from Epoch, Volume 62, Number 1 - 2013
An anthology is like a library, its contents organized not by the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress system, but by principles of the editor's own devising, designed to please and educate its readers, to delight and instruct. It is, like any library anywhere, a distillation and arrangement of available material, its poems surrounded by the white space which embodies a library's silence, attentiveness, and inward joy.
Poetry abounds in juicy etymologies, but the best may be that of "anthology," from the Greek for "flower-gathering." Down to its verbal roots, an anthology is a collection of flowers, a bouquet, a selection of the best blooms in the poetic garden, carefully cut and arranged and presented to an appreciative reader by a discerning editor, the anthologist.
On the one hand, this is a great convenience. You don't have to comb through hundreds, or thousands, of individual books of poems to find the most dazzling ones: Jahan Ramazani or Rita Dove or some other editor has already done that work for you, and gathered the results into a single volume that takes up much less space on the shelf. This is why anthologies are so widely used in schools at all levels, where most of us first encounter poetry in its anthologized form: as handy, portable, relatively cheap volumes, with each poem's worth confirmed by its inclusion in the collection, or at least acknowledged in a way that the millions of other non-anthologized verses are not. These poems must be all-stars, members of a literary dream team: who wouldn't want to read them, or even write one of them and achieve a kind of immortality by association?
On the other hand: though an anthology may indeed be a convenient and useful volume, it is also—by its very nature—a misrepresentation. No anthology can be truly comprehensive: it must be a culling of the abundant blossoming, one person's selection from a very large field of flowers. It's not the choice you would have made: "How could he leave out that great Emily Dickinson or Seamus Heaney poem?" you cry, "and for God's sake, where is Hayden Carrruth?" It's certainly not the choice the author would have made, if indeed the poet could choose a dozen from many hundreds of beloved literary children and offer them up for display. An anthology should propel us from its collection or selection, however intriguing or unsatisfying, to the actual books of the poets themselves, to the library or bookstore shelves where we can read the poems in the context of individual volumes and discover other unanthologized beauties—though we're also likely to find weaker work that deserves to be buried in a Collected Poems, if it should be in print at all.
Children are very familiar with anthologies. The Bible is a wild anthology, one some of us heard from a very early age, again and again, though we probably didn't think of it as described by the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: "a heterogeneous collection of Jewish (Hebrew) and Christian (Greek) texts written over more than a millennium." Hymnals are also anthologies—in fact, that's one of the archaic definitions of "anthology" in the Oxford English Dictionary. And we were often read to out of anthologies, collections of children's poems and stories that we heard and reheard and enjoyed: there's no lovelier sight and sound than a parent reading to a child, is there?
And then, a bit later, the hormones hit, and we started listening to rock 'n' roll on the radio or LP records, each album offering its dozen or so black roses, later reconfigured as a Greatest Hits collection, a Best Of anthology....
Is this stretching the notion of "anthologizing" too thin? Not really. It's a basic human urge, this selective collecting, and it's particularly central to our mutual literary enterprise, to reading and then sharing what Matthew Arnold called culture, "the best which has been thought and said in the world."
Doesn't every reader anthologize, all the time? If you're making your way through a book of poetry with the attention it deserves—slowly, receptively, sometimes stopping to mouth the words aloud, rereading and savoring a poem, making happy pencilings in the margins—don't you find that some of the poems give you more pleasure than others, for whatever reason? And those poems become part of the mental anthology that you always carry around, sometimes sharing your enthusiasms with others, sometimes savoring them privately, but never quite forgetting the work that left its mark on your ear and eye, your heart and mind. If you were assembling an anthology for publication, you'd definitely consider x from this anthology (side note: anthologies are often gathered out of other anthologies, at their worst perpetuating the same old stuff), or y from that magazine, or z from an individual volume. This is natural, and this is healthy. It's like a literary mixtape or CD, where you say: here's what excites and moves me, I hope you like it too.
It doesn't matter if your private anthology is ever actually published: every reader is an anthologist, listening for good poems, considering new ones as well as old favorites, always looking to be surprised by those concentrated verbal worlds that have spun into view for the first time or returned for another appreciative viewing.
