Professor Vendler’s soul is in peril. Reviewing Black American broadsides in 1974, she found it ‘sinful that anthologies and Collected Works should betray the poems they print by jamming them together and running them into one another.’ Yet here is her Faber Book, a self-confessed anthology which, attempting to present 35 poets ‘whole’, aspires to be a collection of Collecteds. Probably we should leave the editor alone with her conscience and just be grateful to have the poems. But a hostile finger must be pointed at the publishers, who have produced a tome so stoutly handsome that it’s hard to tear the pages out to read the texts as broadsides. An unsewn paperback would ease this problem.
That aside, Vendler’s difficulties are ponderable. Though anthologies have a long history, no principles for ordering them have ever been settled. Whether arranged alphabetically by first line, like The ‘Garland’ of Philip, or by subject and date, like Verse and Worse and The Stuffed Owl, the Anthology has always seemed less than the sum of its parts. Indeed its Byzantine title concedes a pleasing serendipity: anthoi, logia, ‘a gathering of flowers’. The Elizabethans may have been more inventive, with their Handful of Pleasant Delights and Paradise of Dainty Devices, but an apologetic impulse remains apparent in the way they name miscellanies. How much has changed? We read The Golden Treasury or, as indicatively, The Rattle Bag. Our inherited conviction that good poems are individual, and that the best make up Virgilian careers or figures in carpets, militates against compilation.
Not every culture has inherited this prejudice. In Japan, the anthologist draws on a cogent aesthetic reaching back a millennium. From the first imperial collection, Kokinshu (905), through classical renga to late Edo miscellanies, integrated disjunction obtained. A code of dis/continuity constrained and enabled authors as well as anthologists. By subduing themselves to laws governing, e.g., tai and yu (‘essence’ and ‘attribute’) and the arrangement of loaded words (‘pine’, ‘rose’, ‘late cherry blossom’), renga poets such as Basho developed skills inseparable from compilation. What held between poems became intrinsic. The renga recently written by Paz, Roubaud, Sanguineti and Charles Tomlinson are thus suggestive. They explore an aspect of our lyric tradition which the tradition has not taught us to notice. Such exercises will eventually make it possible to see that Shakespeare in his Sonnets is, like Basho, both creator and artful compiler. Which is to say, we need a Grammar of compilation. In the meantime, Vendler’s sinfulness raises interesting issues.
So does her selection. Defiantly, she begins with ‘Sunday Morning’ – a poem which casts doubt on her title not just because it was published as long ago as 1915 but because it puts a tap-root deep into Romanticism. Including a dozen Stevens texts pre-dating the Pisan Cantos and Paterson, while excluding Pound and Williams, the book seems more atavistic than Contemporary, and slanted into bias. Nothing in the objectivist or projective line is included. Olson is rejected, along with Dorn. A tradition of strong poetry, leading back through Stevens to Coleridge, Keats and Wordsworth is implied. Up to a point this will help the anthology appeal to English readers. It certainly makes a better Faber Book than its American manifestation does a Harvard Book. But anyone looking for the full range of post-war US poetry will have to turn elsewhere.
Sharing Harold Bloom’s commitment to ‘the transcendental strain’, Vendler differs over how we should read it. What she values is less the Sublime than its epistemology. While Bloom cries up the heroic Emersonian in Stevens, Vendler attends to the Kantism of his final phase. Strong poetry, for her, unfolds at the disjunction between creative mind and intransigent world, exploring a realm of Stevensian ