Friday, April 06, 2007


While I was away in Boston, I received two anthologies one could characterize as thoroughly immersed in something akin to a School-of-Quietude vision of American poetics: Ed Ochester’s American Poetry Now: Pitt Poetry Series Anthology (APN) from the University of Pittsburgh Press, and Poetry Daily:Essentials 2007 (PD), edited by Diane Boller and Don Selby, available from Sourcebooks, Inc., in Napierville, Illinois. Because the two projects appear to share a general worldview, it’s their differences that strike me as most revealing.

The most obvious point in common you might think would be their table of contents. Ochester’s volume contains four dozen of the poets published by the U. of Pittsburgh Press during his 40-year reign as its poetry editor. PD, as I’m going to call the Boller & Selby edition, contains 152 works from the Poetry Daily website that have appeared there since the last such anthology was done in 2003. Among those included in APN are Lorna Dee Cervantes, Wanda Coleman, Billy Collins, Toi Derricotte, Denise Duhamel, Russell Edson, Edward Field, Daisy Fried, Bob Hicok, Etheridge Knight, Ted Kooser, Larry Levis, Peter Meinke, Kathleen Norris, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Muriel Rukeyser, Reginald Shepherd, Afaa Michael Weaver, David Wojahn & Dean Young.

Among those included in PD are Edward Hirsch, Louise Glück, Eamon Grennan, Brendan Calvin, Tony Dent, Dorianne Laux, Karl Kirchwey, Jane Kenyon, Claudia Emerson, Wislawa Szymborska, Kay Ryan, Randing Blasing, Antler, Chase Twichell, William Logan, Jennifer Chang, David Woo, W.D. Snodgrass, David Wojahn, C.K. Williams, Michael Scharf, Liam Rector, Thomas Lux, Louis Simpson, Timothy Liu, Carl Dennis, Simon Armitage, Dan Chiasson, Heather McHugh, Linda Gregg, Charles Simic, Ted Kooser, Bob Hicok, Debora Greger, Colette Inez, Marilyn Hacker, Floyd Skloot, David Antin, Michael Ryan, June Jordan, Gail Mazur, Daisy Fried, Gerald Stern, Albert Goldbarth, John Koethe, Christian Wiman, Yusef Komunyakaa, Maxine Kumin, Charles Wright, Franz Wright, Richard Tillinghast, W.S. Merwin, Stephen Dunn, Gustaf Sobin, David Wagoner, Daniel Hoffman, Natasha Trethewey, Martín Espada, Paul Violi, Robert Hershon & Thomas Lynch.

But here is the kicker: these two volumes have between them 193 poets, only four of whom show up in both volumes: Daisy Fried, Barbara Hamby, Bob Hicock & Ted Kooser. Why this is so and what this might mean intrigues me.

Neither edition is entirely rigid about its boundaries & I feel pretty safe in suggesting that both Ochester and Boller-Selby would probably reject the School of Quietude label outright. Edward Field, who is in the Ochester volume, appeared in Donald Allen’s epoch-making The New American Poetry some 40-plus years ago. And to call Wanda Coleman or Lorna Dee Cervantes, two of Ochester’s other contributors, examples of Quietude would just be misleading. The real story here has been, for several decades now, that writers of color have had dispensation to be lively and thoughtful & to treat American literature as tho it were more than just a sidebar to pre-Romantic British letters. Similarly, “talking at blerancourt” by David Antin may well be PD’s longest single contribution – ten pages of Antin’s patented verbal noodling to respond to the question “what is an artist” – as well as one of its liveliest.

What is really different between the two volumes is Ed Ochester’s editorial vision. Like all good poetry editors, he has a clear sense of what he likes & why. There are almost no formalists, new or old, in APN. PD includes not only old (W.D. Snodgrass) & new (William Logan, Christian Wiman, Karl Kirchwey), but actually existing British pre-Romantics like Simon Armitage, even as it does so in a broader landscape that can include not just a poet like Antin, but other post-avants such as Michael Scharf & the late Gustaf Sobin. And with 152 poems spread over 225 pages – Albert Goldbarth appears twice & Mary Molinary has three short poems from the same appearance in Beloit Poetry Journal, so the number of poets is 149 – PD feels much more like a literary version of Noah’s ark. Or would, if only it were more representative of the poetry even of its own website.

