Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

Jed Rasula
The Futility of Anthologies
Balancing the Claims of Representation, Aesthetics, and Pedagogy

The following is a transcription of the talk given at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, in Chicago, 1995.

One thing about anthologies: there’s always a new one to hand. For anyone who came to poetry through an anthology—that is, for nearly everyone—there’s a momentary flicker of excited expectation as you leaf through the pages, noting all the familiar faces, until they start to seem too familiar; at which point the anthology reverts to a stereotype display like a Hallmark greeting card rack, and the poems begin to have the seasonal predictability, the banal inevitability of Halloween pumpkins, Thanksgiving pilgrims, and Christmas ornaments. It turns out to be another one of those Usual Suspects jobs which rakes chestnuts out of the smouldering pit of textbooks and make them available to the “general public” in municipal libraries and as a giftbook option in shopping mall bookchains like B. Dalton. It may even provide this phantom public with a typically vacuous formulation: “Poetry is the highest expression in language of our deepest longings, and it represents our most concentrated efforts to find a language adequate to our experience.”1 This posture (which, believe me, I’m not capable of making up on my own) doesn’t so much anthologize poems as turn them into sanitary captions for a feelgood unanimity, inviting its (nonreading) readers to bask in the reflected glory of surplus aura. Facing the stereotypic inevitability of American poetry anthologies, I’m overcome by a sense of the futility of anthologies—a sense I’ll defer for the moment by reviewing three claims made on behalf of anthologies: the claims of aesthetics, pedagogy, and representation.

Palgrave’s Treasury, with its cornucopia of lyric nuggets, is the pervasive model for the first of these claims. In the aesthetic mode, poems are living specimens, exotic flora and fauna. The aesthetic is a metaphoric mode, in which one thing (the poem) stands in for another (a hierarchy of taste and privilege). It is a meritocracy of initiates, paved with seemingly egalitarian gestures of inclusion by the rhetoric of “we” and “ours”—especially when, unlike Palgrave, the selection extends to the present moment. But the ideological subterfuge of these anthologies, which have been legion in the American scene, is now increasingly under suspicion.

The second (and for us most familiar) claim is pedagogy. The expedient of the syllabus and the weight of canonical imperatives impinge massively on textbook anthologies. Teachability is the criterion here, and the pedagogic anthology favors the short lyric, particularly in the “scenic mode” (as Charles Altieri calls it). Pedagogic requirements can all too readily rely on, and thereby reproduce, a Taylorist lyricism, assembly line seriality of identical specimens—taxidermic preparations. Another liability is that these textbooks are weighted with juvenile associations, retaining the aura of training wheels. The mode of the teaching anthology is metonymy: one thing leading to another—the presumption being that the reader’s attention spirals outward in an appetitive embrace of larger samples of poetry.

The third claim is representation, and this turns out to have been part of the other two claims all along. The anthology, almost by definition, proposes to gather certain items as indicative of others. Representation imposes on its objects the symbolic onus of typicality, which in practice is often a grotesque obligation to be typically distinctive, characteristically unique. Synecdoche, the trope of representation, shades over into hyperbole and catachresis. The tacit goal of representation is the formation and validation not of poems, but of canonical subjects, and the burden of representation has therefore been floridly enhanced by the claims of multiculturalism and pluralism; so anthologies bent on a representationalist role find themselves driven by quantitative criteria, subject to social welfare and actuarial considerations.

In order to sort out the consequences of these claims of representation, pedagogy, and aesthetics we need to look at the environment in which they flourish—which is dominated by a symbiosis of corporate marketing and devotional consumerism. Like other consumer items, anthologies are mirrors or catch-basins of ideological interpellation. Self-identification in the mode of membership is a major draw. Then there is the matter of corporate sponsorship. Textbooks commonly bear the publisher’s name in the title. But it’s interesting how many commercial anthologies bear a similar imprint: Parini’s Columbia, McClatchy’s Vintage, Friebert and Young’s Longman, Smith and Bottom’s Morrow, Vendler’s Harvard, Nims’s Harper. What’s interesting is that these are all from the 1980s and 1990s. The corporate affiliation seems to have been resisted for several decades before that, and it’s only in the early 1950s that we find a similar cluster: Matthiessen’s Oxford, Moore’s Penguin, Williams’ Pocket Book, and Auden’s Criterion. This is symptomatic of the symbolic duty poetry is called on to perform. It’s not economically viable in most cases to publish poetry, but an anthology secures prestige, and what better way to advertise it than by emblazoning the corporate sponsor in the title, like the Nike logo on Andre Aggasi’s tennis gear?

