A'alid anthology is a pattern of resolved stresses: it delicately balances coherent editorial vision against the irreducible realities of the material itself. At its best, the anthologist's art yields a durable vade mecum, like Modem American Poetry, from which Louis Untermeyer omitted nothing of esthetic and historical importance, while conscientiously assaying every poet, every poem. Oscar Williams's Little Treasuries represents a counter-ideal. Their fawning and parochialism served only the narrowest and most fleeting of purposes: to insinuate and legitimize the editor's own poetastry. This, the second of Professor Ellman's collections of verse for the general reader, predictably avoids all the vices of the Williams model. It falls far short, however, of the standard met by the Untermeyer.
To be fair, I must concede that the difficulties presented by this anthology have almost nothing to do with what the editor actually included. Indeed, he consistently and felicitously set classic texts side-by-side with others that deserve to be. Thus, for example, Anne Bradstreet's "The Author to Her Book," and "The Flesh and the Spirit" are present, but so too are her fine, but seldom reprinted lines written "Before the Birth of One of Her Children." Thoreau's "Inspiration" appears, but in the midst of almost a half-dozen equally remarkable poems obscured by the fame of Walden. (In choosing these, Professor Ellman exercised better taste than F. O. Matthiessen, whose Oxford Book of American Verse, dating from 1950, this volume is to replace.) Finally, Professor Ellman is the first anthologist to reproduce such works as Marianne Moore's long, witty monologue, "Marriage," and Robert Lowell's pivotal "Crossing the Alps." What holds for the individual texts is equally true of the poets. Absent from the old Oxford, but well represented here are Philip Pain, Frederick Tuckerman, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Yvor Winters, Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Charles Olson, Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Garrigue, John Berryman, and Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as 22 poets born after Matthiessen's cut-off date of 1917.
If the inclusions do genuine credit to the new Oxford, why should anyone challenge its much advertised status as the canonical source on the American achievement in poetry? Precisely because of more than a dozen inexplicable omissions from the nearly 700 text pages devoted to poets born between 1869 and 1934, i.e. from Edgar Lee Masters to Imamu Amiri Baraka, a. k. a Leroi Jones. Why are there no pages devoted to Elinor Wylie, John Peale Bishop, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Louis Zukofsky, Richard Eberhart, Stanley Kunitz, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Wright, Josephine Miles, William Meredith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Howard Nemerov, Alan Dugan, W. D. Snodgrass, Paul Blackburn, Richard Howard, Anne Sexton, John Hollander, Gregory Corso, and Mark Strand? Some of these exclusions are, admittedly, less disconcerting than others, and no doubt the list can be extended; but none is necessary or even probable in the light of editorial vision or logic.
The anthology is apparently designed to illustrate a thesis on American poetry that Professor Ellman announces in his sweeping, 15-page introduction, Consonant with the spirit of '76, the keynote is independence:
American poetry, once an offshoot, now appears to be a parent stem. Speculative, daring, and sometimes melodious, it has become the register of some of the most independent minds. What they have written has urgency, sensitivity to contemporary conditions, force of utterance. . . . Such a[n] enterprise makes persuasive the claim of this poetry to have a national character, (p. xv)
Pity the poets who have worked—however speculatively, however urgently, however much in the American grain— with what Professor Ellman will later discount as "established forms and . . . accustomed feelings" (p. xvii); inevitably, these artists will do nothing more than "provide the setting for more spectacular excursions" (ibid.). Pity, too, those whose work falls outside Professor Ellman's notion of the mainstream, the currents of which are "commonness" (p. xix), displacement of "all that had been produced elsewhere under opposite influences" (ibid.), " freedom and variety" (p. xx), and "dissent" (p. xxi). It is not at all clear how Professor Ellman would react if confronted by poems which innovatively—and natively—expressed dissent against the mainstream itself. Aside from its inner confusions, the editorial formula is both vague and esthetically questionable. The terms are virtually undefined; so too are their relations to each other or to perceptible traits of form, technique, or style.
But even granting the highly debatable criteria, the reader will find reason for perplexity in the arbitrariness and inconsistency of their application. Professor Ellman is distinctly illat-ease about the unavoidable inclusion of Pound and Eliot, and well he might be. Their resolute cosmopolitanism of subject matter, their undeniable—if discriminating—openness to foreign influence, and their avoidance of the common (except as a satiric butt), mark them as "unAmerican" by the editor's standards. Happily, though, both poets forged new and highly flexible poetic languages, and thus squeak by (p. xxvi). It is even odder that Professor Ellman did not hesitate to include work by the more vulnerable Robert Ely and John Ashbery. Though by any standard, both are extremely accomplished poets, Professor Ellman (or a collaborator writing with his tacit approval) has very recently underscored their deep and apparently unredeemable indebtedness to foreign sources: Ely's to Neruda and Boehme, Ashbery's to Auden and the Surrealists.1 If defenders of the new Oxford reply that Bly and Ashbery have "naturalized" their influences, further questions arise. If use of foreign sources is offset by "domestication," why did Professor Ellman exclude the work of Stanley Kunitz? In the Norton Anthology (p.694), Kunitz is mildly twitted for his obligations to the English metaphysicals, yet despite that, he has written in an American dialect, dealt with common, contemporary American experience, and long been a dissenter on a variety of political and philosophical questions. Moreover, even a superficial reading of "Postscript," "Foreign Affairs," "The Thief," "For the Word is Flesh," "The Tutored Child," and "The Thing that Eats the Heart," (in Selected Poems, 1928—1958), would establish the complexity and coherence of Kunitz's individual achievements. A similar case might be made for Karl Shapiro.
The foregoing examples and counter-examples are mere symptoms. Every reader will compile his own list of editorial caprices and irrationalities. The point of it all is that the new Oxford rises above the routine only because it contains not one negligible poem; major additions however will be needed to fill the volume's lunar multitude of vast, clustering lacunae.
1 The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Richard Ellman and Robert O'Clair. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), pp.14, 1146, and 1160.