Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Thoughts on Anthologies

If there is anyone out there looking to make connections between the increasingly popular world of American Buddhism and meditation and contemporary poetry, Andrew Schelling's The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry provides a one-stop shop for all things Buddhist and poetic. Published in 2005, it is an extremely handsome volume with attractive, glossy cover, leaf flaps, excellent paper, readable font, ample margins, outstanding layout, and informative notes on each poet that make for a very enjoyable read and a beautiful reference. The anthology covers both what we might call the New American and more mainstream poetry. Included are, of course, the obvious heavy weights: Gary Snyder, Jane Hirshfield, and Philip Whalen (the only non-living poet included in the volume). Experimental writers such as Leslie Scalapino, Norman Fischer, and Will Alexander are set in alongside other writers more known for their prose then poetry, such as Eliot Weinberger and Dale Pendell. Ecologically inclined poets, including Arthur Sze and Cecilia Vicuna, are also given ample space. And, in what is without a doubt my favorite part of this volume, Schelling's introduction tracks the various attempts — formal and otherwise — of reconciling Buddhist practice and poetic practice in a way that is both academic and useful to the lay person. This essay alone is worth the $22.00 sticker price.

Having recently published my first anthology, I've wrestled with the usefulness of these, at worst, heavy weight doorstoppers. After Ron Silliman reviewed For the Time Being along with two other anthologies on his blog, a number of commentators in the comments section quickly trashed anthologies on the whole as money schemes and worthless careerist moves. To an extent, I found myself agreeing with much of the criticism. As I think Silliman rightly points out in his critique of a Rock and Roll poetry anthology, anthologies miss the mark where they stretch the truth or make arbitrary distinctions. Themed anthologies often fall into this category, and all of a sudden you have a shelf full of Cat Poetry and Verses of the Night Sky. It reminds me of how the editors of Thoreau's Journal originally published selected versions of it according to season. Thoreau on Fall. Thoreau on Spring. Or Thoreau on Nature. Or Thoreau on Trees. Ultimately, this kind of arbitrary lumping demeans both the writers and the subject matter. Another way that anthologies tend to get it wrong, in my opinion, is when they cast too wide a net. When, for example, they collect too many poets who have little to do with one another into too big of a volume. This becomes your classic 700 or 800 page doorstopper, which ultimately makes the whole project unreadable, and sucks the life out of any of the actually good poems that might be contained within.

The best anthologies, on the other hand, are focused and serve a purpose. By their nature, anthologies serve as introductions. They are teaching texts and reference volumes. I find Don Allen's anthology, for example, to be so excellent, because I keep going back to it again and again. A poet like Larry Eigner, who I missed the first read through, is still there on my shelf next to Ginsberg, who I immediately loved. At some point in all of our lives our tastes change and we grow out of one writer and move toward another, and then, if we had the right impulse from the beginning, we return to the original writer with fresh perspectives and dig something else they were up to and then repeat the process several times over. I was reminded about this a few days ago when Joe Massey sent me a copy of a poem he dedicated to Joe Ceravolo. I read Ceravolo as an undergrad and regrettably have sold my Ceravolo books, but then I pulled down some nameless Norton anthology off my shelf and there Ceravolo was. So, while I'm waiting for my latest ABE.com purchase to arrive, I still have a few Ceravolo poems to keep me company.

But more then serving as a repository of who's who, a good anthology will actively point the reader off in many directions. Through Schelling's excellent explanation and examples in his introduction in the Wisdom anthology, I was able to better understand the connection between McClure's beast language and esoteric Hindu-Buddhist tantras. Maybe if I was even a somewhat astute student, this would have been obvious, but sometimes students miss what is right under their noses. Therefore, I would posit that a strong introduction is also the mark of an excellent anthology. No need in my opinion to touch on every piece within the volume, but to give shape and context to the project is crucial, not only for the introduction itself, but for the anthology as a whole. Consequently, when Tyler Doherty and I were putting together For the Time Being, a strong and well thought out introduction was at the top of our agenda from day one. Also, the decision to include an essay on teaching the poetic journal and a booklist at the end was another nod toward usefulness. The inclusion of interviews and mini essays collected spontaneously from contributors were also in this vein.

Therefore, I'd conclude that anthologies, if done right, remain a useful tool. Of course there are sellouts and unthoughtful volumes and doorstoppers galore. But a good anthology is certainly a worthy purchase. I'd like to see the conversation steer away from the knee-jerk, blanket statements toward nuance and usefulness. The nuts and bolts of what constitutes a good anthology are certainly up for discussion; a discussion that might be beneficial to us all.

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