The first omission you notice – a poet dropped from the first edition of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology in the new much-revised & updated version coming out this spring – is Paul Hoover himself. I take that as an index of two vital facts about the new Postmodern (hereafter P² in contrast with the 1994 P¹). The first is a statement as to Hoover’s own diligence & commitment to the project. If, in order to make room for many of the new poets whose work has emerged over the past two decades in this slightly larger edition (917 pages, up from 700), Hoover is going to have to make the excruciating decision to leave out X, Y or Z to free up some pages, then he is going to go first himself. It’s really a statement about integrity and hardly something that any reader would expect Hoover himself to have to do. But he knows full well that every one of the 47 poets dropped from the first edition – nearly half of the original roster of 103 – are going to be furious, unless they have already move on to the great card catalog in the sky. And I suspect Hoover knows that the love he gets from the 59 new poets added to P² won’t prove nearly equal to the reaction he can expect from departed. It’s a hopeless task. So he has made a gesture to this fact by putting himself at the top of that list of the missing. I for one bow deeply to him for the act.
But this marker is also an index of a larger problem with trying to pull together a broad-based anthology in 2013: the project is a hopeless task. It is one thing to attempt what Donald Allen achieved in the 1950s, a decade for which no estimate made at the time of the number poets publishing in English in the US market exceeded 100. Allen’s gathering of the “other” tradition, the counter formation to the anglophiliac imitators of the mainstream that then ran all of the major institutions of American verse, incorporated 44 poets. (The Donald Hall, Robert Pack Louis Simpson New Poets of England and America, the Quietist counter to the Allen – tho note its broader reach – was itself just 52 poets in the 1957 first edition, 62 in the expanded 1962 “second selection.”) Today, when estimates of the number of publishing poets in English start at 20,000 – and some more than double that figure – the notion that anyone could represent the progressive side of American verse with just 115 poets is, on its face, preposterous. Even if you presume – as I do – that the numbers cited in the middle of the last century were laughably low in contrast with any real survey, such as the one Cary Nelson did on poetry between the first & second world wars in Repression and Recovery, even if you presume that the true count for poets in the 1950s should have been 500 or 1,000, then 44 poets represents maybe four percent of the total of all poets. Four percent of the lower number for today’s poets would be over 800.
And that is not taking into consideration the undeniable fact that the progressive side of American poetics is far less marginalized than it was in 1960 when the Allen anthology debuted. While there are still clunkers of the Olde World among some of the institutions – as when, for example, the majority of the poets nominated for one of the major awards this year are versifiers who rhyme, just as tho the 19th & 20th & 21st centuries never happened – the progressive tradition in American poetry has for the most part been incorporated into most of the major platforms poetry has. Maybe not yet in numbers equal to their participation in the actual act of writing, but light years ahead of progressive representation just 30 years ago.
Which means that, in practice, that hypothetical four percent (4.4% to be persnickety) really ought now to be much higher. 800 poets would not be enough to represent today what the Allen anthology managed with 44 poets in 1960 (of whom just four were women, just one anything other than white). I think I can prove this with the Norton.
Consider, to begin with, the 56 poets who appear in both editions:
Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
To my mind there are no seriously hard choices here. Anyone who argues that X, Y, or Z here doesn’t belong is for the most part being churlish. One may not like Ed Dorn’s ethics or think Kenward Elmslie (or Gustaf Sobin) might have published more or fret that maybe Harry Matthews isn’t kidding when he writes that he was in the CIA. But every last person on that list has some reasonable claim to being one of the major poets of the post-WW2 era. Still, I doubt that this is the group that any one of us – even Hoover – might pick if we were trying to reduce the past sixty years of American poetry to not much more than half a hundred poets.