The environment of anthology production is historically resonant with display practices in other sites like museums. The “exhibitionary complex” (as Tony Bennett calls it) has been interpreted as a carceral archipelago, a disciplinary apparatus, a compulsory panopticism. The anthology in this milieu is endowed with the aura of an aesthetic clinic, a public utility, servicing the ends of rehabilitation and resocialization. Poems in the anthology are in a state of protective custody. Another model might be the orphanage, the institution of surrogate parenthood. In any case, poems are at the mercy of a custodial paternalism.

Anthologists rhetorically invoke the grandeur of monumentality, which I’m disposed to think of in a mortuary context. Adorno points out a conceptual as well as etymological link between museum and mausoleum. The salvational conversion-narratives of canon-building anthologies amount to nothing less than a resurrectionist trade, in which drops of an immortalizing elixir (vitalium or resurrectine, as in Roussel’s Locus Solus) are applied so that the waxen bards may be selectively aroused as talking heads, their suspended animation momentarily alleviated in the ritual recitation of the masterpiece. The patronizing vocabulary of “letting the poems speak for themselves” is the most insidious of managerial principles, glossing over the corporate propulsion of the editorial voice-over.

The aesthetic disposition has accustomed us to this covertly New Critical exhortation to let poems speak for themselves. Since much poetic practice is clearly a pursuit of artifactual equipoise, it is presumed that memorable poems eject themselves from the general body of a poet’s work and become eligible objects of aesthetic fetishism. Even so, I would argue that a Palgravian teleology is not a credible incentive in a poet’s lifework. Poets don’t generally write for anthologies; but we have to face the conundrum that anthologists tacitly repatriate poems to a promised land, a land to which the poems, speaking “for themselves,” are coerced into pledging allegiance. I find it disturbing how effortlessly this collectivizing pledge has been imposed on minorities, who are validated as speaking for “themselves” in a collective role.

This brings me to the most pervasive environmental circumstance to be considered.2 To get around the discrepancy between poetic practice and editor’s demands, the editorial voice-over refabricates the world so that the anthology is already there as the ground against which poems, even in the moment of their production, are seen. This is the primary labor of the canonical anthology, in fact: to await the exemplary so that, when it appears (or is certified), it appears to be fulfilling a prophecy, or filling a prescription. The more unscrupulous anthologists sustain the pretence that the very atmosphere is palpably latent with the discriminatory impulse that winnows a prodigious world of activity into a sanitized showcase. In fact, the cumulative work of anthologies insinuates a background into place, converting the world into a canontological laboratory and, in the process, rendering “poetry” self-evidently a matter of perfect specimens comporting to the ventriloquial requirements of scripted conviviality and imperative intimacy. Subjectivity, voice-activated, gives “us” what “we” deserve: not “one last look at the ducks”—Wallace Stevens’ phrase Helen Vendler captions her anthology with—but one last look at the sitting ducks.

Through anthologies the cultural project of centralizing and enshrining the exceptional as typical comes into focus. Certain anthologies, like the pre-museum age curiosity cabinets, unpretentiously collect and display the grotesque, the unique, the atypical, accentuating marginalia and stressing exceptionality as difference. The canonical anthology, on the other hand, moves typicality and representation into the center of concern. We browse the canonical zone not to marvel at the bizarre or grotesque wonders on display, but to reflect on the typicality of exemplary items spread out before us. In the anthology, each poem has to “represent” the exceptional without actually being excessive. It has to be typically different. The burden turns out to be insoluble: the typical, the representative, must somehow exemplify the exceptional. The normal must be abnormally fine: this criterion legislates an anaesthetic inevitability, which anthologists often mistake for the work of editing as such. The routinization of choice settles on a version of poets as the Usual Suspects. Incarnating in the end the bureaucratic sensibility that chooses them, these poems helplessly comply with the corporate superscript. An anthology like Parini’s Columbia or McClatchy’s Vintage locates with precision an administrative complex that corresponds in cultural resonance to the menus of Arbie’s, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s. It doesn’t matter how remarkable a poem is, in this environment: because after it’s been habitually passed over the franchise counter again and again, it turns out not to be immune from the sterile association with fastfood litter. Regardless of whether it’s Elizabeth Bishop’s “Man-Moth” or Allen Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California,” canonical reiteration turns it into styrofoam.

