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

Jeffrey Yang
In the Crunch of Time
An Autobiographical Outline for The Volta on Poetry Anthologies

A. Some poetry anthologies that have survived the centuries have come to embody what’s left and/or best of a civilization: Shi Jing (“classic of poetry,” ca. eleventh century B.C. China: love, parting, courtship, farming, rituals); Greek Anthology (rooted in Meleager of Gadara’s first century B.C. anthologia: “gathering of flowers”); Man’yōshū (“collection of ten thousand leaves,” Japan’s earliest surviving poetry anthology, compiled in the eighth century); Vidyakara’s Subhasitaratnakosa (Sanskrit “treasury of well-turned verse” compiled in the eleventh century—See Ingalls), Kurontokai (classical Tamil “anthology of short verse” dating back to the first few centuries A.D.—See Ramanujan’s The Interior Landscape); Al-Mufaddaliyat (pre-Islamic verse compiled by al-Muffadal in the eighth century); Al-Mu’allaqat (“the hanging odes” penned on golden pieces of Coptic linen and hung on the curtains of the Kaaba—See Sells)…. Here the private, public, historical, textual, critical, popular have come to coexist with equal significance.

B. As Francis Palgrave was contemplating his Golden Treasury of what he and “two friends of independent and exercised judgment” plus Tennyson—to whom the book was dedicated—deemed the best of the lyrical dead, one of these friends, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, wrote to Emily Tennyson that he thought it a welcome idea, for the poetry anthology allowed him “to dip from gem to gem without the trouble of getting up to take books down from the shelves.”

Published in 1861, Palgrave continued to revise the anthology for thirty years, and twenty-one editions later, in 1891, he included four poems by William Blake. Riding and Graves in their quaint manifesto Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928) proposed the compilation of a “representative Corpus” of dead American and English poets, edited by committee (sic), in the line of Alexander Chalmers’ twenty-one volume The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper (1918), to counter such “trade anthologies” as Palgrave’s, which for them was “the Dean of Anthologies, its original liberalism ossified beyond recognition.” They thought the “modern trade anthology” a “tyranny” and “industrial packet commodity” that “robbed the poetry reading public of self-respect”—“the second-hand clothes shop of poetry.”

Today, yes and no, while Palgrave’s still in print. Today, the preference for second-hand clothes against the tyranny of the industrial packet commodity? Riding and Graves’ manifesto also fashionably anti-translation, though other relevant insights are useful. (No taste without smell?)

C. In high school I found Robert Browning in a poetry anthology.

In college in San Diego I was introduced to Lorine Niedecker via a poetry anthology, and found George Oppen in the same anthology. In another anthology I found James Dickey’s poem “Strength of Fields” and reading it while listening to McLaughlin and Santana’s Love Devotion Surrender (!) wept indeed.

Recalling this now, I realize I haven’t looked at those anthologies since first reading them.

D. In college in Edinburgh I found Pound through his (and Marcella Spann’s) poetry anthology, Confucius to Cummings. Before hundreds of students in an enormous lecture hall, the Professor of Modernism shared his great revelation: “I decided life is too short to read The Cantos.” (The Professor was later found buried beneath the Alps.) Pound’s anthology’s “aptness to purpose” given in the preface and postscript and appendices: 1) education: “teacher’s dilemma,” “to arouse curiosity, not kill it,” “civic education” 2) Ut animum nostrum purget: for the cleansing of the soul 3) “clearness, force, and beauty” 4) ut doceat, ut moveat, ut dilectet: that it teach, move, and delight 4) “to look and to think.

E. As a child we memorized a few Tang dynasty poems from a poetry anthology. This book was called the Qian Jia Shi (“poems of a thousand masters”), compiled in the twelfth century. As an exercise many years later I translated it and titled it Rhythm 226, to echo the number of poems in the book and Hans Richter’s film of expanding and contracting rectangles, Rhythmus 21. Today it’s still read in the East, with recent publications of both scholarly, annotated editions as well as children editions. Today it’s read in the West: Red Pine also translated it into English while subsisting on food stamps and food banks, his edition called Poems of the Masters. (Red Pine: “If I could choose one word to describe the Chinese character it would be anarchism.”)