One of Robert Pinsky's excellent pieces of advice for young writers is: "Make your own personal anthology." This exercise requires you to (1) read widely and carefully; (2) select thirty to fifty of your absolute favorite poems; (3) type each one of them out—a lot to ask, in these online copy-and-paste days, but a great manual way to learn things about how the poem's words work on the page; (4) figure out how to organize them.
I've used this assignment a few times with my students, and added a fifth requirement: (5) write an introduction to your anthology that gives the reader an idea of why you chose and arranged as you did. The results have been most enlightening, for anthologist and teacher. Could and should "Anthologizing" be a course in creative writing programs, at whatever level, an extended and very instructive lesson in how this corner of the literary garden is tended?
Making your own personal anthology is far more than just an exercise: it's an extension and an embodiment of your life as a reader. Such a collection is, as Rachel Hadas puts it, "a window into one person's taste, memory, and emotions; it amounts to a compressed literary memoir." How curious, the idea that one's memoir could be written by other writers; and yet, at its best, how attractive and true.
The making of a personal anthology is an ongoing (indeed, a lifelong) process. "What do I need to become an anthologist?" asks Randall Jarrell. "Taste.... Nothing expresses and exposes your taste so completely—nothing is your taste so nearly—as that vague final treasury of the really best poems that grows in your head all your life." His "treasury" is right on the money, the idea that we readers can carry valued and valuable poems in our heads to the end of our days, words that—to us and our taste—are precious, even priceless.
A good anthology is like a good museum, each poem a worthy work of art gathered into galleries and displayed to its best advantage, to please and inspire us in ways that, ultimately, can't quite be articulated.
"Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man," said high-flown Shelley in his immortal pronouncement about poetry. The crucial part is the start of that sentence: "poetry redeems from decay," it saves something on the page that would otherwise decompose, disintegrate, disappear. It becomes a way of remembering things that would otherwise be forgotten.
That's one reason I have all my students memorize and recite poems: by committing a poem to memory, by taking it into your mind and body, by speaking it aloud rather than merely reading it silently, you have made it literally a part of you: and if you memorize several more, a dozen, fifty, a hundred, you become a walking anthology, able to speak a poem at any time, for whatever reason.
Anthologizing serves a similar function, if not quite as radical as memorizing: by selecting, and typing out, and thinking about a poem that's special to you, and arranging it with other such poems, you have helped redeem it from decay and oblivion, which is most gratifying to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and mother of the nine muses.
Through the years, doesn't each of us compile an individual Anthology of Underappreciated Writers? Mine features Robert Francis, not just for his subtle and marvelous lyric poems but also for his prose. The Satirical Rogue on Poetry is my favorite book of a poet's prose about poetry, a slim collection of 84 very brief essays, sly and impish and absolutely spot-on. The "Poets on Poetry" series at the University of Michigan Press collected that book and further roguish pronouncements by Francis in Pot Shots at Poetry, which includes a piece called "Anthologists," a quietly subversive take on the relationship of anthologizing to canon-making, on the difference between anthologists and critics.
"Anthologists are by derivation flower gatherers," Francis begins, "but flower gathering hardly suggests the seriousness of their pursuit. It would be more accurate to liken them to bees, whose seriousness and industry are proverbial.... For after the critics have decided who the real poets are—the pure, the important, the immortal—the anthologists come along with rather a different answer. They are less interested in poet than poem; and less interested in the pedigree of a poem than in its readability. If critics are aristocrats, writing for the few about the few, anthologists are usually democrats, writing for the many and hoping for a good sale."
I know of no higher compliment than to say: I wish I'd written that.
Are there just too many anthologies in print? Probably so, especially the annual Best American series, which by now includes not just the Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry and Best American Essays, but also the Best American Science and Nature Writing, Best American Sports Writing, Best American Comics, and Best American Non-Required Reading, whatever that is. The persistence of this genre or sub-genre shows that at least one publisher believes there's an audience for it.
