The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, Edited by Rita Dove, Reviewed by Mary Wise
Pablo Picasso once stated that, “Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.” This, I believe, is the impetus from which former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove crafted The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Her multigenerational, cross-cultural collection aims to put into historical perspective the broad and meaty scope of poetry’s artistic development over those 100 years.
This, as we can imagine, was no easy task. The multitudes of poets and poems that flower the era seem endless. And although, some areas feel underrepresented, Rita Dove successfully sifted through the endless possibilities and crafted a deliciously rich collection that did not rest solely on the expected canon of usual suspects.
When I received the gorgeously hardbound text, its stately cloth-wrapped burnt-orange cover adorned with recessed, shimmering chocolate-cherry lettering, aroused an expectation of decadence. I felt I was about to sink my teeth into an indulgent treat, but I expected it to be filled with the sort of sweet that I’ve tasted time and again. It was, after all, an anthology, but its regal presentation tempted me into believing it promised to be something more. With this in mind, I slicked my eyes through page after page of the table of contents, I chunked through sections of poems nibbling a bite here and there, and I rested back at the start, at the lengthy introduction titled, “My Twentieth Century of American Poetry.” And I realized then that it was definitely not a beautifully packaged college textbook anthology; it was a unique document that promised to be a life-long resident of my personal library and a cornerstone document of 20th Century literature.
Within Dove’s anthology we do see much of what we’d expect from any 20th century collection of American poetry. There is, of course, Robert Frost’s “Birches,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind,” and Amiri Baraka’s “SOS,” to name but a few. Without these and so many other canonized poets who’ve made such a profound impact on the world of poetry, the anthology would be weak and flat. With only these poets, however, a similar phenomena would occur.
We’ve read these poems, these poets, repeatedly and will continue to do so well into the future. We’re in love with them; they are, in so many ways, the armature of last century’s poetry and they continue to build the foundation for the current one as well. However, there is more to American Poetry than these essential works. The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry fleshes out the body by including lesser known, but highly salient, poets such as Russell Edson, Dudley Randall, and Leslie Marmon Silko, who may not appear in a more traditional collection. The result is a deliciously rich indulgence fill with unexpected character.
Through her lengthy introduction, Dove builds a stage upon which the poems can dance. Within her concise descriptions of the periods of poetry that developed during of the 20th Century, she does not merely explain the movements with sole regard to literature; she weaves a tapestry of history, connecting poetry with art, music, and historical events. She cites the “waves of immigrants” who, along with their “social and economical traumata,” “brought their own cultural riches to the mix.” She discusses how the influences of Darwinism and Industrialism and “the horrors of World War I” sculpted readers’ interests and how “Modernism rose from the ruins.” She discusses the rise of the female voice and the voice of the Black Arts movement and paints for us a vivid view of the essential points of the Century.
This platform is a needed foundation for readers to understand the development of the 20th Century and where within its depths each unique voice grew. Even Dove herself, in the open letter at the onset of her introduction, found herself helplessly lost within the swarm and overlap of the voices within voices, as she states that while compiling the anthology, she was “hopelessly blinded by the trees in the forest, the forest, the forest.” I can only imagine the overwhelming task of finding one’s way through this wild and mirrored labyrinth without anyone’s leading hand. Thankfully, she was able to focus her ear on a web of conversations that pulled her through the spinning and seemingly endless dialogue. Her introduction serves her readers in a similar manner. It provides that vital guidance, tuning our ears to the tones which lead her through. It opens the door to an otherwise overwhelming world which many people feel alienated from. In her PBS interview with Jeffrey Brown, she states “it’s really important” for an anthology to not only provide a look at “what the century is like” but also a hand that “invites you in.”
In the same interview, she explained that in order to accomplish this, she began with the expected poets and expanded from there into who they were reading and talking to. Then, between the generations of poetry she could hear conversations between the poems, and in many instances she used those conversations to guide her. I could hear the echoes between poems such as Russell Edson’s “A Stone is Nobody’s,” which shadows the loss of self as the result of the need for self-preservation:
A man ambushed a stone. Caught it. Made it a prisoner. Put it in a dark
room and stood guard over it for the rest of his life.
A stone is nobody’s, not even its own. It is you who are conquered; you
are minding the prisoner, which is yourself, because you are afraid to go
out, she said.
And the struggle of being trapped in the stone of a traumatic past still warring inside of Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It:”
“I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way – the stone lets me go.
I turn that way – I’m inside”
I truly love how she listened to the conversations over the decades and constructed a richly textured collection based on her own aesthetic. However, as such there are significant holes within this anthology whose title promises to be the body of a century.
While Dove, on many levels, employed a refreshingly atypical approach to the medium, the deficiencies are bold. In her introduction, Dove explains that she omitted essential poets such as Allen Ginsburg and Sylvia Plath because of financial constraints. I am shocked and saddened by this. The idea that such influential poets can be, and were, omitted from a book titled to be the piece de resistance for the 20th Century of poetry is appalling. It confirms that history is written based on the dollar. And perhaps I am naive, but that is simply ridiculous and shameful. I am not sure who is to blame for this foux pas, and I’m not interested in laying blame. I am just simply disappointed because the reasons for these omissions, financial or not, are beyond my comprehension. I suppose we are to assume that other essentials, such as Jean Valentine, Dorothy Parker, and Charles Bukowski also fell to the wayside because of money. Regardless of reason, I do not see how they and so many poets of late 20th Century Postmodernism came to be so profoundly underrepresented. Where are the influential works from Charles Bernstein, Jerome Rothenberg, and Robert Kelly, among others? And where are the passionate and snarky writings of American-born Nuyorican poets such as Maggie Estep and Martin Espada? And, though it would admittedly be a challenge to include a CD-Rom, I was very surprised to see that the movement of 20th Century-born e-poetry, also known as digital poetry, such as that of Stephanie Strickland, was omitted completely, as if it provided no significant contribution what-so-ever. Being an anthology of 20th Century American poetry dictates that some form of electronic media be included.
While this anthology is refreshingly different, unfolding additional layers of the canon, it also feels very incomplete with regard to more recent times. Perhaps disappointment is inevitable when reviewing a book of this nature. Perhaps some of what I expect to be included is only a reflection of my own aesthetic. On many levels, though, I do believe that the later years of the century were underrepresented.
Even with this significant disappointment, however, Dove’s anthology still holds itself as a highly inclusive but highly selective collection that sculpts the body of 20th Century American Poetry in a manner that had yet to be formed. This book is not about the luster of inclusion in “the club;” it is about the documentation of a century; it is about the conversations that formed over generations. And though, I feel that these conversations are significantly incomplete, I acknowledge the fact that there is no way to make an anthology that will appease everyone. This anthology must be viewed as an artistic creation like any other. This is Rita Dove’s interpretation of the century, and as such it is an educational and enjoyable collection that adds new layers to every reader’s understanding. It performs exactly as an anthology should, developing our knowledge and palate in a way that has not been done before. If an anthology only collects the usual suspects whose work we have already collected in other anthologies, what would make us need to keep one more? Because The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, breaks the mold and goes beyond the repeated reflection of the canon, we find it to be essential to our collection. This work makes its own statement, a new statement, an essential statement that brings us back again and again to reexamine our assumptions about the century. We broaden our understanding and find new connections, new conversations. And as such, this book embodies the living art that poetry is.