F. I grew up in a southern California town where the only bookstore was in a mall, and it sold mostly calendars and hallmark cards (used books would be sought out later). One of the few books I remember floating around our house was a mass market edition of Robert Payne’s The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry (1947). Payne, a British Army Intelligence Officer who had met Hitler and Mao and whose first book was published by the Hogarth Press, author of over a hundred histories and novels and biographies, was a friend of modernist poet Wen Yidou (one of many advisers on the anthology) and Joseph Needham, and an early champion of Muriel Rukeyser. His widely read White Pony Lorine Niedecker, among the myriad crowds, owned, and Kenneth Rexroth groaned over. Rexroth later translated his own anthology of Chinese poetry—apparently largely from Judith Gautier’s hugely popular translation Le Livre de Jade (1867)—that was published as One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (1956). (See Rexroth/Laughlin correspondence for exchange on Gautier.)

G. Found in a box of books in an alley in Chicago: Margot Astrov’s The Winged Serpent: An Anthology of American Indian Prose and Poetry (1946). And inside:

War Song


Let us see, is this real,

Let us see, is this real,

This life I am living?

Ye Gods, who dwell everywhere,

Let us see, is this real,

This life I am living?

H. Interweaving strands of poetic tradition. This is what Mary K. Pukiu and Alfons L. Korn set out to do in their poetry anthology The Echo of Our Song: Chants and Poems of the Hawaiians (1973).

I. Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry (1948): one of the first post-A-bomb poetry anthologies to outlast trends and fashion and the ongoing procession? A reinvention of the “private anthology”; an exercise in discerning “value” in a poem. In it I found Gawin Douglas’s translation of the Aeniad, among other gems. In parts I and III, comparative poems are presented anonymously. In part II, Zukofsky includes little notes like this: “Condensation is more than half of composition. The rest is proper breathing space, ease, grace.”

J. Jerome Rothenberg’s “assemblage” Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, & Oceania (1968): forging the anthropological and ethnological with Dada and Surrealism to expand and enlarge the possibilities of what a poem can be, the “poem-as-performance (the poem in action),” foregrounding translation.

Rothenberg on “total translation,” 1969:

It begins with a forced change of language, but a change too that opens up the possibility of greater understanding…. The more the translator can perceive of the original—not only the language but, more basically perhaps, the living situation from which it comes &, very much so, the living voice of the singer—the more of it he should be able to deliver.

Pound on translating Calvacanti, 1910:

It is conceivable the poetry of a far-off time or place requires a translation not only of word and spirit, but of ‘accompaniment’, that is, that the modern audience must in some measure be made aware of the mental content of the older audience, and of what these others drew from certain fashions of thought and speech.”]

Rothenberg’s anthologies that followed, some co-edited, Shaking the Pumpkin, America a Prophecy, Revolution of the Word, A Big Jewish Book, and on to the mammoth Millennium trilogy (tusks included), all strung together with manifesto-commentaries mixed with biographies, attempt to define an evolving, open-ended poetics based on a revisionist, culturally inclusive, porous idea of history. Poetry anthology as archive of the lost, forgotten, overlooked, obscured, of situating the present “to account for human creativity, human language-making over the broadest span available” (“On Anthologies,” 1978).

K. The same year Technicians was published, Jean-François Bory’s trim anthology of Concrete Poetry, Once Again, came out—dedicated “to the snark” and conceived as a “visual happening” that defined the art. Bory: “The constant, unconscious oppression of the entire existing literary apparatus, from publishing to the bookshop and right down to the most distanced reader…”; “…concrete writing is real writing, only writing, writing itself.”

Kaya Press. Finding their anthology Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, edited by Walter Lew, in the university library, while tracing threads of Theresa Cha, was like a vertical opening of the field.

L. Is Donald Allen’s New American Poetry still read? Has its need faded as its influence has been absorbed? And the ongoing procession. Or have I found my surf through other billabongs?

M. One of the most popular poetry books of the twentieth century was a faux anthology inspired by the Greek Anthology: Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915): 244 monologues of individuals who all speak the same “common speech,” from The Unknown to Yee Bow. Cf. Giuseppe Giochino Belli’s volta: he did the Romanesco street voices in over two thousand sonnets.

N. The Norton Poetry Anthologies: More for ease of teaching than for students. Less for the curious than for the mindfully lazy. More a list of names to perpetuate a system (or pay-structure?) and less a gathering of flowers. They too can lead to certain discoveries, and yet their squished enormity with cigarette paper pages and gestures toward a profitable, ossified (!) canonicity can cause melancholy. Still, their enormous sales pay the salaries of friends and colleagues. Being an editor of one can be like winning the Powerball of poetry royalties.

