Thursday, July 06, 2006

Gene who?

I'm fascinated by old poetry anthologies. It's both interesting and deeply humbling to read something that purports to be a collection of classics from its time and discover how much literary 'taste' has changed over the years, and how differently we (or at least I) view things today from the way we did, say, 50 years ago.

Take this collection called the Pocket Book of Modern Verse edited by Oscar Williams and first published in 1954, that I bought a while ago and am in the process of leafing through again. It claims to be an anthology of the best 'modern' poems published in the 100 years from 1855 - 1954, starting from Whitman and going all the way up to Ted Hughes. The reason I bought it, the reason I'm re-reading it, is because it offers a view of the development of poetry from the 1850s to the 1950s that is in many ways strikingly different from the one I typically carry around in my head. If I were to put together an anthology of poetry from that period, it would look very, very different.

Not that there wouldn't be some overlap. Some things simply cannot be argued with - Whitman's Song of Myself, Hopkins' sonnets, Crane's Brooklyn Bridge, cummings's somewhere I have never travelled - all these would find a place in practically any anthology of the period, as they do here. And to give Williams' credit, he does a fine job, in my opinion, of picking poems by Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden. Most of the usual favourites are there, plus a few poems that are less well known, but equally deserving.

It's when you get beyond the obvious, that Williams selections grow startling. The anthology includes exactly one William Carlos Williams poem - this thing called The Yachts - but we have long sections devoted to Vachel Lindsay, W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and James Joyce. Even Herman Melville gets more space than W.C.Williams. More, in a book supposedly dedicated to 'modern' poetry, we have long selections from Thomas Hardy, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter de la Mare and A.E. Housman.

As we get closer to the editor's contemporaries matters only get more baffling. First, one is now treated to a bunch of names that I, at any rate, have never heard of. I mean seriously, has anyone ever read any of the following: Gene Derwood, Julian Symons, F.T. Prince, Joseph Bennett, Dustan Thompson or Frederick Mortimer Clapp? Okay, so some of them have only one or two poems included, but even so the book puts them on equal footing with Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Frank O'Hara and William Empson. Allen Tate doesn't just get Ode to the Confederate Dead, he gets a section as long as Ezra Pound's all too himself. Edith Sitwell doesn't just get Still falls the Rain, she gets half a dozen poems. And you finally discover that Richard Eberhardt did, in fact, write something other than the Groundhog and the Fury of the Aerial Bombardment. Oh, and there's the 10 page long section of Oscar Williams' own poems, about which the less said the better.

Understand, I'm not saying that these poets don't deserve to be there (though, actually, in the case of both Oscar Williams and Edith Sitwell, I am saying that - their poems are, frankly, unreadable). I certainly don't claim to be an expert on early 20th century poetry, and am in no real position to judge (even assuming objective judgement were possible) the relative merits of different poets from that era. I just think it's interesting that so many of the poets that Oscar Williams clearly saw as being seminal to his time have faded into relative obscurity in a mere 50 years, while others, whom he ignores completely (Langston Hughes isn't included, for instance), continue to delight us. So much for verse being immortal.

And it isn't just the selection of poets that seems strange. It's also the poems that Williams chooses to include. Take Yeats. We get some of the usual anthology pieces - The Second Coming, When you are Old and Grey, Sailing to Byzantium, Lake Isles of Innisfree. But no Leda and the Swan, no Byzantium, no Among School Children, no Easter, 1916. Instead we get A Bronze Head, John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore, The Three Bushes and Politics. The Wallace Stevens selection includes The Idea of Order at Key West and Sunday Morning, but it also includes The Woman That Had More Babies Than That, The President Ordains the Bee to Be and On an Old Horn. Again, I'm not saying these are bad poems (I'm not sure Wallace Stevens wrote a bad poem in his life) but it's surprising to me that they are the poems anyone would pick as being the 'best' / most representative of their respective poet's work.

Of course, one could argue that this is just Williams' bias and he has a right to his opinion, etc. etc. I'm not disputing that. But I think it's more generally true that anthologies, especially old anthologies, always surprise me with what they decide to include and what they choose to leave out. And that, for me, is a big part of what makes them worth reading.

Now if I can only find a selection of Gene Derwood's verse in my library.


Cheshire Cat said...

Oscar Williams, the great anthologist... I think Randall Jarrell said about his poems that they sounded as if they had been written on a typewriter by a typewriter :)

I suppose you're aware Gene Derwood was married to him? He was nothing if not loyal, to himself and others.

Julian Symons the msytery writer?

"The Woman That Had More Babies Than That". LOL. Best title I've ever heard - Wallace Stevens in delightful self-parodic mode. The revelation of the existence of such a poem more than justifies the anthology.

km said...

Hot diggety. I was thinking of linking to Crane's "To Brooklyn Bridge" just a few minutes before I read this post.

*adjusting my tinfoil hat*

"Frederick Mortimer Clapp" is such an awesome name for a STD-ridden character in a Dickens' novel.

Dipanjan said...