To turn now to the concerns of this panel: Whose New American Poetry is in question in the revisionary impulse of anthologies today? The phrase “New American Poetry” can’t help but signal the way Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology has become an Arnoldian touchstone for recent editorial preoccupations. Reluctant as I am to invoke that familiar diagrammatic fable of New Historicism, subversion and containment, it does seem to be the most accurate summation of the spate of recent “oppositional” anthologies. Current editorial evocations of “New American Poetry” are unwittingly compliant with the familiar model of the anthology as genealogical certificate of good manners, the dutiful transfer of literary property (or cultural capital) from one generation to another. Weinberger, Messerli, and Hoover, in pledging allegiance to The New American Poetry, seem obliged to perpetuate the sectarianism that in 1960 was a tactical expedient. (I mention these editors because I have tremendous admiration for the anthologies they produced—which are intelligible, generous, and insightful. What I’m questioning here is their genealogical rhetoric.) There is a disabling nostalgia in the repetition compulsion that honorifically subordinates 1995 to 1960, as these editors are transported by the reverie of the outside, the experimental, the dissident. The romance of the outsider, however, now patently haunts all of our public institutions, including the mass media, the educational system, and political rhetoric. If real countermeasures are intended, what purpose is served by making an orthodoxy of the unorthodox?

The problem now is the reluctance of all anthologists to conceive heterogeneity from outside their own partisan coordinates. To the diachronic axis of the “anxiety of influence” we need to recognize a synchronic counterpart, an “anxiety of confluence.”3 The sectarianism so prevalent in anthologies, both status quo and dissident, reveals a pervasive condition: poetic constituencies are presently unwilling to expose their claims in the contestatory and refractory space which a truly eclectic anthology might provide. Not that I recommend an update, but I’d note that we’re a long way from that instructive experiment of 1965, A Controversy of Poets edited by Robert Kelly and Paris Leary, which (alphabetically) juxtaposed John Wieners with Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell with Jackson MacLow. It’s a failure of nerve, to some degree, or at least an editorial agoraphobia. The problem of course is how to speak on behalf of, or represent, the antithetical. The mainstream anthologists routinely make clumsy gestures of inclusion in the case of Olson and Duncan; while the outsider anthologists avoid this ineptitude by bypassing Lowell or Merrill altogether. That it’s not easy to envision real alternatives goes without saying; but why have we let editors off the hook?—how have we come to accept habit and inertia as inevitable? There’s a good deal of academic lip service about heterogeneity and nonconformity, but you’d never know it from poetry anthologies.

What we have now—and this is a situation attributable to decades of poetic isolationism bankrolled and licensed by the NEA—is a paralytic state of poetic xenophobia. This is not altogether an aberration, however. It’s also a matter of pragmatics. There is an inconceivable number of poets writing and publishing in America. Demographic splintering into special interest groups is a prudence of sanity. This exercise in sanity, however, can become a sanitation program. What we have increasingly at present is a panorama of anthologies that invite, and warmly welcome, readers into specialist enclaves—unwittingly replicating the American poetry world in the image of the division of academic labor.

The labor I envision for anthologies may be peculiar to me, of course, but I’ll not refrain from expressing my dismay at our prevailing competition among mortuary establishments. In our preoccupation with names (who’s in, who’s out) we’ve lost sight of the creative demands of the medium, with the consequence that poems of any stripe are too readily reduced to inertia in the refrigeration unit of the anthology. At the same time, a habit of roster-style editing reaffirms the most conservative of organizational principles, a compromising mimicry allied with the “slim volume” as it’s called in England. The poet’s individual collection and the anthologies are reciprocally tainted by a bland bookkeeping demeanor. It shouldn’t be surprising that the organizational conservatism of anthologies should favor the selection of conservative contents. “Conservativism” at least names a posture, whereas what we often get is sheer laziness. In the latest Sulfur Eliot Weinberger documents how Jay Parini’s selection for The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry is vacuumed up wholesale from other anthologies: “This may not, strictly, be plagiarism,” he concludes, “but it’s as close as an editor can get.”4 What Weinberger doesn’t know (and which I discovered while compiling appendixes for The American Poetry Wax Museum), is that this sort of piggybacking is routine editorial expedient. Anthologists are like high school principals handing out diplomas to the graduating class, one face blending in with another, this year’s crop indistinguishable from the last. The futility of anthologies is that they amount to little more than photo opportunities for a formulaic intimacy.

In contrast to so much shrinkwrap editing I see only one consistently innovative editor around, Jerome Rothenberg, who in eight anthologies from 1966-1995 has been almost alone in conceiving editing as doing more than selecting poems; instead, he convenes a space. In Rothenberg’s hands, the anthology becomes an interactive animated environment. Many of his innovations are basic imaginative contributions to the genre of the anthology: like placing poems by a given author in multiple locations; the extensive braiding together of poetry and poetics; the use of generically challenging materials; and using intricate partitioning to achieve choral effects. The principle behind Rothenberg’s practice is that there is no such thing as a poem speaking for itself in an anthology. By amplifying rather than denying the editorial voice-over, the multivocal dimension of the poems is awakened into a polyphonic sensorium. It turns out that the monologic pall is not intrinsic to anthologies but is an effect produced by those editors who attempt to blend all the voices into a unified spectre of collective identity. Rothenberg’s prodigious activity makes us periodically aware that it’s not anthologies as such that are futile, but the numbing repetition of the same poems in the same format that sterilizes the occasion.

