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Poetry anthologies: for better or verse

THE VINTAGE BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN POETRYEdited by J.D. McClatchy

Vintage Books, $12.95.

My anthology, American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late, (Four Walls/Eight Windows publishers, first published in 1988, second edition in 1990) caused a panic in the tiny town of American poetry. It upset all the wobbly apple carts of the academia and now there are apples all over the road. One of these apples is The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by J. D. McClatchy.

McClatchy spends all the precious pages of his introduction arguing with me (though, in good academic form, he doesn't call me by my name, preferring instead the military-inspired passive form: "Of the claims made . . .").

My anthology claimed among other things to represent poets not included in the canonical texts issued regularly and to great yawns by Harvard, Norton, and Vintage. I pointed out what is by now obvious in all other areas of life and literature, that blacks, Chicanos, women and other minorities have had a great impact in poetry.

The past 20 years of American poetry have been rich in experiment, performance and politics, and have attracted a whole new audience while being strenuously avoided by academic critics who have circled their wagons, apple-carts and horse apples so tight it's a wonder anybody breathes in there. Academic tastes are dominated by a few anthologists and professors, notably Helen Vendler of Harvard, an impressionistic critic who admires poems that most resemble country-and-western songs. (Nothing wrong with C&W! But why do in writing what C&W does better in song?) I also pointed out that the riftbetween dead white academics andliving people is widening regardless ofthe periodic attempts to paper it over withtokens. My book riled these folks because itpresented poets who didn't care about thecanon.

McClatchy tries to undo the damage: "Of theclaims made that new literary movements _ black, feminist, gay _ have emerged, it would be better to say that . . . stronger poets . . . work to complicate the issues." They work, in fact, so hard, that out of 65 poets he's only managed to include three blacks. But let's not quibble about numbers. Worst of all is his claim that this is a "contemporary" anthology. I wasn't born yesterday, but by what stretch of the imagination are Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell and Robert Penn Warren "contemporaries?" Besides the fact that they are all dead, they are also well entombed.

Anticipating this charge, McClatchy says that these are poets "whose work lives with us." So does the work of Villon, Shakespeare and Blake. In a heroic effort to deny the obvious, McClatchy also claims that rifts and battles over aesthetics, politics, art and life among poets are all illusory because deep down all these warring poets were really friends who learned from each other things like "quiet" and "soulful sprawl." That's like saying anarchist-Greens and Reagan-conservatives are really more friends than enemies because they are all in politics. Of course, there is a reason for claiming that differences do not matter, namely to cover up the musty sameness defended here.

Look at the poems and only at the poems, whines the anthologist in New Critical quaintness, as if the people who wrote the poems and what they thought about them were an aberration like pimples on a beauty queen. The whole business is quite amusing, if only because the panic is real. The fear of living people coming near poesy is keeping academics awake past their 10 p.m. beddy-time. As for the poems collected here, one can safely say that they can be found in dozens of other books. This anthology of "contemporary poetry" makes the stalwart Norton look like an avant-garde magazine.

Andrei Codrescu is a regular commentator on National Public Radio. His latest book of poetry, Belligerence, will be published by Coffee House Press in the spring.

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