Does this mean that readers have gotten lazier and want somebody else to pick the best for them, or that there are so many books published, nobody can keep up? Possibly so. And yet, where's the harm?—unless anthologies are keeping readers from actually buying the books in which the work originally appeared.
Some poetry teachers argue against the typical reliance on anthologies in the classroom, instead calling for the use of individual volumes of poetry, which would benefit both the press and the author. Unfortunately, that can get expensive for the student and exhausting for the teacher, and it doesn't provide the historical and aesthetic range that's particularly instructive for lower-level undergraduates.
Anthologies are still the standard introduction to poetry in most courses, and the stakes are high, financially and intellectually. Responses can be passionate, as shown in a late 2011 dustup in the New York Review of Books, where critic Helen Vendler tore into the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry ("Are These the Poems to Remember?") and editor Rita Dove offered a spirited response ("Defending an Anthology"). The parties did not agree to disagree.
Not all anthologists care to gather "great" poems. Take Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, who edited The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (1930), which is just what the subtitle says it is: a collection of "good Bad Verse" from three centuries of English poetry, unintentional poetic miscalculations that are most entertaining. But what makes this book a comic masterpiece, and the funniest anthology ever published, is exactly what makes the Norton anthologies so dull: the introduction, the head- and footnotes, and (believe it or not) the index.
The editors thoughtfully provide a prefatory selection of Hors-d'Oeuvres and a concluding section of Postprandials, selected lines from some of the best Bad Verse, such as "Her smile was silent as the smile on corpses three hours old." They also include such useful biographical details as "The duchess was fantastic in dress as in writing, wore many face-patches, and was virtuous to the point of ill-breeding." But the best part of the book was added for the second edition:
"It is hoped," say the editors, "that serious students will welcome the addition of a Subject Index," with such tongue-in-cheek entries as "Englishman, his heart a rich rough gem that leaps and strikes and glows and yearns, 200-1" or "Immortality, hope of, distinguishes man from silk-worm, 152" or "Manure, adjudged a fit subject for the Muse, 91" or "Oxygen, glorious, God's, xv."
All this, plus eight witty illustrations by Max Beerbohm, including "Walt Whitman, inciting the Bird of Freedom to soar." As Daffy Duck would say, it is to laugh. And it is to remind us readers and writers and editors of poetry not to take ourselves too seriously, always a healthy lesson.
Some anthologies, alas, are cemeteries, each poem a gravestone to some dated idea or taste. Such gatherings are not merely mortal: they can be actively anti-immortal.
Many anthologies are period pieces: their pages may not be graves but they do have a musty antique smell when we open them a decade or a century or a millennium later.
However, at least one fellow human went to the trouble of anthologizing, once upon a time. And the poems themselves, the few really good ones, survive and endure, waiting to be read, rediscovered, resurrected by an appreciative reader.
As an undergraduate would-be master poet, I became smitten with anthologies, in particular the 1973 edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Now it seems fairly annoying to me, with its cobalt blue cover and dark yellow title letters, with its pretentious headnotes and unnecessary footnotes, but as an English major and young writer, it was the epitome of culture to me: a tall thick brick of a book, a poetic Holy Scriptures—actually printed on opaque Bible paper—whose Genesis was Whitman, whose Exodus was Dickinson, whose prophets were Yeats and Pound and Eliot, and whose New Testament good news came from Roethke, Bishop, Lowell, and other writers born even closer to my own birth date. When I was really giddy, I fancied that I would someday become the tip of this poetic iceberg, the last poet in some future edition, the gleaming blade of the cutting edge. (Side note: That's often the least reliable part of a chronological anthology, the most contemporary writers—the ones whose parentheses are only half full, the post-dash date of death not yet filled in.)
