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Writing Life: Remaking a Norton Anthology

ISSUE:  Spring 2004

Sharing a suffix with such academically serious words such as philology, anthropology, and oncology, the word anthology sounds respectable enough. But anthos, I belatedly discovered, is Greek for flower, and logia means collecting. So that’s it?—devoting the last few years to editing the third edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, I’ve been engaged in the academic equivalent of flower-picking? Did I trade in my scholarly aspirations and become an effete arranger of bouquets? What redeems literary anthologists, if we’re able to claim neither the creativity of the poet nor the analytic rigor of the cultural theorist? Having dedicated myself for years to constructing elaborate critical arguments, how did I get involved in what one of my friends called “pretheoretical” judgments about poem-gathering, a suspiciously curatorial practice in our supposedly post-canonical era?

The story of this unexpected turn in my career goes back to 1981, when I landed in England on the QE2, hoping to study with the famed American scholar Richard Ellmann, biographer of W. B. Yeats and James Joyce, author of numerous critical studies of modern literature, and then master of perhaps the most elegant and quietly witty prose style in criticism. He was also the coeditor, with Robert O’Clair, of an anthology of twentieth-century poetry in English—about which, more later. But frankly, once I moved into New College, a sherry glass’s throw away from Ellmann’s “rooms,” he and my other Oxford dons—biographers and paleographers, historians and letter-editors—initially struck me as rather old-fashioned. Fresh out of college, I was fired up to read literature through the supernova-bright lenses of high theory. Hadn’t they heard? Old historical, New Critical, and biographical approaches to literature were old hat: out with earth-bound Antaeus; in with the air-borne gyrations of the signifier! With the support of the odd-man-out at Oxford, the theorist Terry Eagleton, I led a series of seminars on Marxist, psychoanalytic, phenomenological, deconstructive, and other vanguard approaches. I was fulfilling the declaration I’d made when asked at my final Rhodes Scholarship interview how I’d “fight the world’s fight,” in accordance with Cecil Rhodes’s will. In a response I now remember with embarrassment, I said I wanted to fight the dominance of the New Criticism and other outdated methods. (Somehow I don’t think that was the answer that won me the scholarship.) Still, whatever my differences with Ellmann, seen by some as the best literary biographer of the century, I worked closely with him and was gradually won over by his humane intelligence, his ability to twin terse insight with large-hearted responsiveness, lucidity of expression with complexity of thought. Even today, he’s strangely mixed up in my mind with Joyce’s amiable and multifaceted Leopold Bloom, whom I first encountered under Ellmann’s tutelage. Without quite realizing I was repeating Ellmann’s example from forty years earlier, I, too, ended up writing a Yale dissertation on Yeats that became my first book, and from New Haven I corresponded with Ellmann about it until he died—much too soon—from the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1987.

A year later, I started teaching at the University of Virginia when his and O’Clair’s second edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry appeared. Notwithstanding my deepened respect for Ellmann, I looked on anthologies with suspicion: I wanted to give my students the Ding an sich, the primary text, without the packaging. For my modern poetry classes, I ordered individual volumes of W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, et al., hoping to foster ingenious, Yale-style readings unimpeded by the conventional wisdom. The problem is, of course, that you have to know a lot to grapple seriously with The Waste Land, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, or “Leda and the Swan,” and my students could not be counted on to know about vegetation myths and Sanskrit dialogues, to manage Latin, Greek, and French quotations, or remember to that Zeus’s “shudder in the loins” engendered Helen, whose abduction led to the fall of Troy (“The broken, wall, the burning roof and tower”). Ironically, I found myself devoting class time to rehashing basic scholarship, before the imaginative interpretation I prized most could begin. With relief I finally switched to the Norton and left the spadework behind.