The second book one burns if the firewood runs out.

(Disclaimer: I have nothing against the mindfully lazy.)

O. The Best American… anthologies: The first book one burns if the firewood runs out.

Oxford anthologies: poetry anthology as inferior dictionary?: “the slightly stuffy air of monuments left over from an earlier generation” (Edward Mendelson): began with Quiller-Couch’s “Best English Verse” (1900) and prefigured the Nortons. One of the most amusing ones in the series Yeats edited a few years before his death and published in 1936, the year James Laughlin launched the first New Directions anthology. As editor of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892–1935, Yeats deleted lines without any indication of omission (or consultation with the poets!), condensed titles of poems, and reordered stanzas. He excluded the poets of “the great war” (“passive suffering is not a theme for poetry”), included few translations, called T.S. Eliot “an Alexander Pope working without apparent imagination” in his forty-page introduction, which, rather reluctant in tone, detailed a confusing “story” of his choices, while the whole presented a vision of history that was anti-progress, anti-mechanical, anti-abstraction, mythical-traditional, philosophical-spiritual, with nature as central theme. Riding and Graves refused permission for use. A more fitting title would be The Oxford Book of Late-Victorian Verse. As Yeats is to his anthology, Auden is to his Oxford Anthology of Light Verse, published two years later—many poems Auden included from memory or recorded from others orally: each situate the poet-editor in their chosen tradition, as a way to include, extend, define themselves as a poet.

“A vague hatred comes up out of my own dark,” the aging Yeats wrote, thinking of the city. “Nature, steel-bound or stone-built in the nineteenth century, became a flux where man drowned or swam; the moment had come for some poet to cry ‘the flux is in my own mind.’”

P. Yeats’ anthology can be weighed with Jed Rasula and Tim Conley’s recently published Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (Action Books, 2012): an 8.5 × 11 × 1.5 inch marvel of excavation and resurrection that tracks the various manifestations of international modernity around the globe, from 1910 to 1939, city to cineland to city to music hall….

The thrill of discovery and unexpected transport; the flux in the mind that can thrive; the place of poetry in collective history…

PP. A brief aside on permissions for poetry anthologies: With permissions, we are often dealing with living poets, warm of flesh. It seems to be more usual practice now for the Big Conglomerate Three as well as University publishers to off-load the burden of permissions handling onto the editors of their own anthology (pax dei, treuga dei for those others). What the indies and non-profits and small presses do seem more case by case, though a common vision and shared economic situation (limited staff, limited funding, maxed credit cards, etc.) is usually the reality anyway in these alternate universes. Universities as traditional cultivators of knowledge and scholarship can hardly be excused though many of these publishing houses are supposedly flailing as of 12.12.13 (though looking at their book ads one wonders). Some have outside benefactors (see Margellos Yale U. Press). These few, flush or running in the black, should tap into their publishing soul and handle the permissions in-house (or hire a freelancer), armed with a decent budget for the contributors (normally split with respective publishers). And if a University publisher will be making a handsome sum from sales of a prospective anthology—large print run, high cover price, reprinting—then at the very least a clause should be included in the permissions contract that gives the poets a token share of the winnings, preferably up front and later for each reprint. (The nominal gesture is enough for dinner for two, two alcoholic beverages included, at, say, Cracker Barrel, though a more farm-to-table eatery is the Idée.) For those anthologies that include a large chunk of a poet or translator’s work, a shared royalty point or more is in order. For BCTs (who are often quite strict with their own permissions, roughly $15 per line strict) to unload permissions for a trade anthology they’ve acquired onto poor editors’ backs with no budget to offer poets used to the absence of franklins, accustomed as they are to little but a warm, pungent, yellow liquid streaming down their pates, is just shameful. Those decision-makers of the BCT’s, rolling in their fifty shades of profit, should thusly be sent to Singapore with a twelve pack of Hubba Bubba and be forced to chew and blow and spit out each piece of bubble gum onto the sidewalk until they are arrested and spanked. No one’s innocent, poets can be as shameless and unbearable as the next huckster, some poetry anthologies perhaps read better pulped than printed, but in this instance the scales of justice would at least be more balanced.

(Disclaimer: I have nothing against people who work at BCTs. Friends who do work at these establishments would certainly agree with above shamefulness, honest to John. See St. Augustine: Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum.)