As a fledgling haunter of used bookstores, I headed straight for the poetry section first, always checking out the anthologies, the ways that different editors had conceived to take a cross-section of the incomprehensibly huge planet of poetry. Pretty much any Faber or Oxford or Penguin book of poetry made me swoon. As a result, I still have on my shelves anthologies whose poems are focused on and organized around such topics as baseball, sports and games, music, jazz, rock, movies, visual art, birds, Christmas, work, cars, friendship, love, marriage, war, God, Greek myths, Shakespeare, erotic poetry, cowboy poetry, light verse, and—one of my favorites, though it does include prose—Drink, Drinkers, and Drinking. And I keep buying anthologies, including the darling little Everyman's Library Pocket Poets volumes, with their clever dust jackets and decorative endpapers and silk ribbon markers.
And of course there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of other approaches to anthologizing poetry, not only by theme or subject but by date, by nation or region or state or city, by—well, you imagine it, and it's probably already been done.
Which didn't stop me from doing it myself.
I've edited two anthologies of contemporary North Carolina literature. That might sound like a mighty narrow way to slice the literary pie, but in fact the Tar Heel State produced many fine writers in the last few decades of the twentieth century, when I was reading their new books closely. There was (I knew) plenty to choose from, there were (I believed) readers who wanted to read it, and there was (I hoped) a publisher who would want to bring out such a collection, i.e., the University of North Carolina Press.
The first of these anthologies was born out of irritation, possibly jealousy—feelings that should not be undervalued as spurs to getting things done. The 1980s had seen a startling outburst of first-rate writing in our state, what Fred Chappell later called a "literary efflorescence," and I had spent most of that decade reviewing those books in a local weekly magazine and on a local NPR station, trying to pay them the kind of thoughtful attention they weren't getting in the national media, though most were being published by national houses and presses. When these writers were getting reviewed, it was almost always the fiction writers—which was fine, some of my best friends were and are fiction writers, but as a poet that started to grate on me. There were plenty of outstanding North Carolina poets doing outstanding work: why were they and their poems not being noticed?
Once UNC Press published The Rough Road Home: Stories by North Carolina Writers, in 1992, my fate was sealed. I liked that book, and I was glad it existed as a way of showcasing some excellent local fictioneers, but I knew it was only half the story. I was tired of poetry always flying under the literary radar: I wanted to show that it could and should be enjoyed by any serious reader who also enjoyed novels and short stories. I wanted to make a companion volume featuring contemporary North Carolina poets. And though I didn't consciously think about it at first, I wanted to become an anthologist, the editor of a volume handpicked by me, one that would really show how it should be done.
Obviously, there are pleasures to be had in making an anthology to be published as a book. One is dreaming up the idea for your collection. Another is convincing an editor or press to say, Okay, we'll publish this. And a very major pleasure, a season of happiness, is the sweet time when you're reading and reading and reading, thousands of poems in hundreds of books, all sprawled around your desk or chair as you re-read and re-read and re-read, picking your favorites, making lists or piles of "YES!" and "Maybe" or sometimes "NO," trying to decide which poems might, then could, then should, then absolutely must make the cut into the final gathering—all of this is fun, a reader's honeymoon, and the kind of thing we all do when reading and enjoying books.
But then come the griefs. The first, of course, is that your selection is much too large, and you must cut poems or poets that you really wanted to include in your anthology. (Side note: this excision will come back to haunt you later, guaranteed.) The second grief is that the press has "helpful" suggestions that ruin the beautiful balance of what you've made, like, say, insisting that a certain famous literary figure be included in your book because she is nationally-known and will sell copies, though you insist that (1) she isn't really a poet, (2) she isn't really a very good poet, (3) she isn't really a North Carolinian, though she maintains a residence in the state, and (4) her presence in your anthology won't actually sell more copies.
They win. You lose. Other losses follow, including the payment of permission-to-reprint fees by the editor (not the press), which can lead to some strange negotiations. Here's one I had with a major New York publisher—I'd written three or four letters, with no response, and finally got the editor who handled rights and licensing on the phone:
Me: "This is Michael McFee, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I've written you about an anthology I'm editing, of North Carolina poetry—"
Guy, cutting me off: "Yeah, yeah, I know who you are." Silence. Me, after waiting: "Well, then, as you may remember, I'd like to use six poems from a book you published—"
Guy, cutting me off again: "Six hundred dollars."