Ten years later, having taught out of Ellmann and O’Clair’s anthology every year until I came to love and admire it, a Norton Vice President I knew, Julia Reidhead, astounded me by her invitation to create a new edition of the anthology. If a candid colleague told me he was “green with envy,” my own complexion was probably several shades more pallid. The mountain to be climbed was, frankly, a little terrifying: had I read enough, did I know enough, to choose the best poems written in English in the last century from across the world? In the nearly two hundred headnotes that needed to be written or rewritten, could I successfully place each poet in a literary historical context, distill her or his distinctive formal and thematic innovations, suggest potential lines of analysis, and sketch in quick, vivid strokes the essentials of the life? It helped that I had the model of Ellmann’s fluent prose, but I felt some anxiety about becoming the termite within my tutor’s grand syntax and diction, reconsidering each phrase and clause, chomping away at archaisms and witticisms. Once the massive work of revision was under way, I came to feel less like an alien invader and more like a collegial partner in constant dialogue with the learned and lusty dead. As I streamlined and updated the biographies that were Ellmann’s emphasis, while trying to vitalize the literary analysis that was mine, Auden’s aphorism gained new meaning: “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” Revamping sentences, notes, and selections, I found myself inside my former teacher, and him inside me. For better or for worse, to adapt Auden on a dead poet, Ellmann became his admirer.

But Ellmann and O’Clair couldn’t advise me from the grave about which poems to put in, which to cut out—and ultimately I cut more than half of the material in the second edition, while expanding its total size. Even so, this project was more intensively collaborative than any of my previous work, and not only with the dead. Day and night and weekends, I worked with superb editors at Norton, constantly exchanging e-mail; excellent graduate assistants worked at a furious pace on demanding research assignments; and I canvassed a broad spectrum of colleagues and friends in the field at Virginia and across the country, ranging from Helen Vendler at Harvard to Marjorie Perloff at Stanford—dubbed the yin and yang of critical taste in the field, by the poet Charles Wright. I felt as if all these suggestions, including those in a publisher’s survey of college teachers, were transforming me from the scholarly equivalent of one of Leibniz’s windowless monads into a hundred-eyed Argus.

Still, for all the collaboration, final decisions about which poems to include or cut were often lonely. Over months I reread all the poems in the second edition slowly, deliberately, trying to figure out how much life they still had. Did each of these poems, and the thousands of others I was reading, give up its meaning too quickly or like a slow burn? If it delivered an aesthetic frisson on first reading—the poet A. E. Housman’s skin-bristle, spine-shiver test—did it reward a second and a third? Was it boldly imaginative? Formally skillful? Historically and socially responsive? Was its diction exciting? Its figurative language daring? Was it psychologically complex, emotionally rich? Did it inventively engage and revise literary and extraliterary genres and vocabularies? Was it among the strongest examples of its kind—whether the kind was high modernism or anti-modernist traditionalism, postconfessionalism or the avant-garde, Standard English formalism or Jamaican Creole orality, or the many varieties of poetry between or beyond such polarities? Were my criteria flexible enough to allow for the astonishingly various styles and movements, emerging from different ethnicities and nationalities, particularly after World War II, when no single individual or school could claim centrality in the babel of the transnational literary village? Was I giving the most influential poets their due space, while protecting smaller plots for notable minor poets?

