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Three Centuries of American Poetry, 1620-1923by Allen Mandelbaum
On the Canon of American Poetry
There ain't no canon. There ain't going to be any canon. There never has been a canon. That's the canon.
This formulation (which I make bold to take from Gertrude Stein's famous comment on her philosophy, "There ain't any answer, etc.") is literally true. It is now more than two hundred years since the appearance of the first anthology of American verse: Elihu H. Smith's American Poems of 1793. Of the fifteen poets and sixty-five poems in that volume, only two poets (Joel Barlow and Philip Freneau) and only one poem (Freneau's "Hurricane") have survived to stand in the present anthology. Of the fifty-five poets represented in the 1840 Gems of American Poetry, only one is represented here, and that one is Clement Moore, the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas."
By 1900 there was so much American poetry to choose from that extreme anthological principles were invoked. E. C. Stedman's American Anthology of 1900 included works by 537 poets, while C. H. Page's The Chief American Poets (1905) whittled that number down to nine. If Stedman seems unfocused, Page seems rash. Page included Bryant, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Whitman, and Lanier. No Bradstreet, no Taylor, no Dickinson, no Melville, no Robinson. In the cases of Taylor and Dickinson, we are simply lucky that the twentieth century discovered and printed poetry that was unknown in its own day. In the cases of Bradstreet, Melville, and Robinson, one can only say that taste changes. It is difficult to find a single American poet, currently considered important, who has not, at some time, for some reason, been left out. The anthology called Parnassus (1874), edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his daughter Edith, inexplicably contains no poetry by Whitman. Oscar Williams's and Edwin Honig's Major American Poets (1962) contains no T. S. Eliot because Eliot's publisher's policy at the time was "not to allow Mr. Eliot's poetry to appear in paperback books selling for less than $1.75."
More discoveries will be made and taste will change. An anthology of American poetry a hundred years from now will be as different from this one as this one is from either Stedman's or Page's. This volume is not intended to set a seal upon the past. It is meant, rather, as an invitation to the reader of today and to those poets whose names we do not yet know. "In our ordinary states of mind," Emerson once observed, "we deem not only letters in general but the most famous books part of a pre-established harmony, fatal, unalterable. . . . But Man is critic of all these also and should treat the entire extant product of the human intellect as only one age, revisable, corrigible, reversible by him."
The canon is dead. Long live the canon.
Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
OF THOSE "WHO LIVE AND SPEAK FOR AYE"
Wallace Stevens urges: "Speak it." But speech has many variants: murmur, chant, song, bluster, malediction, hymn, psalm--modes that conjure not a chorus but a fraternity-sorority of soloists. The patient work of many blessèd editors has in our present century amplified the speech of earlier centuries, giving Bradstreet, Taylor, Dickinson, Melville, and many others fuller voice, restoring neglected words.
Faced with those words, the reader-hearer is often more ecumenical than the poet. T. S. Eliot needs to bracket/browbeat the Romantics and hosanna the Metaphysical soloists; but the reader can listen attentively, sympathetically to both Shelley and Donne. Thus this American anthology is, if anything, ecumenical: two tastes, two long--and often different--experiences with texts combined in shaping it.
Taste is perhaps more kin to opinion than it is to thought. But we have tried to think through the vicissitudes of taste and to ingather poetic speech that conjures the speaker in a way that reaches us today. We have sought those words that ask to be read aloud.
We have moved as often as possible past the anthological tendency/itch to gather snippets; and where--of necessity--we have cut, we hope that our selections invite to fuller reconnaissance. The Puritan register, its anxious colloquy with an all-powerful Lord, is amply represented--allowing us to see, above all in Edward Taylor, the energy that declares man's puniness and then subverts that declaration with percussive creativity. We have mined the resources of Longfellow's taletelling, his fluent narrative, and given space, too, to his elegiac awareness of the futilities woven into the mind of the narrator. The declarative "I" of Whitman--as well as his shadowed, self-questioning self--are here; so, too, is the adroit, investigative "I" of Dickinson--her barbed lyre. In the post-Puritan age of the pensioned god, we have drawn fully on that replete rabbi, Wallace Stevens, one who shuns the "I" but is obsessed with the third person, not least the penetrating "she" who "says" and "hears" in "Sunday Morning."
We have grouped our many soloists in historical chapters-cantos-contexts, stages in America's way(s); and we have ordered the endnotes, too, in accord with the birth dates of the poets. In sectioning off those time contexts, we have remembered that "speech" also includes the quiet domestic solos that invited attention in the parlor and those cadenzas that stirred applause in the music hall. And outdoors, beneath the heavens, we have not neglected the impassioned plaint that rose from the fields of slavery, and from the people whom our hunger for land and our labors dispossessed.
In sum, the poet is not a historian, but his voice begins where the historian's begins. He breathes in time. Aloud.
Loud enough to enter our significant present as we conjure the vicissitudes of an America still coming to terms with its varied selves--reaching beyond hygienic homiletics, slick Sunday supplements, and small beer.
The gamut of registers and content which that reaching involves is indeed wide: this book, then, is a sampling, but one that is, we hope, both broad and detailed.
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