Over at The Plumbline School there’s been an affectionate discussion of Hayden Carruth‘s durable anthology The Voice that Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Among the back and forth in the comment stream one of this blog’s “followers,” the mysterious Mairi, made a fascinating suggestion: “Why don’t you start a list? By ‘you’ I mean all of you. Give people something else to sit around in coffee houses and come to fisticuffs over. It’s the least you can do for National Poetry Month.”
I replied to her that I thought it was a terrific idea, and that maybe we (we who?) might model our selections on Carruth’s procedure. This led me to look closely at the collection to see what guidance I could find. Here’s what I learned.
Carruth’s anthology begins with Robert Frost, born in 1875, and ends with Joel Sloman, born in 1943. That’s a span of 68 years, and Sloman—the youngest poet in the book—was 27 at the time of publication (1970). A 27-year-old today would have been born in 1982, and a poet born 68 years earlier would have been born in 1914. This is an interesting span because it would leave out over half of Carruth’s poets, including all the High Modernists, eliminating everyone from Robert Frost to Karl Shapiro.
More important to anyone trying to “update” The Voice That Is Great, of course, are Carruth’s “principles of selection,” which in his introduction he explains “are general rather than absolute”:
1. To admit no poem merely because it is famous, but rather to reexamine the entire work of each poet and to choose the poems that seem now, in current taste and feeling, his strongest.
2. To exclude all translations, excerpts from long poems, and poems with extensive notes, epigraphs or other appendages.
3. To give primacy among all criteria to my own feeling, and to select no particular poem that does not seem to me genuine within its given modality, whatever that may be.
Looking over these principles, it’s remarkable how faithful Carruth was to them and how lucky we are that he trusted his “own feeling” and sense of what is genuine “within [a] given modality.” It’s an approach that might serve all of us well.
That said (forgive me for waxing mathematical), I find the distribution of Carruth’s choices is revealing. He includes 17 poems by William Carlos Williams, versus 16 by Robert Frost and 6 by T. S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not among them); the poet represented by the largest number of poems (by my count) is e. e. cummings with 22, while the poet to whom Carruth dedicates the book, Ezra Pound, comes in a close second with 20. He gives us 2 poems by Elizabeth Bishop and 7 by Robert Lowell (that rattling sound is a few thousand MFA students shaking their heads); there are 8 poems each by W. S. Merwin, Karl Shapiro, and John Berryman; 9 by Louis Zukofsky (66 years old when Voice was published) and 10 by Gregory Corso (who was 40 at the time); there are 11 poems by J. V. Cunningham, 12 by Denise Levertov, 13 by Theodore Roethke, and 15 by Robert Creeley; and Charles Olson, John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, Stanley Moss, Robert Bly, Larry Eigner, Gary Snyder, Sylvia Plath, and Diane Wakoski are represented by 3 poems each. And these are just 23 of the 135 poets in the book!
Well, there’s the challenge. I don’t know whether The Plumbline School will take it up, if only because of limitations in the Blogger format (it would result in a comment stream running from now until doomsday). But I love the idea and plan to start my own list. If nothing else it’ll require a kind of in-depth rereading I’ve never undertaken. What a pleasure!