Now consider the 47 poets who appeared in P¹ but not in P², the disappeared:
There is not a lot of drop off in quality, influence or reputation between this and the first group. Hollo, Bukowski, Kerouac, Rothenberg, Antin, Wieners, Ceravolo, Grenier, Kelly – just for starters – haven’t had more impact on American poetry than Gustaf Sobin? You could trim that first list by half and still many of the poets in the second group of the newly absent would have a legitimate claim for inclusion. It’s perhaps especially ironic that in 2013 – when The Collected Poems of Joseph Ceravolo is destined to make the late New Jersey engineer the NY School equivalent of what, say, Jack Spicer has been to the San Francisco scene, that he should be dropped from this volume. Big Oops, but hardly the only one. As in all cases of egregious omissions, it’s the volume that loses, it and its readers, not the poet who has been culled from the herd. I think it’s pretty easy to make the case that at least half of the poets dropped from the first edition to the next qualify as shocking.
But I can see Hoover’s dilemma. Poetry in 2013 is seriously not what it was in 1994. There is a lot more of it, more writers, many of them excellent, and much greater complexity in the social field that makes it up. Consider now the 59 poets Hoover had to make room for in P²:
Again, it’s a list filled with totally qualified names. Some of these are poets – like Ronald Johnson and Fanny Howe – that leave you scratching your head at the idea that they were not in the first edition as well, but most are poets who have emerged as major figures in the past two decades. The most arguable additions, to my mind, are Christian Bök & Steve McCaffery. Not because they aren’t entirely qualified to be here, but because they are principally Canadian poets who have had international impact. And the instant you fudge the question of borders all manner of other equally likely examples instantly come to mind.
But that’s just the problem. Even if you build a wall against Canada, the instant you start to look at who is included and who is not, among these 163 poets, other names will start to suggest themselves. And some of them will be jaw-dropping in their consequences, such as Lew Welch or Rachel Blau DuPlessis or John Taggart or Joanne Kyger or Judy Grahn or David Bromige or Ted Greenwald or Simon Ortiz. In fact, just thinking about who isn’t somewhere in these lists rapidly generates a roster that is longer than the list of those who were included. Such as:
William Everson (Brother Antoninus)
That list is more than two dozen names longer than the roster of both editions of the Norton Postmodern combined, and it’s really just off the top of my head. I promise you that I have missed at least as many worthy poets as have been included in all of the lists above. Which means – seriously – that there have to be at least 700 poets who could make a case for their own inclusion here.
Now I seem to recall Helen Vendler getting into a tizzy not so long ago over the 175 folks that Rita Dove chose to represent 100 years of American poetry in her recent Penguin anthology, but if 700 or 800 folks over a 60 year period would have been the responsible tally for a Norton PoMo, you can just imagine how many Dove should have chosen, really, just to represent the cream of that larger crop.
What this means, I think, is pretty straight-forward. It is no longer possible – not even plausible really – for the codex format to represent American or English language poetry in any depth whatsoever. After all, I’m just talking about the progressive tradition within American poets. There have to be at least another 500 Quietist poets in addition to the 700 progressives – and that still presumes we’re not representing much more than five percent of poets who go so far as to publish, maybe quite a bit less.
Obviously, it is possible to represent a much smaller selection of poetry in English, a dozen here, two dozen there, whatever. But selections that tiny invariably come down to politics and taste, and it takes not much effort to reveal a much larger number of folks who are just as good, if not better, than whomever you choose to include.
My guess is this: within a decade, at least one major literary institution – a publisher, a school, a foundation, conceivably the Library of Congress – will set up an anthology-like website that actually attempts something on this order. I hope that it’s not a publisher, simply because they don’t understand the responsibility to literature in such an undertaking. I can imagine Norton, for example, charging some phenomenal sum on an annual basis – tho maybe not the $295 per year the OED currently is demanding from individuals¹ – to gain access to what mostly can be found online already. But it would be something on a much larger scale than, say, what Ubuweb, Pennsound or the Electronic Poetry Center – the best online archival websites we have thus far, could attempt.
The minute something like this comes into existence – call it Wikipoets or whatever – then I suspect that these larger (but never large enough) omnibus books will rapidly go the way of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And, at least for the issues of representability & completeness, where even the most well-intentioned anthology seems doomed to failure, I suspect that we will say Good Riddance.
¹ A far cry from the $17 I paid for my compact edition in 1973, a volume I still possess. At the current rate, a forty-year subscription to the online version would cost $11,800. Pound has a Canto on the subject of “usura,” but it would appear that the publishers of the OED have failed to incorporate that word into their vocabulary.