies and Anthologies

  1. Re anthologies, for every poet one says was left out one ought to have to identify a poet who ought not to have been included. Without omissions, the anthology would grow to duplicate exactly the poetry it would represent, like Lewis Carroll’s Complete Map:

    …from Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, by Lewis Carroll, 1893…

    ‘That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”

    “About six inches to the mile.”

    “Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

    “Have you used it much?” I enquired.

    “It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

  2. Cute, but there are other ways to limit space, and different anthologies set up–and serve–different expectations. Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millenium (vols. 1 & 2 edited with Pierre Joris, vol. 3 edited with Jeffrey Robinson) doesn’t leave out very many names most people would like to see in it–and it’s an anthology of international poetry–but it only has one or two pages per poet.


  3. I’ve seen your review of Another Kind of Nation, but did you write something on Push Open the Window? Are there other newer anthologies that create the issue of “big problems” that might not be solved with the introduction of another one? What strikes me as odd about this situation is how different it is from that of literary histories (admittedly academic, but interesting to contrast): in China, scholars can’t seem to get away from literary histories that usually function as textbooks (much like Norton anthologies serve as textbooks for literature classes in the US). But apart from C.T. Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction from _50 years ago_, no one has written a history of modern or contemporary Chinese literature in English. Rather everybody seems to find some angle, theme, genre, or group of writers and they all come together to create, well, nothing. But I wonder whether the anthologization of contemporary poetry Chinese would not benefit from abandoning any pretense of comprehensiveness, and rather work our way in, as you do, by author, or by group/topic/period/region etc? When I think about teaching Chinese poetry, a comprehensive anthology would not be very useful to me, because I would not want to teach an entire course on Chinese literature _in translation_. I would rather insert works of poetry into a broader course (in which case reading it in translation would be okay), or teach a full course on poetry in Chinese, in which translations would at best be a catalyst for talking about issues and problems of translation, or for areas of meaning that might not be obvious in the original.

  4. Typo in my post: “I would not want to teach an entire course on Chinese literature _in translation_.” should be “I would not want to teach an entire course on Chinese poetry _in translation_.”

  5. Great questions, Charles. Since my work is included in Push Open the Window, no one would believe I could be objective enough to treat it with a proper review. I will say that, while the work included is generally good and the standard of translation is high, I find the project as a whole compromised in part because, being PRC-funded, it doesn’t have room for poets in varying stages of exile. Yang Lian 楊煉 and Bei Dao 北島 are, I think, still pretty important to Chinese poetry in China, as witness Zang Di’s 臧棣 twelve part (and growing) discussion titled “Bei Dao, It’s Not that I’m Criticizing You” 北岛,不是我批评你 (thanks to Michael Day for pointing that out). At the same time, it’s hard for anyone to make sense out of 49 poets with no more than three pieces per poet.
    To get at your larger question, though, I think anthologies are the province of the lazy, which of course is why they’re so popular as well as so problem-ridden. The problem I see with anthologies of Chinese poetry in English is that there are so many of them that they work against their purpose: an anthology presents itself as an introduction to the field, but rather than opening the door (or pushing open the window) to more Chinese poetry in translation, the anthologies stand as the door itself (in other words, they’re a better door than a window, but they’re still a pain). Since the ’80s we’ve had more anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry in English than we’ve had single-poet books by Chinese poets living in the PRC–only in the past year or two is the situation beginning to change, with books by Yu Jian 于坚, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Han Dong 韩东, Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Yu Xiang 宇向, and of course Xi Chuan 西川, newly published or forthcoming (all by just two presses, by the way). Another anthology can’t fix this problem, it can only make it worse.
    To me, an anthology that purports to present itself as a representative view of the state of poetry of any given country or language is ridiculous, especially when defined on some assumption of what’s “the best,” and especially in our postmodern proliferation of published writing. Rather, I think anthologies should, and can only, be presentations of a certain aesthetic or issue. And while the anthology-as-reference book has its value (such as Poems for the Millenium, mentioned above), readability as a whole, plus a consistent yet developing narrative to the Table of Contents, are important as well. I want to see fewer pretenses at authority and more expressions of aesthetics or movements; Tony Barnstone’s Out of the Howling Storm is a good, if dated, example of this for Chinese poetry, the Black / Bartlett / Northen Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability is probably a good example of this for recent American poetry (Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree would probably be good if it weren’t too bulky for anyone to read through), and Eliot Weinberger’s World Beat: International Poetry Now is a good example of what can be done for international poetry. The more we can think of each collection as an exhibit rather than an encyclopedia, the more I think we’ll be satisfied with the anthologies we produce. I think this is your point about “abandoning any pretense of comprehensiveness, and rather work our way in … by author, or by group/topic/period/region etc.”
    Evidently, the word ‘anthology’ comes from the Greek ἀνθολογία, which means “flower-gathering.” Are poems flowers? Are they appreciated and understood best as isolated moments of beauty sans stem, rootwork, or dirt? What about cross-pollination? This gets at the need, which you mention, for literary histories, and for anthologies that can present themselves as literary histories–a sort of, ‘how did we get here?’ rather than ‘what are the prettiest poems written in this arbitrarily selected span of time?’ While the reason no all-encompassing history of Chinese literature has been written in English since the ’60s probably has to do with the anglophone academic trend of talking to ourselves–in the assumption that no outsider could ever be interested (a self-fulfilling prophecy that is not, of course, limited to academics)–as well as to how much more complicated the field of Chinese literature has become since C. T. Hsia wrote, the fact is that most anthologies don’t do enough to contextualize, which I think is especially a problem when dealing with non-native poetries, in which case the question of reference points is all the more necessary to address.
    Another way to present an anthology, then, would be as a history in exhibit: you couldn’t have poems grouped by poet, and you might not find that any poet had more than one poem at a time. But an anthology of Chinese poetry that went from Yang Lian’s “Wild Goose Pagoda” 大雁塔 to Han Dong’s 韩东 “About Wild Goose Pagoda” 有关大雁塔 to Ouyang Jianghe’s 欧阳江河 “Suspended Coffin” 悬棺, to Ouyang’s later work that walked away from Yang Lian’s influence–or an anthology in English that went from Masters’s Spoon River Anthology to Pound’s Cathay, or from Sandburg’s “Chicago” and Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill” to Ginsberg’s “Howl”–would present the development of poetry as a conversation in progress, which younger writers, scholars, and readers could feel like they could catch up to. By the way, if you want a history of contemporary Chinese poetry (but just poetry, not all literature) written in English, I think a great one is Maghiel van Crevel’s Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money.
    So basically, Charles, I think you and I are on the same page. Although, I’ve got to ask: why not want to want to teach an entire course on Chinese poetry _in translation_? Isn’t that how most pre-modern Chinese poetry is taught in the US, and doesn’t that have the same “problems” of translation?