But however inclusive I wanted the anthology to be, I knew I couldn’t help but exclude and hierarchize. In this rabidly contested literary terrain, howls of scorn, anger, and revulsion were inevitable. I had read the reviews and comment cards responding to the second edition in 1988, such as the one that sneered: “The contemporary American section is a disaster.” Another accused the editors of including poets “of minimum merit … out of deference to Official Minority politics. Some very good poets (e.g., Richard Shelton) are not mentioned. What’s happening, gentlemen?” An anonymous respondent at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop opined: “The contemporary selection is so ludicrously eccentric and filled with minor writers it will be impossible to use in a class.” Another, after blasting the selection for being too heavily weighted toward free verse, lamented (in the ubi sunt tradition): “Where are J. V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, and Turner Cassity? Where are Vikram Seth, Wendy Cope, and Dick Davis?” Another listed twenty absent poets and concluded: “Some of these poets are far superior to some that have been included.” None of these poets made my final cut either, and, indeed, I knew that trying to meet all such individual preferences could only result in an amorphous anthological mess. Given a finite amount of page space and money for permissions fees, I felt like an administrator who, unable to please but sure to irritate everyone, must make painful choices and compromises about relative merit and proportion. When I circulated a draft table of contents, an outstanding conservative critic responded to my inclusion of four avant-garde Language poets with in-the-margin incantations of “Ugh!” while a distinguished critic of the opposite persuasion said it was impossible to imagine why anyone would read even one line by a traditionalist such as Amy Clampitt or Anthony Hecht. Americanists thought the anthology too British and postcolonial, Britishists and postcolonialists that it was “Amerocentric.” I wrote an esteemed colleague about possibly including a work by a poet he had edited, and he responded in an e-mail that put me on notice: “Don’t use [the poem]. If you use [it] I will be compelled to murder you brutally and hack your carcass up and scatter the pieces in weedy lots in Northern Virginia. Well, maybe not,” he graciously added, “But I would disagree with you.” Somehow nothing I’d ever done, with the possible exception of proposing as Faculty Senate Chair that fraternity rush be pushed back a year, had provoked such intense feelings. When Auden said “poetry makes nothing happen,” he wasn’t thinking about poetry anthologies.

As if the selection process hadn’t been excruciating enough, at the eleventh hour, Norton, having received an initial accounting of the exorbitant permissions fees demanded by some publishers, asked me to cut $40,000 worth of poetry, much of it already in proof, laboriously annotated and introduced. In the range of $500,000, the staggering cost of permissions was approaching almost twice Norton’s original budget, putting the edition in danger of being swamped by fees. One publisher threatened to charge as much as $20 a line and thus give a new sense to “the golden line”—a fee that would drive up the cost of a single page over $1,000 (and there were about 2,200 pages to be reckoned with). I felt my grand anthological structure—its proportions carefully balanced and calibrated—teetering on the brink of collapse. But my already-hardening nose hardened further, and I quickly drew up a spreadsheet listing the dollar amount required to reprint each poem. Was this Frank O’Hara poem really worth the $3,600 the publisher was requesting, when all the poems I wanted by Charles Olson or Charles Reznikoff cost one-twentieth that amount in toto? Were a few brief lyrics by an emergent author worth as much as Hart Crane’s twelve-hundred line epic The Bridge? Should I dump one overpriced poem and buy ten at a discount? Trying to turn the losses to my advantage, I asked Norton to give me more pages overall if I hacked away even more than the required $40,000. This was my chance to insert some lower-budget but important long poems; I was thrilled to be able to include not only lyrics among the nearly 1,600 poems but also the entirety of The Bridge, Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems, Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” and Tony Harrison’s v., among more than twenty long poems new to the anthology. Over a few frantic weeks, I also tried to reduce fees by tracking down early, pre-copyright editions of early twentieth-century poems in rare books and periodicals. Norton’s permissions department and I appealed to the more expensive poets, publishers, and estates for fee reductions, and I was heartened when they were willing to negotiate, chagrined when we were roundly rebuffed. Since a Norton anthology can give a poet wide exposure, I was surprised that some in the “poetry business”—their eyes fixed on short-term gains—were shooting themselves, and their poems, in the not-merely-metrical foot.

Why, I often felt in those weeks, should I dirty my hands thus and treat poems as if they were appliances, to be compared dollar-by-dollar with others? Why devote time to the hundreds of thousands of factual details that had to be nailed down and yet, given the inevitable mistakes, were sure to draw the blood of remorse after publication? Why expose myself to the outrage of critical camps over getting half a loaf, or less, and of poets over being left out or not getting as much space as their rivals? Why sign on to a publication schedule that had me writing fifty-one headnotes introducing the poets new to the anthology at the neck-lacerating pace of one a day, and rewriting those to the 144 standing poets at the still more furious rate of three a day—not to mention the fresh introductions needed for the thirty-nine essays on poetry by poets, in a new “poetics” section at the end of each volume (in itself a substantial project of selection, introduction, and annotation)? During our family beach vacations, I’d also have to draft 50-60 page introductions for the two volumes of the anthology, comprehensively tracing the history of modern and contemporary world poetry in English. All of this was to happen while responding to copyeditors’ queries and, with the help of graduate assistants, correcting proof and revising the bibliographies and footnotes. Some of these draft notes had to be followed up with long hours of research that might end in a phone call to a poet or critic, as when I had to call the New York poet Kenneth Koch, as it turned out a week before he died, to determine whether the words “oona” and “zeeth” in his poem “Geography” were real foreign words or his invention (see note 2 on page 263, vol. 2, for the answer), or when a fellow anthologist friendly with Amiri Baraka interceded to find out which “Nat”— King Cole, Adderley, Turner—he meant in a poem about Thelonious Monk (see note 3, page 639). Why not skip the grief and write another book or two of my own?