Poetry Daily is, more than anything else, an advertising website that focuses on poetry. Payment as such is not a requirement to having one’s poem picked for the daily feature, but everything on the website suggests an attempt to drive revenue through the site’s affiliate program with Amazon – something that a more self-critical website would think twice about given the impact Amazon is having on independent bookstores – and the site does run ads for conferences & the like. Perhaps because Boller & Selby aren’t strong readers, Poetry Daily is largely captive to those presses that make an active effort to promote their books. And historically, those have been the university & New York trade presses. So while this is nowhere nearly the monolithic publishing universe that was the case, say, 20 years ago, it is still very much not representative of the poetry scene in North America overall.

Unfortunately, this is where Boller & Selby’s weakness as editors makes a significant difference. While their goal actually does seem to be to represent English-language poetry in its richness & breadth, their instincts as editors are much narrower. There is, for example, a broader representation of post-avants among the 365 poets retained in the site’s archive – each poem-of-the-day retained for one year – than shows up here in this collection of 149 writers taken from a roster that must have numbered close to 1,000 possible contributors. For example, post-avants who presently have work in the PD archive who are not represented in this volume include Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Dan Beachy-Quick, Charles Bernstein, Stephen Burt, Robert Creeley, Gary Gach, Forrest Gander, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Gizzi, Cynthia Hogue, Robert Kelly, John Kinsella, Kenneth Koch, Ben Lerner, Rachel Loden, Nathaniel Mackey, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Spencer Selby, Evie Shockley, Patricia Smith, Cole Swensen, Elizabeth Treadwell & Bill Zavatsky.

Two things need to be noted here. First, post-avant poets make up a substantial portion of all poets now writing – my guess would be half – so to see what amounts to ten percent of the PD archive itself allocated to half the world tells me just how much work there is left to do to open the world of poetry up just so that every tendency has something approximating equal access to such resources. While I’m pleased to see the likes of Antin, Antler, Scharf, Sobin & Violi in the actual print volume, the reality is that the meager ten percent representation of the website has been reduced to roughly one half of that for this keepsake. This doesn’t especially surprise me since Poetry Today’s website also has a news page that contains links (not unlike the ones that ran here Wednesday), a resource that takes not too much energy to produce – but in which PD consistently misses about 75 percent of all articles relating to post-avants that appear even in major American newspapers. While Boller & Selby do strike me as trying to represent the whole of poetry, much of what’s out there is simply not on their radar in Charlottesville.

Ochester, on the other hand, has a vision & a commitment & it shows in his volume. It doesn’t hurt either that his format gives each writer roughly six pages for work, with a seventh for a photograph & some bio-bibliographic data. American Poetry Now is superbly produced just as a book, whereas PD suffers from cheesy font & paper choices, what you might expect from a printing house that features, as its best-selling book, 50,001 Best Baby Names.

Whether Ochester’s vision is a serious one for poetry is no doubt a different discussion than the one I’m interested in today. At the end of his book, he offers two lists of suggested further reading. The first is identified as “Essential Books of Poetry,” the other merely as “Recommended.” While Pound & Williams & even Frank O’Hara show up on the essential list alongside such immortals as Robert Bly & Phil Levine, and the lengthier recommended list includes many of the New Americans & even the likes of Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian & Harryette Mullen, the total absence of such poets as Louis Zukofsky & Gertrude Stein tells you that Ochester’s vision of the divisions between the raw & the cooked largely ossified at a point in the 1960s before such poets had arrived at their more recent canonic status. As a reading list, it’s really rather sad.

But it is at least a vision & as such makes American Poetry Now a more useful volume than Poetry Daily Essentials 2007. It’s worth noting, finally, that not only is the work in PD a far cry from essential – I suppose “Misrepresentative Smatterings” wouldn’t have sold as well – but two of the things you cannot get from the Ochester volume either are a sense of American poetry and a sense of poetry now. This sort of grandiose misnaming may well be the archetypal gesture of the School of Quietude, which has historically treated anything not in its official field of vision as non-existent for over 150 years. In this sense, Ochester & the team of Selby & Boller are both members of the same militant faction even if the cracks between their efforts is what’s most interesting in these two limited, limiting collections.

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