Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Abbreviated

Article excerpt

American Poetry: The Twentieth Century. Volume 1: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker. Library of America 2000. 993 pp. $27.50

American Poetry: The Twentieth Century. Volume 2. E E Cummings to May Swenson. Library of America 2000. 1017 pp. $27.50

The poems of a new century are forged in the politics and attitudes of the century just discarded. Twentieth-century poetry was made from the scrap metal of the nineteenth. It may seem odd that the first poet in the Library of America's anthology of the past century is Henry Adams, born in 1838, during the Van Buren administration; but an anthology of our new century will have to open with Richard Wilbur, born in 1921, during the Harding administration. Henry Adams was not much of a poet; but he was great-grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams, who didn't die until Henry was ten. Henry would have known men who fought in the Revolution. He survived into the days of "Prufrock" and Cathay.

In 1920, a niece published the late historian's "Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres":

If then I left you, it was not my crime,

Or if a crime, it was not mine alone.

All children wander with the truant Time.

Pardon me too! You pardoned once your Son!

For He said to you:-"Wist ye not that I

Must be about my Father's business?" So,

Seeking his Father he pursued his way

Straight to the Cross towards which we all must go.

Wist ye not! Straight to the Cross! "Prayer" was written in 1901, at the cusp of the new century, only a dozen years before the earliest poems Wallace Stevens wrote for Harmonium (eventually published in 1923). The possibilities of diction were about to change radically.

Of course you can't go from Adams straight to Stevens, even if they were published at nearly the same hour. The rules of chronology place poets in their graves-or, rather, their cradles. No matter when a poet was writing his best verse, or when it happened to get into print, most anthologies confine him to birth order. Perhaps there's no better procedure, but it deforms the historical circumstances in which poems were written and read (two very different things). James Fenton once proposed an anthology of poems printed in the order they were published. As a study of influence and the development of style (and counter-style), it would be a revelation to place Dickinson in the 1890s or Hopkins in 1918. Richard Wilbur and Amy Clampitt were born a year apart, but he's a poet of the late Forties and she a poet of the late Seventies-their diction is divided by thirty years of practice. Many anthologies print, unobtrusively, the date that poems were written or first published; but the Library of America prefers a format unencumbered by history, as if the general reader might be scared off by encouragement of the critical faculty (a common reader's anthology often conceals the things uncommon readers want to know).

Any reader who buys these volumes blindly will soon discover two things. First, they are not an anthology of twentieth-century American poetry-they are premature and incomplete, restricted to poets born before 1914. Just a dozen of the over two hundred poets are still alive-the youngest would have turned eighty-seven this year. We have an anthology that does not include Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Richard Wilbur, Amy Clampitt, Anthony Hecht, Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill, John Ashbery, or Sylvia Plath, much less the generations of poets now in their sixties, fifties, forties, thirties, or twenties. Some of the poetry here was written as late as the Nineties, but much written in the Thirties and Forties has been excluded because it was by poets too young. (You have a poem that alludes to the Mariner spacecraft, but not Jarrell's about the B-17.) No doubt these volumes are a work in progress; but they are overly generous to early generations, and a similar generosity to later would require at least three more volumes. …