Me: "Sir, as you may remember, this book is being published by a not-for-profit university press—"
Guy, cutting me off yet again: "Okay, three hundred dollars." Me, continuing: "—a university press, and I am a part-time teacher paying for reprint fees from my own pocket—"
Guy, cutting me off one more time: "Okay, geez! One-fifty. Final offer."
However, most presses (especially university presses) and most authors were much more gracious, and the paperwork got done, and the anthology was finally published, by UNC Press, in 1994, as The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets.
And of course, the greatest pleasure of all was holding that new baby in my arms.
For a university press, the anthology sold well. The few reviews were friendly, the book got adopted for a college course or two (and continues to be used, now and then), but there were some unhappy readers. And not just the poets I couldn't or didn't include. I heard that, at a literary gathering I couldn't attend, one of the state's most venerable literary statesmen stood up and said that any anthology of North Carolina poetry which didn't include at least a hundred poets wasn't a real sampling of the poems being written in our state.
He was right: my anthology was different from other regional anthologies, and a critique of their approach. As I wrote in the introduction, "Rather than offering quick tastes of many poets, then snatching readers off to another dish in the poetry buffet once they're found something they like, this anthology offers generous servings of fewer poets.... Just as fiction writers may need ten or fifteen pages in order to fully develop a story, poets benefit from a more substantial sampling of their work, something more comprehensive than a single lyric poem, however delicious."
My implicit critique of the Norton anthology was: Use no footnotes, and move the prose about the poets to the back of the book, where readers can look at it or not. The poems are the point.
Did I make mistakes with The Language They Speak? Oh yes. But mostly I'm still pretty proud of the book I made from other poets' poems. Would I ever do another poetry anthology? I doubt it. Being that kind of editor may well be a young person's calling: it takes a certain swagger and energy to do it right, and such vigor as I still possess needs to go into my own poems. But I'm glad that other editors are still plucking and arranging the poetic flowers in new ways, because to do so is a public way of reading and re-reading and thinking about what Coleridge called "the best words in the best order."
Do some anthologists quietly publish work by their friends, their students, their colleagues, their mentors, their lovers, themselves? Of course: it has always been thus.
Does that matter? Probably not, as long as the work fits the parameters of the anthology and actually deserves to be in there, along with the other work lacking personal connections.
I included my own poetry in The Language They Speak, because it met the requirements and seemed worthy of inclusion. At the time, that felt like the right thing to do, and also like a reward to myself for all the labor that went into the book. Now, looking back, it seems a vain mistake; or maybe it's just those youthful poems that pain me, and that author photo with the 1980s mustache and haircut ....
A favorite anthology is like a favorite cookbook, a collection of thoroughly tested and tasted recipes that have been proven to work, to satisfy, to delight. We know we can go back to them again and again, and be fulfilled.
A surprising thing about anthologizing: it can help you learn to put your own books of poetry together. The process is pretty much identical: you have a number of poems written over a number of years, you choose the ones that seem strongest and work together well, and you arrange them in a way that makes some kind of emotional sense. The poems may tell a story, even if the narrative is buried; they may pursue a motif or technical concern; they may cohere around a subject or character or thematic center—whatever it is they do, or that you see them doing, you try to put one poem next to the other in a way that strengthens each and develops a coherent whole. Poems write themselves together while written apart, and your job—as editor of an anthology or of your own poems—is to discover those connections and make them into a meaningful pattern for the reader of your book.
Poets have different degrees of obsessiveness about the capital D design of their capital B book. Even though readers sometimes just skip around in their collections, plucking what they fancy from those poem-gardens and not sitting down and reading the volumes straight through, we writers hope that attention will be paid to the order we devise. William Matthews was (a friend of his told me) a fiend about sequencing the poems in his individual volumes. Other poets are more casual. A colleague and I were once trying to figure out the order of the poems in Briefings, by A. R. Ammons, and came up with an elaborate pattern of dark/light, death/life, etc./etc.: when we phoned Ammons to find out if this was true, he said, "Well, that's very interesting, but I just arranged the poems alphabetically by first line." (Almost: he shrewdly moved one of his best poems, "The City Limits," which begins "When you consider the radiance," to the very end of the book, placing it after six poems it should have preceded.) The same random, yet surprisingly evocative and effective principle was used by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes in their terrific anthology The Rattle Bag, whose poems are presented alphabetically by title.
