Transcending the limits of print


Anthology of Modern American Poetry
Cary Nelson, editor
Oxford U Press, 2000
1247 p.

I’m reading through Oxford’s massive Anthology of Modern American Poetry. I’m interested in the literature, of course, but interested equally in the questions that drove the selection process. I was struck by how often a biographical sketch mentioned that a poet was a socialist or communist or blacklisted as such. Then I began wondering about the mix of gender, of people of color, well-known writers vs. newcomers, and so forth.

Should an anthology argue for a major reassessment? Yes, says Cary Nelson, who edited this one. And this is the first comprehensive anthology to give so much coverage to Langston Hughes, for example, besides including poets who will be unknown to many readers.

Cary Nelson teaches modern poetry and literary theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English, and author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical.

On to other editorial questions: Does an editor choose representative poems from a poet’s entire career? Or focus on one decisive moment? Nelson decided that for each writer individually.

No matter the size and scope, any printed anthology has physical limits. Can, or should, an anthology provide space for long poems and poem sequences? Nelson chose to do so in many cases, including extended pieces by Stein, Eliot, Rexroth, Rukeyser, Ginsberg, and Rich, for example. Book length poem sequences like Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony receive substantial selections.

How much room to devote to specific genres: poems about love, about the political 1930s, about religion, about the holocaust? About race relations?

Nelson had to juggle all the above. Anyone could quibble about any of the thousands of decisions he had to make. One thing that I really like, though, is Nelson decided to produce an accompanying online journal and multimedia site, called MAPS.

MAPS is part archive, part living project, intended as a resource for teaching modern American poetry. (Its editorial board includes Alan Filreis, who helps mastermind the PennSound site and its rich audio media.) Nelson says MAPS was designed to help all readers of modern poetry, not just readers of the Oxford anthology.

That was an editorial decision of sheer generosity.


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