"KOALA - To survive you have to be willing to do anything. Anthologies! That's where the money really is, or might be. At least so I imagine from my fuzzy animal distance. Reprint the material! Dominate the gene pool! Rise like Godzilla and make them read you for fucking ever!"
-Bob Perelman, "The Manchurian Candidate: a remake"
The avant-garde, we're told, is, at least in theory, dead. Meanwhile, the poetic "mainstream" is commonly argued to have become so diverse and democratically inclusive as to be unlocatable, unrecognizable as a mainstream. This same historical moment, however, with its purported all-inclusiveness that would render the notion of an avant-garde meaningless, has brought the publication of five selfconsciously avant-garde anthologies of American poetry within a few years of each other: Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993); Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990; Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology; Dennis Barone and Peter Ganick's The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets (all 1994); and Leonard Schwartz, Joseph Donahue and Edward Foster's Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (1996).1 What especially interests me in our current situation, and in these texts specifically, is the apparent re-emergence of a version of the late-1950s and early-1960s anthology wars, as anthology editors are once again unapologetically using terms like "avant-garde," "center," "mainstream," and so on.
Does this return of anthology wars rhetoric represent merely the flogging of a dead socio-aesthetic horse? Jed Rasula, for one, argues that it does. He finds Weinberger and J. D. McClatchy, editor of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Vintage, 1990), for instance, "waging a massively retrospective combat"-a combat centered on "nostalgic invocations of the 1960 anthology wars, with the editors cavorting about in period dress like history buffs reenacting the battle of Gettysburg" (1996, 449).2 Rasula has a point here; it's no longer 1960. But if this debate is so outdated, why has its rhetoric returned to anthologies of innovative poetry in the mid-1990s? What function does that rhetoric serve now? Aside from maintaining a good deal of historically descriptive power, it is being used by contemporary editors to further the development or construction of a New American Poetry tradition derived from Donald Allen's influential 1960 anthology of that name-a text that these editors both explicitly and implicitly invoke. In turn, connection to The New American Poetry becomes a way for editors to situate historically and even help authorize contemporary avant-garde writing. The construction of this New American tradition via recent anthologies - especially in the rhetoric or self-presentation of these texts, rather than their structure, contents, and so forth-is my subject in this essay.3
Rasula is right to point out the limitations of what I would call the center-margin model that shapes both my chosen anthologies, in their different ways, and to some extent my analysis of them. One such limitation is the risk of a too-easy and falsely stable binarism. Weinberger and Hoover, for instance, both tend to assume that mainstream poetic practice and ideology is monolithic and that "we" know it when we see it. As Hank Lazer suggests, however, this reduction of poetic variety to an allegedly monolithic mainstream is itself a "rhetorical straw man of the (similarly multiple) avant-garde" (1996, 136). Nevertheless, if we think of "center," "mainstream," and "margin" as cultural locations that are in process rather than fixed, these misleadingly topographical metaphors can retain some analytic usefulness. If I seem both to suggest the inadequacy of a center-margin model and also depend on it for understanding patterns in recent anthologies, my point is that this model is growing more complex rather than collapsing completely. …