I probably fall somewhere in between Matthews and Ammons. I do a preliminary winnowing of my poems, and make stacks of strong yes / probably yes / possibly yes poems, then I take those to the library of the local Episcopal church and spread them out on the huge table and spend hours walking around them, making and changing groupings, putting different poems next to others like different colors in painting or different notes in a chord, experimenting, reconfiguring, trying to figure out the essence of what I've written and the best way to present it. Sometimes I know where I want the book to start or where I want it to end, sometimes I know certain poems that need to be together (or far apart), but mostly I make sense of it as I go—just as I did with the anthologies, just as I do with every poem I write, where I have a beginning or a trigger but never know exactly where the words will take me. "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," as Frost says.
In graduate school, I discovered—totally by accident, not design, the best way—W. H. Auden's prose book called A Certain World. In so doing, I discovered the genre of the commonplace book, a personal miscellany of whatever words seem interesting to the compiler, along with any notes or comments he wishes to add. It's an informal record of one's reading and one's response to it: a commonplace book is like Pinsky's poetry anthology challenge, though it can also include prose of all kinds, quotes, overheard talk, or whatever catches one's eye and ear. It's a journal of memorable words.
A Certain World is a delight, playful and serious and surprising throughout. Auden read just about everything, and—though a certifiable snob—his taste was very wide-ranging. There are nearly 200 categorical entries in A Certain World, from "Acronyms" to "World, End of the." Under "Names, Proper," Auden says, "Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. Someone who is translating into English a German novel, the hero of which is named Heinrich, will leave the name as it is; he will not Anglicize it into Henry." He follows this opening commentary with nine entertaining pages of quotes about names, including a beauty from Thoreau: "With knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of the thing."
It might seem peculiar and archaic to take the time and trouble to copy out favorite passages of writing. But it's important to figure out a way of responding—regularly and thoughtfully—in words, to words. Rather than just reading something and forgetting it, take time to record your reaction: no need to write a full-length review, just a sentence or two that will anchor some loved words to the sea of the page. To me, that's the best kind of anthology, one that's personal and genuine and heartfelt, one you can return to years later and say, "Oh yeah—I'd forgotten that—it is good—and now I remember why I liked it."
To turn to an underappreciated state of poetic development, before a finished volume of poems appears and long before any of its contents survives the cut and makes it into an anthology: every editor of a magazine or literary journal is also anthologizing, reading through mounds of material, rejecting most of it (side note: surprising how easy that can be, when reading in context), setting aside some favorites, and then selecting a worthy handful for the next issue. This process can take weeks, months, even longer, and it's a far cry from the leisurely reading of poems for sheer pleasure, but finally it's the same thing: you make your way through heaps of poem-blooms that have been dumped on your editorial table, and you select the most eye- and ear- and nose-catching for the next bouquet you will share with the world, arranging them next to each other in the most effective way.
Robert Graves once wrote, "A well-chosen anthology is a complete dispensary of medicine for the more common mental disorders, and may be used as much for prevention as cure." I think that's praise, for an Englishman, though I'm not sure.
Mrs. Robert Graves once received a letter that said, 'An anthology is like all the plums and orange peel picked out of a cake." I think that's bad, to an Englishwoman, but I'm not positive.
When anthologies and anthologists are thought or written about, which is not often, they're probably regarded—like publishers—with suspicion, distrust, or bemusement. E. E. Cummings had an acid epigram about Louis Untermeyer, a prolific anthologist whose Treasury of Great Poems was one of the most widely read collections of English-language poetry for many years: "mr u will not be missed / who as an anthologist / sold the many on the few / not excluding mr u."
Even so, I do admire Mr. U for once saying, "The purpose of an anthology must always be to arouse an interest rather than to satisfy a curiosity. If it brings its owners nearer the source, it will have fulfilled its prime function."
