Ange Mlinko wrote a bracingly stern review of Norton’s new edition of its anthology Postmodern American Poetry for the 15 April 2013 issue of The Nation. Ms Mlinko includes a promising bit from the introduction by the anthology’s editor, Paul Hoover: “Hoover is at pains to define [postmodernism] in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: ‘It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.'” What programmatic statement could set out a worthier goal for a collection of lyric poetry? History is an entire dimension of experience, and our age systematically obscures that dimension. We urgently need poetry that can pick us up, turn us around, and set us down with our eyes facing history.
Yet as Ms Mlinko tells it, this book loses sight of that or any other worthwhile goal. Most of it is given over to poems whose chief merit is that they bear some “marketable label” such as “Flarf, ‘Newlipo,’ and ‘Googlesculpting,'” “‘Conceptualist‘ and ‘postlanguage lyricist.'” The review closes with the last six lines of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles“; my favorite bit of the review is this half-paragraph in which Ms Mlinko brings her own axe down on Professor Hoover’s book:
The traditional anthologist gathers good poems according to his sensibility; the postmodern anthologist, eager to jettison sensibility, has only fashion and popularity to guide him. Poets become mere representatives of their niche, with no relation to their neighbors in the table of contents. Pity G.C. Waldrep, “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish”*: he’s sandwiched between Vanessa Place, whose Dies: A Sentence is one unrelenting 130-page sentence (only five pages of which are on offer here), and Catherine Wagner, who offers the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….” There is no transcendence in poetry anymore, according to Hoover. But I assure you, some Hells are real.
Ms Mlinko mentions some of Norton’s other anthologies, among them Bernard M. W. Knox’s Norton Book of Classical Literature. I used that one for years in one of my classes; Professor Knox was the perfect example of Ms Mlinko’s “traditional anthologist [who] gathers good poems according to his sensibility.” Professor Knox was perhaps the last major Classical scholar to practice “taste criticism” of ancient Greek and Latin literature. He was a throwback to the days when schoolboys started Latin at five and Greek at six, coming to university having read each of the canonical works of classical antiquity two or three times, so that by the time they emerged as university dons there was a non-trivial probability that they might have something of value to say about them. Professor Knox’s erudition, and the taste it underpinned, formed a monument on the order of a great public building. Reading his books is like visiting the Acropolis. Yet even his anthology was profoundly eccentric. The principle of selection seems to be an illustration of the roots of lyric in other genres of Greek literature and the influence of Greek lyric on Latin literature. Greek lyric poetry is not very much represented, however. So when I taught from it, I used to bring in translations of Greek lyric poems from outside the book and assign them in conjunction with the Greek selections to which they responded and the Latin selections which responded to them. The students were always quite interested to see the influence lyric had on Roman prose writers, especially on the way that an historian like Livy develops a focus on individuals. I really ought to write something about that someday.
Anyway, Professor Knox had a great advantage over Professor Hoover. Ms Mlinko asks why any professor would assign a class a textbook like Postmodern American Poetry. Her answer: “Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you.” All of Professor Knox’s authors had been safely dead for many centuries before he assembled his book, freeing him from any temptation to give preferential treatment to authors who are in a position to place orders for large numbers of books.
*Ms Mlinko’s description of George Calvin Waldrep as a poet who is “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish” and who deserves our pity for his placement in this book may lead one to imagine a latter-day Whittier, who contrasted his rustic Quakerism with a bewildering urban sophistication, but that isn’t quite what Mr Waldrep is like. Here’s a set of five poems of his that appeared in Typo in 2004. I think they make it clear that he was aiming for just the spot in which Professor Hoover has placed him. On the other hand, his sequence “The Batteries” (published as a chapbook in 2006, then built into his 2007 book Disclamor and reviewed here) is sensational, and lives up to the programmatic statement “an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.”