The first book of poems I ever bought, aside from those purchased for my college courses, was Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Donald Hall, a second edition, published by Penguin Books in 1971 when I was a senior in high school – Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore were still alive – about a year into my first fooling around with writing poems myself. It cost $2.50. The first edition came out in 1962 – Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams were still alive – when I was 9 years old and wouldn’t have known exactly what poems were, other than that they rhymed.
On its front and back covers is Jasper Johns’ 1954 encaustic, oil and collage on fabric, Flag above White. It’s the American flag (with 48 stars), rendered authentically, realistically, though there is about this flag the hint of impressionism, the impulse toward the fringe. It seems companionable, even appropriate, to the poems it bookends – though by 21st century standards, the poems are quite pedestrian. The red and white bars bleed slightly into one another, the white is not white at all, and the finish appears slightly impastoed. I’ve never seen the actual canvas. I bought the book in 1976, in the UNC-Charlotte book store, not long at all after moving from my hometown of Pittsburgh to North Carolina to work as a VISTA Volunteer with prison inmates. I was burning to write poems, and was sure that this little book would speed that process along. I’ve carried it around with me now for nearly 35 years. At 4 by 7 inches, it fits snugly into the side pockets of my suit coats. Of course, it’s dog-eared and foxed: 280 pages, counting the indexes. The front cover has been scotch-taped back to the book’s face a number of times. Likewise, the spine has had to be rebuilt with tape. Occasionally a few of its ungummed pages spill out, but I’ve kept it perfectly paginated and it sits, habitually, like a beloved faithful dog, on a tree stump next to my writing table. It’s keeping me company right now. It’s my favorite book of poems, among other things, for purely sentimental reasons.
Contemporary American Poetry showcases the work of thirty-nine poets. Giants of the art, by anyone’s standards, the torrential river of famous, even legendary, American poets that swept through and carved out the topography of poetry in the middle years of the 20th century. They are listed in the table of contents according to their ages. William Stafford, Dudley Randall, and David Ignatow, born in 1914, are eldest. The last poet listed, the youngest of the thirty-nine, is Ron Padgett, born in 1942, a mere twenty-nine years old when the second edition appeared. It makes no sense to list here all thirty-nine poets – most of them were famous already when the book appeared and remain that way today – but, for the sake of perspective, and authenticity, I’d like to invoke (in the order in which they appear in the table of contents) a handful of them, besides Stafford, Randall, and Ignatow: Robert Lowell , Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, James Dickey, Donald Justice, Robert Bly, James Merrill, W.D. Snodgrass, A.R. Ammons, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, James Wright, Anne Sexton, Donald Hall, Gary Snyder, Sylvia Plath.
Curiously absent are Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, and the breathtaking Elizabeth Bishop. I would have also added Robert Penn Warren, Richard Hugo and Maxine Kumin, but lists are as idiosyncratic and capricious as anthology rosters. I’ve already committed the fatal error of citing here some of the poets included in the book and not others.
The only black poets represented in Hall’s anthology are Dudley Randall and Etheridge Knight. Gwendolyn Brooks seems conspicuously absent. Hall notes in his Preface to the Second Edition that Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) declined an invitation to join the anthology. Besides Sexton and Plath, there are only two other women: Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich. In an overture to those poets Robert Lowell, in 1960, had referred to as the “raw” poets and their poems (“ … like an unscored libretto by some bearded but vegetarian Castro.”), as opposed to the poems of “cooked” poets like himself, and those of nearly all the other poets in the anthology (“ … marvelously expert and remote … constructed as a sort of mechanical or cat-nip mouse for graduate seminars”), Hall includes Beats Ginsberg and Snyder, Black Mountain Poet Ed Dorn, Tom Clark, and Padgett. There are also Frank O’Hara, Robert Creeley, and John Ashbery, who perhaps defy categorization and find themselves today cross-pollinating many schools.