Q. The Volta asked me to contribute to this feature because I’ve edited two anthologies—Time of Grief: Mourning Poems (2013) and Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems from New Directions (2011)as well as the poetry content for the annual anthology Two Lines: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, published by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. I was asked about process, choices, response, among other things. For the Two Lines issue, besides the poetry that was dispersed through the whole, I also co-edited with Dolkun Kamberi a separate folio on Uyghur poetry. I was guided by the idea of highlighting interconnecting traditions of contemporary poetry practice from many languages as well as by the desire to shift focus away from official media reports of an oppressed, highly politicized place (East Turkistan/Xinjiang), turning instead to the alternate perspectives and histories that a culture’s poetry can offer us. In the folio, Kamberi and I tried to give a general sense of how Uyghurs envision their poetic tradition—that such a poetic history could be traced through the work of a few modern and contemporary poets, scraps of ancient inscriptions, fragments of folk poetry.

R. Birds, Beasts, and Seas was compiled as a celebratory volume of poetry for the seventy-fifth anniversary of New Directions. Within the given constraints (nature + a long backlist of international poets + trim size and page count), I decided to arrange the book chronologically by each poet’s year of birth. What also emerged out of this arrangement was an illuminating glimpse at our evolving relationship with nature from ancient times to the present, as compressed through poetry. Most of the difficulty involved having to choose only one poem or a section of one poem for inclusion. What I quickly realized as I was editing it, however, was that there is really no such thing as a representative poem by a single poet, and so my choices were often determined by the growing community of poets in the book, whether it was for a thematic echo or stylistic variation or ecological/animal recurrence or variation, etc. Many different threads came to bind and expand the company of poets in this little book. Which is what made editing it fun—weaving these threads while not being bound to follow any particular school or aesthetic, or having to fulfill an illusive dream of representation that more or less boils down to an argument of inclusion/exclusion.

Cf. Camille Dungy’s Black Nature (2009), which offers an alternate rewriting of nature.

S. Five happy responses, one private four public:

1) When my friend Sam received a galley of Birds, Beasts, and Seas, he emailed me:

And looking forward to finishing the anthol. in the finished version–I think I’ve read half of it so far, & it really is a great, great collection: a nice balance of poets (famous / obscure / English-lang / translated) and tones–without that deadening feeling that you’re reading a ‘survey’ of something: each poem is a little surprise, w/ its own rewards.

2a) Jon Cotner created a performative poetry project around Birds, Beasts, and Seas, using it as the basis of his Poem Forest: a walking meditation along the Sweetgum Trail at the Bronx Botanical Gardens where participants were instructed to read a particular line from a different poem at fifteen established stations along the walk, words and environment and reader intermingling nature.

2b) PBS NewsHour and NPR books found it…. that which also washed upon the shores of Isola Di Rifiuti.

“Floods, Fires, Storms Are Fodder for Centuries of Poems” on PBS Newshour

Birds, Beasts, and Seas (New Directions)

Birds, Beasts, and Seas on John Latta’s blog, Isola di Rifiuti

T. Time of Grief is a different book. The idea for a collection of mourning poems was suggested by a friend of the Publisher who had unexpectedly lost her husband to an illness. She was a long-standing reader of the press and given the number of poets we’ve published over the years, she wanted such a book. It also became another way for us to reinvent the backlist, gathering poems in a different context. In considering how to assemble such a collection, I thought of the passing of my grandfather and father when I was in college. My grandfather was given a Buddhist funeral and my grandmother followed the traditional forty-nine days of mourning. I decided to try to structure the anthology around a similar calendar of mourning, dividing the book into forty-nine days of readings, interspersing not only poems from the New Directions library, but some favorite poems by other poets who lived in that elysium of the public domain. As I was editing the collection, I discovered a traditional Jewish mourning ritual that also was observed over forty-nine days. I talk about this in the preface of the book. As with the nature anthology, choices were inevitably subjective, though largely directed by the various threads that bind the book as a whole (along with similar constraints as listed in letter R.). For instance, one DAY composed of three poems by three different poets each standing before a friend’s grave. And the echoes and developments across DAYS. How to order the whole also influenced by music compilations, the mix-tape (a favorite past-time in high school and college), the album, how the tunes unfold on, say, Coltrane’s Crescent.

It’s true, the cliché, that everything feeds into poetry. How it does breaks the cliché apart.

