[26 April 2011]
Beyond its more minor themes, modern American poetry is, first and foremost, about itself. This has become the case most clearly over the past three decades, as M.F.A. programs have proliferated at the same time that the public role of poetry has grown ever more obscure and, seemingly, irrelevant. Some poets see this as a problem to be solved, while others relish the marginalization and seek out even more remote, theoretical spaces. In either case, the question of poetry’s place in America directly informs its production.
Whether pushing toward or against the mainstream, in no time before have so many voices echoed in such a confined cultural space. Put simply, poetry in America constitutes an intellectual ghetto. That’s not to say that the collective imagination of American poetry is restricted in any way. On the contrary, one could easily make the case that the rise of graduate poetry programs has given rise to the most vital collection of writers in the country’s history. At the same time, though, the audience for these diverse and accomplished works is inversely proportionate. In this shrinking space of popular attention, some see a rarified and beautiful community and are content to wander among its exclusive architecture. Others shout from its rooftops, hoping that passersby will take notice.
“Whither poetry?” then, is a question that bedevils its American practitioners, just as the answer eludes its students. A popular strategy, when it comes to asserting the breadth and scope of poets and their work, is the anthology. These tomes, whose very size and weight seem designed to impress upon the reader an air of authority, can be understood as salvos in the war against irrelevance. They gather in their pages a group of writers who—under some thematic or chronological umbrella—achieve an impression beyond the sum of their individual work. They are a movement, or a moment, a force of expression that seeks take up more space—literally and figuratively—than the book of one individual might.
Of course, anthologies, by definition, are always also exercises in exclusion. Debates about who gets represented, who’s left out, even how many pages are awarded to whom fill various blogs and journals on the heels of any anthology’s release. Such wrangling is part of what ensures a vital community of practitioners, a reflection of passion and rigor that, at the same time, can strike a reader as merely the echo of shouting, fervent cries that are all-too diminished by their distance from center.
Luckily for The Poets Laureate Anthology, such noises, however faint, are unlikely to attend its release. That’s because all the exclusionary work has been done for the editor Elizabeth Hun Schmidt already. The book collects a selection of poetry from every Poet Laureate America has ever known, from its current, W.S. Merwin, to its first, Joseph Auslander. Auslander, we learn in Schmidt’s introduction, was initially the “poetry chair” in 1937, and then more officially the “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress” two years later. (Congress voted in 1986 to call the post the “poet laureate consultant in poetry.”) He was appointed by the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, who modeled the position on England’s version.
Such an honor was not without its anxieties. Despite the promise of a cask of wine, poets such as Wordsworth and Thomas Gray expressed hesitation at being brought into the sphere of politics, that arena where language goes to be tortured, maimed, and eventually murdered. Perhaps for that reason, the American post carries with it only the vaguest of duties. Beyond an annual reading and lecture, the poets laureate are free, as former laureate Billy Collins puts it in his foreword, “to sit behind his desk and practice the art of Sudoku.”
Tea partiers: you can put down your phone. The post carries only a nominal stipend; most poets choose (or have) to maintain their day jobs. Still, the position of poet laureate is unique in that it’s the only official post in the United States for an artist. This, then, leads us back to the larger question of poetry and its role in American society. How might such a weighty government post be reconciled with the size of its national readership?
Schmidt, wisely, avoids this thorny question in her introduction, choosing to yield the floor, as all good editors must, to the writers themselves. For each poet, the anthology begins with a passage or quotation of the writer’s reflection on the role or purpose of poetry, followed by a succinct biography that often touches on the work accomplished by the poet in their tenure as a laureate. Quickly enough, we are given the poems, and in reverse chronological order. The choice to list the poets from the current to the first is both subtle and successful, impressing upon the reader a sense of the lineage of these writers as they document the passage of history.
As for the selections themselves, readers will also be satisfied. Enough “hits” are included to account for a representative showing: Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”, Bishop’s “The Fish”, Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, and so on. Both in structure and in content, then, The Poets Laureate Anthology is a welcome addition to the record of poetry in America.
Appropriately enough, this review arrives in April: National Poetry Month. Of course, nothing confirms obscurity so much as a National Anything Month, but this book is a worthy effort in the ongoing struggle to garner the attention that an official government post suggests that poetry deserves. If nothing else, readers will come to better understand the legacy of the collected talent of these men and women, those who have paid through their words supreme attention to their world. This anthology makes the convincing case that we, in turn, owe them such attention in kind.