Jerome Rothenberg andPierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 871 pages.
I have been anticipating the publication of the second volume of Rothenberg's and Joris's monumental anthology of modern and postmodern poetry for some time. Volume One offered a generous selection of texts from nineteenth-century precursors like Mallarmé, Dickinson, and Rimbaud, modernist masters (Yeats, Rilke, Machado), and all the major avant-garde movements. German expressionism was represented, along with North-American Objectivism, French Surrealism, and Futurism (both Russian and Italian). Neruda and Vallejo, Char and Ponge, Eliot, and Williams--virtually no major poet was absent. Volume Two, likewise, contains a wealth of material in over 800 pages, including Celan (in Pierre Joris's splendid translations), Jabès, Brazilian Concrete Poetry, some contemporary Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic poets, and a generous selection of American poets from Olson to Language poetry. Yet I find this second installment somewhat less than satisfying. The programmatic impulse that guides all of Rothenberg's anthologies is more evident than in the first volume, producing some questionable editorial decisions. While the end result is still more interesting than a standard teaching anthology compiled by a committee of academics, the ideological choices that inform Poems for the Millennium merit intense scrutiny.
The center of gravity in this anthology is occupied by contemporary American poetry in the tradition of the New American Poetry. Around seventy-five American (and Canadian) poets, representing categories such as the "Beats," the "Black Mountain School," and "Language Poetry," are represented here, along with their major precursors (Pound, Williams, H.D. , Stein, Oppen). This is a remarkable tradition that includes Rothenberg himself along with many of his associates (Antin, Kelly, Eshleman, Wakoski). At the same time, however, the selection resembles a deep and narrow stream, including virtually all significant Beat and Black Mountain poets but excluding several important New York School figures: Schuyler, Guest, Koch, Mathews. Any hint of "academic" poetry, of course, is rigorously excluded: there are no poems by Lowell, Plath, Roethke, Walcott, Brodsky, or Merrill. The poetry of the British isles is also missing in action: no Auden, Larkin, Heaney, or Hughes. This perceptible narrowing of the poetic tradition is paradoxical in an otherwise wide-ranging anthology. The inclusion of so many American poets, of course, makes any omission seem all the more egregious: the more poets that are here, paradoxically enough, the greater will be the outcry over those mysteriously left out. I can conceive of no rationale for forgetting Jack Spicer, for example, when Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser are present.
There may be justifiable reasons for preferring a bad poem by Allen Ginsberg to a bad poem by Robert Lowell. It is easier to forgive the lapses of poets with whom we already identify. Where such bias becomes most objectionable is when anthologists choose mediocre writing by poets of whom they approve over exquisite writing that escapes their narrow definition of the poetic tradition. I myself have to question the inclusion of Diane Wakoski over Barbara Guest, for example. Frank O'Hara (who is present here) was once described as "too hip for the squares and too square for the hips." Rothenberg and Joris tend to overlook poets who do not seem quite "avant-garde" enough--Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, William Bronk--but who also tend to be neglected by the conservative poetry establishment. These three are, I would contend, among our very best. What of Harry Mathews? The whole side of New School poetics that is devoted to formal experimentation--studied expertly in Joseph Conte's Unending Design--is seriously underrepresented here in favor of a mode that can best be termed "the ethnopoetic sublime."
The exclusion of unequivically academic poets is perhaps easier to justify. "They" have their own anthologies. Yet an imaginative selection from William Empson, Josephine Miles, Elizabeth Bishop, or Jorie Graham might have revealed a more interesting side of a much-maligned conservative tradition. To exclude a figure like Robert Lowell, moreover, is somewhat akin to writing a history of the American movies without mentioning John Wayne. Whether one approves of Lowell (or Auden) is largely beside the point. I can think of no comparable exclusions in the first volume: I wonder whether Yeats or Rilke, if born fifty years later, would have been anthologized in Volume Two.
The exclusion of Derek Walcott brings up another question. Would it not have been useful to juxtapose a serious rival to the oracular ethnopoetics favored by the anthologists? Granted, Walcott is often guilty of overwriting; I personally do not find his style congenial. Yet I suspect that it is Walcott's conservative cultural politics that rules him out. The Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal is allowed to get away with writing like this:
That is why poetry is divine, "godded" word.
Poetry is the "way."
Poets, sages, the tlamatinimes,
they are the ones who know. (221)
Another glaring omission is José Lezama Lima, a Cuban poet whose baroque cultural syncretism is more rewarding, certainly, than that of Cardenal.
The representation of "world poetry" in this anthology brings up another crucial question: what makes the "other" recognizable to the gaze of the American anthologist? Some foreign-language poets included here write about historical events that resonate with contemporary American readers (Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution); others practice some version of the "ethnopoetic sublime"; still others belong to recognizably "avant-garde" movements such as "Cobra." Poets, and sometimes whole nations, who do not fall into one of these categories often remain invisible. Spain (my own area of specialization) is a case in point. Since Rothenberg is the author of The Lorca Variations and of some fine translations of Lorca's Suites I expected to find some Spanish poetry in Volume Two. I was puzzled by its complete absence until I realized that Spanish poets, with a few exceptions, have moved away from Lorca's Cante jondo, (one of the inspirations for Rothenberg's own "deep image" poetics of the early 1960s). Thus Aleixandre, Cernuda, Rodríguez, Gil de Biedma, Valente, and the entire novísimo group find themselves in a curious limbo--neither folkloric enough to represent a foreigner's vision of Spain, nor central to European poetry as a whole in the way that French poetry might still be. The underrepresentation of other Southern European countries (Greece) may stem from similar factors.
As with the case of James Schuyler or Barbara Guest, superb and innovative poets can easily fall between the cracks created by ideological schisms. The deep divisions in contemporary American poetry, dating back to the anthology wars of the 1960s, which pitted the academic tradition of Hall, Pack, and Simpson against Don Allen's New American Poetry, continue to influence the selections here, even of poetry from other parts of the world. Thus Volume II of Poems for the Millennium, despite its multiple offerings, is likely to seem more arbitrary in its selections than did the earlier, more canonical volume. It will be pointed out to me, of course, that the doctrinaire quality of the anthology is precisely its strength; that the book (like Rothenberg's previous anthologies) is a strong gesture toward the creation of a new understanding of postmodern poetry; that there is a certain integrity in omitting poetry that is perceived to be foreign to this understanding. Indeed, despite its occasional oversights, the book represents the version of the postmodern tradition with which I myself identify. It is equally clear, nevertheless, that the poetry wars of the 1960s and 1970s are still being bitterly fought. The time has not arrived, unfortunately, for an anthology that represents postmodern poetry in its many ideological and aesthetic variants.
-- Jonathan Mayhew
Released: April 28, 1998