Was it drivenness, even masochism? My then-four-year-old son might have thought so: on seeing me always at the computer when he awoke and went to bed, Gabriel asked me, in great earnest, if I ever went to sleep at night. Or was it the thought that recasting the most comprehensive anthology of its kind might help remap my field? It was one thing to do the kind of work I was accustomed to, writing a critical book about how postcolonial poems hybridize European with indigenous traditions in Africa, India, and the Caribbean, or a book about how modern elegies remake the inherited poetry of mourning; it was another to foreground such works in such a widely assigned teaching text in my subdiscipline. It was one thing to argue Yeats’s continuing pertinence, another to give him pride of space in an anthology published in 2003, and also expand the selections of other major poets so that they could be read and studied in greater depth, including the moderns Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, H. D., Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Claude McKay, Wilfred Owen, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, and W. H. Auden, and the postwar poets Charles Olson, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Amy Clampittt, Philip Larkin, A. R. Ammons, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Derek Walcott, Sylvia Plath, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Louise Gluck, Paul Muldoon, and my colleague Rita Dove. I could write about and teach influential African American poets, such as Hughes, McKay, Hayden, and Dove, Sterling Brown, Melvin Tolson, Lucille Clifton, and Yusef Komunyakaa—poets still scanted in most critical histories of modern and contemporary poetry—but I’d likely help shape the views of more readers by giving them no less serious and sustained treatment than their white counterparts in a multiethnic anthology, where Asian American, Latino, and Native American poets also held strong positions. I could agree with colleagues about the important contributions of experimental poets from Mina Loy and Laura Riding, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff to Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen, Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian; but to welcome the Objectivists, the Language poets, and other avant-gardists into this anthology was more consequential. Finally, I’d been arguing at conferences for a transnational approach to English-language poetry, against the inertia of disciplinary provincialism and the splintering of the field along national and regional lines; but to embody this global vision in a transnational anthology, making it possible for readers and teachers to trace cross-national lines of influence and affiliation—say, from the Anglo-American T. S. Eliot to the Kashmiri Agha Shahid Ali and the Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite, or from the Irish Yeats to the American Sylvia Plath, in turn to the Irish Eavan Boland and the Indian Eunice de Souza—was likely to be far more effective in the long run. Bridging the distance between myself and my beloved Oxford don, I came to hope that our anthology could incarnate such critical views, enact theory as practice, weld into place, in a series of interlocking texts, headnotes, and period introductions, reconceptualized contours of modern and contemporary poetic history.

Maybe I was also eager for the opportunity to bring my teaching and research into a stronger amalgam than ever before. Maybe it was a hankering after—for lack of a better phrase—”poetic justice”: fair-minded recognition, as best I could manage it, of poetic accomplishment over the last century. Maybe it was, finally, the pleasure of reading and rereading poems I love, the delight of getting to know many others that were new to me, and the privilege of explaining their verbal splendor and imaginative reach to myself and others. Having started out my career skeptical of poem-gathering as an activity of redeeming intellectual significance, I came to believe that, for all the strife and drudgery involved, anthologizing may be one of the more effective processes we have for shaping and recognizing literary worth. But since critical taste, institutions of literary study, and emerging poets constantly revise our sense of which poems are the most important, our assertions of literary value must be provisional: few things are more certain than that the canons of the present will be modified in the guts of the future.


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