Nicholson Baker's wonderfully entertaining novel, The Anthologist, didn't do much for the public image of anthologists. The title character is a slightly unhinged out-of-favor poet who is trying to finish the introduction to his new anthology, but—for various personal and professional reasons—he just can't get it done. The book is a series of eccentric but hilarious and often insightful digressions about poetry and literary culture, and especially about yearning for order in art and life and love; but (true to the narrator's avoidance of the task at hand) only rarely does the novel have much to do with actually being an anthologist or putting together an anthology.
One passage that does: "You're determined that this is going to be a real anthology. This isn't going to be one of those anthologies where you sample it and think, Now why is that poem there? No, this is going to be an anthology where every poem you alight on and read, you say to yourself, Holy God dang, that is good. That is so good, and so twisty, and so shadowy, and so chewy, and so boomerangy, that it requires the forging of a new word for beauty. Rupasnil. Beauty. Rupasnil. It's so good that as soon as you start reading the poem with your eyes you know immediately that you have to restart again reading it in a whisper to yourself so that you can really hear it. So good that you want to set it to musical notes of your own invention. That good."
But as the narrator says, few poems reach that level of rupasnil, and so must be cut. In fact, he muses, weren't most of them included because of one fine stanza, or even one sublime line? He goes on to run his idea into the ground, as usual, reducing what's good about anthologized poems to "shockingly great" individual words. "But of course that's not going to work," he concludes. "That's just a bunch of disembodied words from great poems. And that's when you realize you're not an anthologist."
The exacting narrator of Baker's novel says that his forthcoming anthology of poetry, Only Rhyme, "would of course define me as an anthologist—i.e., as a lost soul who turned in despair to the publishing of other people's work, like old Oscar Williams." This comes near the end of a 243-page novel, and by that point we know it to be true of the speaker, who is a bit adrift and desperate, and very comically so.
But is it true of anthologists in general? Are they all lost souls and (like him) lapsed writers who, in their lostness, turned to the publishing of other people's work? Is an editor's relationship to the anthologized work always parasitic, feeding off those living host-poems while contributing nothing to their survival?
Or can it be, at its best, symbiotic—editor and anthologized work living together in an arrangement mutually beneficial to both?
The first essay in James Dickey's yeasty collection of criticism, Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now, is called "In the Presence of Anthologies." "The raison d'etre of the anthology," Dickey says, about halfway through, "is only secondarily to indicate trends, groups, schools, and periods, or to show what the young are writing, or what the old have written at different times, under different cultural conditions, or to demonstrate what Oscar Williams considers to be A Treasury of Great Poems. It is not to present a reflection of 'the sensibility of an era' as seen in the eyes of its editors, or, more fragmentarily, in those of its poets. It is to lead readers to the poets on their home ground, their own books, where they present their worlds as fully and deeply as they are able."
That's a fine geographical image: anthologies should lead readers to the poets' own books, the "home ground" where their work is rooted, the world of words they've made there. The flowers in an anthologist's bouquet may look quite lovely together, but that's not their native place: though it requires more effort to do so, there's often a deeper pleasure to be taken back at the poems' source.
To anthologize, its etymology reminds us, is to make a metaphorical bouquet of poetic flowers. I have also suggested that a good anthology is like a library, a museum, or a cookbook, while a bad anthology is like a cemetery. Surely there are other images for what anthologies are and for what we anthologists should and should not do when anthologizing.
In the end, a really good anthology is like a really good party, the editor its host, the poems its special guests, all talking to each other—and to you, also a guest at the party and part of the conversation, the best of those Best-Of words lingering afterwards in your mouth and mind, as you head back home, word-tipsy, satisfied.
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About the Author
Michael McFee is the author of ten books of poems (most recently That Was Oasis), a collection of essays (The Napkin Manuscripts) and three anthologies, including This Is Where We Live: Short Stories by 25 Contemporary North Carolina Writers.
Editor: Michael Koch
Managing Editor: Heidi E. Marschner
Poetry Editor: Nancy Vieira Couto
Senior Editor: Joseph Martin