  6. I’ll weigh in by answering Lucas’s last question about teaching pre-modern Chinese poetry in translation. I teach a survey called Asian Humanities China, and the first time around I used a certain canonical anthology of traditional Chinese literature, aiming for breadth. The students didn’t like it because in the end they had trouble distinguishing the works of Du Fu, Tao Qian, Li Bai, Li Qingzhao, Hanshan, Bai Juyi, Su Shi, and about 20 other authors. The next time around I scrapped the anthology and used individual collections, targeting specific poets (in this case, Du Fu, Li Bai, Yu Xuanji, and Wang Wei–probably seems an odd mix but I had my reasons). The students were so much more engaged with the texts the second time and appeared to gain a better grasp of those select few poets, which in the end I decided was more worthwhile. Aside from studying those authors in depth, we were also able to highlight certain trends and juxtapose the poets against one another. And similarly, when I teach courses in contemporary literature, I prefer to have my students purchase a single-author poetry volume (this spring it will be Bradbury’s translations of Hsia Yu, Fusion Kitsch) instead of an anthology. Aside from the problems you’ve both cited above, with which I wholeheartedly agree, I find the quality of most anthologies to be very uneven, especially when it comes to works in translation.


  7. I certainly see that there are problems with teaching only from anthologies, Jennifer–my post on a review of Push Open the Window and the following discussion ( brings up the issue of poetic voice–but I thought Charles’s point was about not wanting to teach contemporary Chinese poetry in translation. I couldn’t tell if he wouldn’t want to do this because of the materials available (I for sure wouldn’t want to come up with a syllabus on 20th century Chinese poetry with what little that’s in English right now), or if he wouldn’t want to do it on principle.
    By the way, I think Du Fu, Li Bai, Yu Xuanji, and Wang Wei is almost as good a syllabus of Tang poetry as anyone needs.

