The first omission you notice – a poet dropped from the first edition of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthologyin 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:
Ron Silliman was born in Pasco, Washington, although his parents stayed there just long enough for his mother to learn that one could step on field mice while walking barefoot through the snow to the outhouse, and for his father to walk away from a plane crash while smuggling alcohol into a dry county. Silliman has written and edited 40 books, most recently if wants to be the same as is: Essential Poems of David Bromige, co-edited with Jack Krick & Bob Perelman, from New Star Books, and had his poetry and criticism translated into 16 languages. Silliman was a 2012 Kelly Writers House Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and the 2010 recipient of the Levinson Prize,from the Poetry Foundation. His sculpture Poetry (Bury Neon) is permanently on display in the transit center of Bury, Lancashire, and he has a plaque in the walk dedicated to poetry in his home town of Berkeley, although he now lives in Chester County, PA. Silliman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.