So what can we expect? More of the same, no doubt. There is unquestionably too great a burden placed on the finite number of pages any anthologist has to work with; and the predictable consequence is a return to rudimentary principles of aesthetic representation—but the criteria for types of people or modes of practice become equally restrictive and simplistic. (In the Norton, for instance, the poet’s name may signify cultural difference, but the poems exemplify an assiduous middle class anonymity.) Facing these dismal prospects, I realize that the medium itself is the problem.

In conclusion I want to venture two points.

First: The case of the American poetry anthology demonstrates a liability of any means of technologically mediated transmission, redundancy in the channel. Routinized broadcast of a message anaesthetizes the message, puts it to sleep to put it on display. But as in the case of the beloved household pet, “putting it to sleep” has ominous implications. So the medium of the anthology as printed book is predominantly benumbing, mausoleal (in practice, not in essence).

Second: We might reconceive the aspirations of the anthology—preserving its pollinating “antho-logos” (word garland) while reconceiving it in another medium. While I do believe that an eclectically informative anthology is possible, we may have been barking up the wrong tree here—the tree of print culture. If we expand our material base, we may be able to shake off the lethargy of pixie-dust editing.

I am sufficiently alienated by the utopian technophilia of hypertext theory that I balk at recommending this database alleviation of the futility of anthologies; but the interlinking capacity of hypertext, along with microchip storage capacity, does provide a technical solution to the impediment of the printed book. More, the “solution” appears to be closer to the innately rhizomatic propensity of the anthology than it does to the other literary uses so far conceived for it. There is a “natural fit,” a symbiosis, between the anthology and hypertext. Hypertext theorists, tending to fiction as paradigm, are preoccupied with overcoming linearity; but to make the poetry anthology paradigmatic, hypertext only has monotony to overcome.

Another promising format is the CD-rom, a splendid editorial rendition of which is Chris Funkhouser’s digital multimedia edition of The Little Magazine, vol. 21. The CD-rom enables the editor to opt for both audio and visual performances as options along with textual ones. Even the Norton has ventured into the technology (if not the vision), with its upcoming Norton Anthology of Poetry. The greatly increased magnitude of storage capacity (in both CD-rom and hypertext) provides a way out of the impasse created when most editors adopt 90% of their contents as preselected by “tradition” (meaning aesthetic precedent), pedagogic need, and marketing tactics. In data-based format you could include all those poems and flag them, by a hypertextual path, to link up with one another in the Chestnuts category. Who knows: maybe print-disposed readers, nostalgic for the old carceral archipelago, would want unhindered access to one of the Official Sponsor pavilions.

But there is a more important editorial role than catering to ingrained biases. To the charting of customary itineraries could be added the challenge of precipitous traversals—implausible alliances that in the medium of print would seem merely obtuse, but in hypertext are desultory and irresistible invitations. So an important editorial role now becomes that of enabling the user to conceive and implement her own programs. In this way a fundamental editorial prerogative is handed over to the reader, and the contents of the hypertext anthology are alleviated from the unilateral insistence of the voice-over. Hans Magnus Enzensberger prophetically evoked the prospect long ago in 1960. Prefacing his international anthology Museum der modernen Poesie he spoke of it as a cardgame, which the reader was at liberty to expand or vary. The important thing is that it not be permitted to remain a book.5 The challenge now at hand is propositional: distinguishing the impulse to monumentalize from the expansive impulse that is drawn to poetry as quicksilver fluidity, gift of Hermes, not Hephaistos. It all depends on whether you want the secret sharer of your anthologies to be a winged messenger or a vindictive blacksmith. Futility, after all, is not the natural fate of anthologies, just one of the options.


1The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry edited by Jay Parini (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 18.
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2The most meticulous and credible account I have found is by Bruno Latour in his discussion of Pasteur’s development of the anthrax vaccine, from which I derive my model. See Latour, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” in Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, eds., Science Observed: Perspectives in the Social Study of Science (Los Angeles: Sage, 1983), pp. 141-170.
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3I take the phrase from Jim Collins, Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 6.
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4Eliot Weinberger, “An Anthology of Anthologies,” Sulfur 37 (Fall 1995), p. 215.
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5“Somit wäre die ideale Form dieses Museums die eines Kartenspieles. Sie würde es dem Leser gestatten, auf eigene Faust die Anordnung zu treffen, die ihm gefiele; ja, das Puzzlespiel mit den Texten beliebig auszudehnen und zu variieren. Das sind Vergnügungen, die ein Buch nicht gestattet.” Museum der modernen Poesie (Munich: Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag, 1964), p. 26.
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