Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Best This, The Best That

Looking back on all the reaction to the BAP I think it's worth remembering that it's not all a matter of questioning the editorial judgment of any particular volume in the series. There's something about the concept. Back in 1940, Delmore Schwartz wrote that "to place all the emphasis of judgment upon particular poems is the distortion of the anthologist." Do anthologies take any account of what used, quaintly, to be called a life's work? As long ago as 1928, Graves and Riding remarked, in A Pamphlet Against Anthologies that whereas "the anthology of the days before cheap books were printed was justified as a secure portfolio" for poems that might otherwise have been lost, the "trade anthology ... treats poetry as a commodity destined for instructional, narcotic, patriotic, religious, humorous and other household uses." Of all such uses, they found the "publisher's anthology" the "most offensive." Now, private anthologies which grow "directly out of serious reading" can be "valuable to its compiler." And as for the public ones, an ideal anthologist might go so far as to "recognize a valuable old poem," and know how to present it. But mostly, anthologies "create a composite author who shall be a mean struck between all the poets included." Everything in such an anthology "reads democratically much the same." This explains why, if you look toward the end of many chronologically organized historical anthologies, the contemporary poets are given dubious prominence, sharing space with the earlier Big Names. And completely contemporary anthologies - The Best New This, The Best New That - are really published to make up for poor sales of individual books of poems and the magazines in which many poems first appear.

Who today doesn't wish to anthologized, to be chosen? In the long run, Graves and Riding remark, it's almost impossible to hold out against anthologies. I can picture poets writing poems for them, working out how to explain their work in the back of such books. Some of these collections are really reductive: "Twenty-first century" poetry anthologies of work written in only the first decade of the century, and including a handful of writers who are colleagues, are already ridiculously here. Yet nothing, Riding and Graves conclude, could be worse, for "the worst fate that contemporary poetry can have is to have any fate, however unarbitrary, with its contemporaries." If you did away with contemporary anthologies, all you'd have left is books of poems written for those meant to discover and read them. Imagine that: books upon books in piles to be read!

Currently listening :
Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry
By Bobbie Gentry

1 comment:

AM said...

I wish I had written this. Perfectly expressed.