  8. As if to demonstrate how poets like Jerome Rothenberg, as I claim, “make American poetry more inclusive”–as well as how certain critics like Vendler stand against such inclusiveness (regardless of where we see Dove on this issue)–Charles Bernstein has posted on his blog a 1973 back-and-forth between Vendler & Rothenberg over her review of his anthology America: A Prophecy:


  9. One of your correspondents mentions that someone mentioning the left-outs of the Dove anthology should be willing to also say who should not be in it. This requires reading the entire anthology, as many of the names, to someone of my generation, are new to me, and, I am guessing, are more ephebes than mature poets who have made some sort of unique contribution to American letters. If I decide to review the Dove anthology I will of course read the whole thing and take on this correspondent’s challenge. My crude guess would be that of the 165, only a third could be considered to have done unique work. Clayton Eshleman

  10. I’ve had the luxury of reading the book since I worked on the permissions for it. It should probably be noted (again) that many of the poets left out are poets published by HarperCollins. Not just Ginsburg and Plath, but Sterling A. Brown, Stanley Plumley, Louise Gluck, Nikki Giovanni, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Carolyn Forche, and others. Some of these are represented by earlier poems not controlled by Harper, but the contents certainly suffered.

    There are, however, a lot of poets not often anthologized, like Ron Silliman, Adrian Louis, Nick Flynn, Mark Jarman, etc.

    Obviously one can easily pick apart the “missing” pieces from any anthology of any size. After all, the process of selecting poems and poets necessitates cutting quality poems from the contents–like the pruning of otherwise good lines or stanzas from a poem. That said, if I were adjusting the contents I would have dropped Derek Walcott (not American, IMO) and added some Marilyn Hacker and Kenneth Rexroth myself.

  11. Thanks for the input, Fred–and I completely concur about Rexroth. But I don’t agree that it needs to be noted (again) that some of the absences are the result of HarperCollins’s rights policy. As I suggested above, it doesn’t absolve Rita Dove for the narrowness of her vision; not only would the inclusion of all the poets you list not give the anthology the kind of aesthetic diversity I’m talking about, the ones from Clayton’s list are almost entirely covered by independent presses–presses who’d probably have been happy to have their poets included in a Penguin anthology, since they’d bet on it meaning more sales for the rest of their work. Dove deserves credit for including some poets often left out, but then again that makes her selection seem erratic. Why Silliman and not Bernstein or Armantrout, for instance?

    Yes, editing an anthology is difficult–I think we all know that. There are real world limitations, from page count to rival presses. Some of us are chomping on the proverbial bit for technology to sweep the anthology into the historical curio museum (doesn’t the internet open up the field of anthological possibility?), and you’ve also got Ron Silliman’s point, which I think is a good one, that an anthology at best only “represents a pinnacle of value that expresses the perspective of some specific community” ( But anything that’s going to claim to be The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (note the definite article) also needs to be representative of what’s going on. Yes, that requires selection–what doesn’t?–but it’s selection that’s got to be accountable to the many different demands, from ethical to aesthetical, of the communities it represents and to whom it’s sold.
    Anyway, would you defend a history of 20th Century America that included the Great Depression and Civil Rights but not the labor movement by claiming you couldn’t get permission from the AFL-CIO?

    • My only point regarding re-iterating Harper’s role in the process is that there seems to be this reaction, here and elsewhere, of “I understand no Ginsberg or Plath because of Harper, but what about [insert name of other Harper authors?].”

      Ultimately the contents need to stand of fall based on the choices Rita made, as it should be. I certainly wouldn’t have made the same choices Rita did, though my poetic tastes might run more to her liking than, say, Clayton’s (whose list contains at least one name I’ve never even heard of, let alone read).

      The elimination of the Harper material is a delicate one to handle, and your question is a good analogy. I don’t know what I’d do, frankly, except to do what Rita did and explain the obvious gap. Is there anything else someone can do in that case?

  12. Some people have suggested that Dove could have foregone her earnings from the book to help Penguin pay HarperCollins the fees they demanded. Regardless of the likelihood of this, I’d bet most poets have made large financial sacrifices for the sake of poetry–and I bet it’s a trend that deepens as you move toward the independent presses. I say this because I think it’s another demonstration of Silliman’s point about community, as is your admission, Fred, under terms of aesthetics, that you’re not familiar with all the names in Clayton’s list. Are you not familiar with that poetry because you don’t like it, or do you not like it because you’re not familiar with it? It’s got to be a mixture of both, right?

  13. I suspect I’m unfamiliar with some of those writers for any number of reasons. I’ll go with the simplest that it could be that some of them are simply obscure writers.


    I suppose if I were an academic, or poet, I might have run across all of them, and more. The curse of being a general interest poetry reader is that there is always more out there. And it certainly is easier to read the kinds of poetry that each of us likes, particularly when reading for pleasure.

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