U. Five happy responses, one private four public:

1) From L.B.’s email:

I just ordered four copies of your grief anthology for friends who need such a book. It’s a treasure, and a comfort, I think–it’s also a book from which people can find poems to read at memorials, or to read privately as they grieve. I’m so glad you made the book.

2) Bernadette Mayer on YouTube reading her poem from Time of Grief in New Orleans:

Bernadette Mayer reading from New Directions’ Time of Grief: Mourning Poems

2b) Powell’s Books, World Literature Today, and Christianity Today (Alleluia!) found it:

Time of Grief: A Poetry Anthology Exploring Loss” on Powells Books

Time of Grief: Mourning Poems edited by Jeffrey Yang” on World Literature Today

“The Work and Play of Mourning” by Michael Robbins on Books & Culture: A Christian Review

V. Eliot Weinberger’s American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993), The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (2003), and World Beat: International Poetry Now from New Directions (2006) were also inspired models of what an anthology might be: anthology not necessarily as reference work but “as a book of poetry intended to be read from cover to cover.” Each of these three anthologies serve a different purpose and follow different constraints and reasons for being. From Weinberger’s editor’s preface of the first:

1) “There are as many anthologies of American poetry as there are its readers; none is, or should be, a papal decree of sanctity or excommunication.”

2) “Individual poems have been chosen not as discrete examples of the author’s ‘best,’ but rather for the way in which they interact with the other poems: the intention is a hubbub of conversations, not a series of monologues.”

The historical moment; the cultural moment; the moment of opening the original volume that awaits in the darkening silence…

W. UbuWeb: Anthologies within anthology as unending digital revelation. The pleasures and strengths and limitations of the Book as Book in relief.

X. In the crunch of time, in the growing plurality that itself risks blandness and the drowning out of other cultures and languages and ways of being in our disparate economy, a garland of poetry can help sustain a community of active listeners and readers to-ward...

Y. Why another poetry anthology?

Proliferation and destruction: two consuming forces of our times. That it must be as well edited as source code. Open to debugging and critique.

In the towns and city suburbs, hardly a public school curriculum with poetry-depth, hardly a bookstore, hardly a bookstore with a shelf of poetry. No accidental finds, no curious browsing (the online mind can hardly contain a poem unless it’s deliberately sought, and even then). Lots of malls, indoor and outdoor, with other cheap goods that fill a semblance of needs. Poetry beckons from the interstices. Most will never “get” it nor feel compelled to—this is normal—nothing to get—stay rooted to earth—things wind down to wind up again—each follows one’s own passion-depths with no one as witnesss. This not whinging nor nostalgia but a continuum of reality. Call this year zero of poetry underground, or poetry AWP, or poetry on the borders, or poetry los detectives salvajes, though our materials are cost effective, performance diverse, audience modest but hooked, community interdisciplinary and discontent, disobedient, downloadable. That its compulsion exists within no matter the stakes or outside interest. This is true of any pleasure—poetry the language between life and mortality.

And so can a poetry anthology be one other way in? And out to other hollows?

(Some have come to embody what’s left and/or best of a civilization.)

And, as Parra says about poetry in general, that it must improve on the blank page. To be memorable. What’s done with attention and ubuntu

to gather the lost

to gather the flowers

to gather the endangered

to gather the flowers

to gather the forgotten

to gather the flowers

to gather the spoken

to gather the flowers

to gather the occasion

to gather the flowers

to gather the unknown

to gather the flowers

to gather for new light

to gather the flowers

to gather the threads

to gather the flowers

to gather a new map

to gather the flowers

to gather “a sense of poetry as cooperative

and historically contingent” (Rasula/Conley)

to gather the flowers

for the geography

of the unfinished garden

[Note: The line “to gather the flowers” transcreated from the classical Chinese rather than the Greek could be rendered as: “to gather the ritual castrati offerings.”]

Anthology autobiography, a concluding happy confusion: Ulli Beier’s Yoruba Poetry; Iona & Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren; Dick Higgins’ Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature; Peter Cole’s Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain: 950–1492, Paul Blackburn and George Economou’s Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (reissue forthcoming from NYRB (hooray!)); Shulman and Rao’s Classical Telegu Poetry

Z. Robert Desnos, with an insertion: “Poetry [anthology] may be this or it may be that. But it shouldn’t necessarily be this or that … except delirious and lucid.”

Oct. – Dec. 2013