AMERICAN POETRY: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker 986 pp., $35
Volume Two: E.E. Cummings to May Swenson 1009 pp., $35 The
Library of America
There are more poems in the world
Than empty beer bottles.
So many millions of poems have been written!
What happens to them all? Who reads them?
I remember so many I have loved at one time or another
and then lost somewhere along the way.
So writes Lindley Williams Hubbell, one of more than 200 poets
represented in what are just the first two volumes of The Library of
America's anthology of 20th-century American poetry. Not a household
word himself, Hubbell (1901-1994), who "corresponded extensively
with Gertrude Stein" and eventually settled in Japan, is just one of
the many all-but-forgotten figures included, along with the usual
famous suspects, in this sprawling collection.
Hubbell (an aficionado of Eastern philosophies) goes on to claim
he would "gladly sacrifice" Milton's "Paradise Lost" and
Wordsworth's "The Prelude" for no-longer-read classics like Sir
Edwin Arnold's "The Light of Asia." But must we be forced to choose?
Ideally, the truly inclusive democratic spirit would have room for
all voices: no need to sacrifice one poet for another. But, alas,
the time that even dedicated readers can spend reading is not
infinite and, at some point, choice is inevitable.
Some people - ideologically misguided or perhaps just tone-deaf -
resent the idea that one poet's work is better than another's. Yet
even their opposites, elitist advocates of a poetic meritocracy,
must find it disturbing that sometimes it is not merit, but the
vagaries of fortune that determine whose work survives and whose
disappears from sight. The most famous writers may not always be the
best, but merely the best at publicizing themselves. Thus, although
making choices is ultimately necessary, it is also important not to
rush to judgment and to consider a wide field of candidates for
Foremost among the many virtues of this anthology is its
inclusiveness. Of course, the editors give more space to the poets
who are the most esteemed at this point in time: high priests of
Modernism like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, William
Carlos Williams, and the equally, perhaps more greatly, gifted poets
who eschewed it, such as E.A. Robinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane,
and Robert Frost. There is, however, one rather astonishing
omission: W.H. Auden. One can only suppose the editors deemed the
British-born Auden insufficiently American, although he lived half
his life in America, became a US citizen, and is reckoned an
American by no less an authoritative source than "The Oxford
Companion to American Literature."
In addition to acknowledged masters, we find once-popular poets
whose stock has gone down, in some cases perhaps only temporarily:
Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Elinor Wylie, Sara Teasdale, Stephen
Vincent Bent, to name a few. Here, too, are African-American poets,
like Claude McKay, Angelina Grimk, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen,
and Melvin B. Tolson.
There is even a sampling of songwriters, from blues and folk
artists like Ma Rainey and Woody Guthrie to Tin Pan Alley greats
like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Lorenz Hart, Oscar
Hammerstein, and Ira Gershwin. …