If you’ve ever taken an Intro to American Literature course in high school or college, you will remember the textbook well, and not necessarily for the gems from the western canon that it contained. If you’re like me, you remember that book for its sheer physical weight and the way the straps of your backpack cut into your shoulders as you slogged across campus to the classroom where an instructor stood waiting to flog the life out of Bradstreet, Hawthorne and Melville.
For a long time I avoided anthologies. Besides my aversion to the physical labor needed to heft one, I found the editors' choices of works and writers were rarely inspired --the same handful of poems by the same handful of poets. Open any Am. Lit. anthology to Dickinson, and I guarantee you'll find “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Fine poems, no doubt, but the woman wrote over fifteen hundred, some of which are as good as any in the English language and the editors give us nothing but re-runs. If I was a less generous, and pure-hearted person, I would have to think the typical anthology editor is either lazy, scared to stick his/her scholarly neck out, or both.
Now that I’ve alienated enough editors to keep me out of work for a lifetime and convinced everyone else of the obsolescence of the genre, I will recommend some anthologies that breathe new life into the dusty old format.
I have several piles of books on my desk, that I rummage through pretty regularly, so that the books I don't use sink to the bottom of the stacks. This book never gets to the bottom, and I never get to the bottom of it. It's chockful of young(ish) poets of various shapes and sizes, many of whom are now some of my favorites: Olena Kalytiak Davis, Joshua Beckman, Dan Beachy-Quick, among many others.
This anthology does away with those reductive editor’s descriptions by having the poets themselves write brief “artist’s statements.” While writers are often not the best readers of their own work, the poet’s here have interesting things to say about craft and poetic theory.
Poems for the New Millennium, Volume 1 and Volume 2 / Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris
This is more in the mold of the one you slogged across campus with, the difference being the editors’ surprising choices of poets and poems, it’s worldwide scope and its thoroughness in covering the last one hundred or so years of poetry. The mini-essays on individual poems and poets are thoughtful and well-written.