Could we please have a post on your picks for an anthology of poems published in the 50 years from 1955 to 2004? In the year 2056 when your archives are measured in exabytes, that will be one of your most interesting and popular posts.

Falstaff said...

Cat: :-). Oh, I don't know. I think even typewrites could manage sparser writing.


"Friend, when I think of your delicate feminine face
And of your little hopes common as hearing and seeing,
How singlehandedly you moved the massive stone of space
To find a cranny for the flower from the soil of your being."

I can FEEL my keyboard resisting those lines as I type them. If someone had sent me stuff like this for my college magazine I would have rejected it.

And no, I didn't know about Derwood. That explains a lot.

Agree about the Stevens - actually, the key benefit of the anthology is that Williams picks poems that even the poets themselves have chosen to keep out of their selected / collected works.

km: Yes, it is, isn't it? And I can't help thinking about the Poet formerly known as F.T. Prince.

dipanjan: Errrm...that's asking a lot. And I'm sure I'll end up screwing up as badly as Williams. still, you never know. I might get around to it. specially if some publishing house gives me a big fat advance.

Space Bar said...

Actually, F.T. Prince features not only in The Faber Book of Modern Verse (to which I think you were referring while talking about Eberhart?) but also in the more recent Harvill Book of Twentieth Century Poetry in English edited by Michael Schmidt (1999).

But anthologies are funny that way. My Faber anthology has W.S.Merwin but the Harvill anthology doesn’t, which I found odd. And the most extraordinary thing about the Harvill anthology is the inclusion of Sujata Bhatt as the sole Indian representative. I’m not saying she’s a bad poet, but why her over all the others; her inclusion is the perfect example of the whimsical nature of such selections. I wonder what impression someone reading that anthology 50 years later will get of Indian poetry.



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Anonymous said...

Oh boy, the superiority. My mother bought me a copy of this anthology when I was fourteen and
it changed my life. I wish you would produce an anthology and have to bear the sneering gibes of the malicious. If the book contains a good deal of the forgotten work of so-called "minor" poets, just remember that many of the much bally-hooed poets of today will be forgotten, and some of those neglected now will be held up to admiration. Frederick Mortimer Clapp wrote some of my favorite poems, and Oscar Williams wrote some good stuff too...

Anonymous said...

And another seem less interested in the poetry than showing off how superior you are to
the anthologist. Says more about you than the collection.
The inclusion of Hardy, etc. strikes you as odd in a book of
"modern" verse. Which indicates to me that you are unaware of the
history of poetry if you can't see the gap between someone like Hardy and say, Wordsworth. Incidentally, you apparently don't notice the absence of T. S. Eliot--
left out because Williams was unable to get permission to include his work---but it is in my opinion the one truly glaring
defect of the collection.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing up my father, Oscar Williams. From what I knew of him growing up, he truly loved poetry. He also had to live in New York City to make and keep the right contacts, not always a pleasant place to be in summer.

I was told he included Hy Sobiloff in his American anthology because millionaire Hy Sobiloff paid for the pictures of poets which the publishers would not pay for. He rewrote Hy's poetry as well. I saw him do it at one of Hy's literary parties.

So we are saying, remember the politics of the literary world and the scramble for what little money there is, and for even less reputation.

I find that Oscar Williams scrapped his own poetry writing to produce still more anthologies. He could not do both. So he rejected himself as a poet doing more mature work. Who knows why?

Oscar's anthologies helped push poetry in America into general circulation. Can we not say he was a great salesperson for poetry in his day?

Regarding pushing my mother, Gene Derwood, it may be turning out the other way these days. A recent book of Feminist literary criticism included seven of her poems, up there with Emily Dickinson. You can look up her name on Google and find the reference. I don't have the book yet.

Politically Oscar had a difficult time with his own and Gene's poetry. Of course including both their poems would be taken as nepotism, yet not including their poems would be to neglect significant poems from poets who devoted their lives to poetry.

Thus we might have to say, with a twist on your theme, that maybe anthologies should not be made until fifty years have gone by and tastes have become more objective and lasting.

And is it going to be: poetry selection by consensus or by expert opinion?

I have a masters in English literature myself and got high grades at the university. So maybe I know something about literary criticism. I would have to say it may be almost impossible to distinguish great poetry from possibly good poetry.

My father had to exclude many poets he knew personally because publishers did not allow the space for them. Thus, every time Oscar did an anthology he would have to exclude two thirds of the poets and poetry he wanted to include.

I am sure you know how emotional serious poets are about their poetry and getting it published and themselves recognized. I don't enby his chosen task.

Immortal Poems is still selling in paperback forty years later, I guess to universities. And it gets the highest reader reviews on Amazon, last time I checked. They just love that book!

What are we going to say? What are we going to do?

I applaud your stating your views so that we can all feel into these issues better. It's such a difficult task to decide who makes the best contributions to humanity in whatever field they have devoted their lives to, don't you at least half agree?

I am developing material for a Memoir on Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood as my parents but especially as a wonderfully biased picture of literary New York and America in the fifties and sixties. It's at:

I think that the best any of us can do is to make what we create and say as interesting to others as possible.

-Strephon Williams

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