For what it’s worth, there are only five native Southerners (a rubric I’ve become sensitized to since my expatriation): Dickey, Edgar Bowers, John Haines, Ammons and Knight; and, perhaps, Justice, making it six, if Miami is indeed in the South – which few Southerners would allow. Overwhelmingly, not surprisingly, the preponderant majority of the pots hail from the Northeast. There are within these pages three gay poets, O’Hara, Rich and Ginsberg, and perhaps more. There are no Latinos. No Asians. None of the “others” that have been admitted, since 1971, to the then very much grudging canon, but sure-fire certainties to show up in like-titled anthologies today.
In 1971, the cultural and political delineation, the battle lines, if you will, was exclusively between the white world and the black world (and on a lesser scale between men and women). That seemed the sum total of our difference, and we were willing only to take baby steps to mend the breach. In fact, Hall acknowledges in his Preface that “A world of black poetry exists in America … almost entirely invisible to the white world,” then goes on to say, “The world of white poetry has practised [sic] the usual genteel apartheid of tokenism …” In the spirit of his disclaimer, it seems ironic that Hall includes only two black poets in his anthology. But he also confesses his difficulty in appraising “the world of black poetry” … “as if [he] were trying to exercise [his] taste in a foreign language…” I refuse to indict Hall, an upright and just man, for not possessing a prescience that had yet to hatch on the planet. I admire his honesty. In 1971, with Vietnam still raging, a word like diversity might be applied to diet or hobbies. Was multiculturalism even in the lexicon?
In 1976, I wouldn’t have noticed the omissions. In fact, I had only heard of a handful of the poets in the anthology. Ginsberg, of course, though why I’m not sure. Dickey, only because I had seen four years earlier the film version of his novel, Deliverance. The poet I knew best was Plath (along with O’Hara the only deceased poet, at the time, in Hall’s anthology) because of her suicide (Anne Sexton, whose bio notes that she is “a housewife and lives in the suburbs of Boston,” would commit suicide three years after the anthology was published). As a high school senior, I went to see Snodgrass, a Pittsburgh native, at Pittburgh’s International Poetry Forum – for extra credit, but mainly to impress a girl who was reading Plath’s The Bell Jar (thus my initial acquaintance with Plath). Snodgrass, a distracted, bearded, seemingly tortured egghead, bored me to death, though I’m sure he read that evening from Heart’s Needle, winner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize. Pearls before swine.
My cursive signature, in what still looks like my high school penmanship, is scrawled across the very first page of the book, just above the legend, Penguin Poets, as if I’m trying to foist myself into hallowed ranks (of maybe penguins who write poems). Thank goodness, I’ve marked the book sparingly, in the main with homemade asterisks next to a handful of titles: Stafford’s “Travelling through the Dark,” the anthology’s leadoff, a poem that has now travelled with me over these years through the dark, illuminating many a workshop and class I’ve taught; Gary Snyder’s “Hay for the Horses,” where I’ve also underscored – oh, so very lightly in pencil – the line, “Whirling through shingle cracks of light,” an image that I’m still pleasantly blinded by; David Ignatow’s “The Bagel,” “East Bronx,” and “All Quiet” (under which I’ve scrawled “one cryptic line,” but failed to note the line in question); Ginsberg’s “First Party at Ken Keseys with Hell’s Angels,” where I’ve penned “the different colors in the poem”; Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”; Knight’s “As You Leave Me”; Tom Clark’s “Going to School in France or America.” I’ve written all over the Creeley poems, “For Love,” “Kore” and “The Rain.” No asterisks, but microscopic barely legible notations: “switches syntax,” “starts out as speaker,” “departure into fantasy,” addressing someone,” “the sound is associated with the rain,” “like the rain,” “question without question mark.” I’ve lost the context. My book, like all books, is a palimpsest.
Many of my favorite poems are in this book – I’d better not start naming them – but none I love better than Robert Lowell’s “Memories of West Street and Lepke and “Skunk Hour.” Have there ever been two greater opening lines “Nautilus Island’s hermit / heiress still lives through summer in her Spartan cottage”? It is Lowell that Hall invests in above any other poet in his Introduction.
It seems like a subversive book, though it isn’t. It’s provincial and beautiful, flawed, utterly mine, and still evangelizing me. I’m rifling through it now. Pages fall out as I mutter cherished lines.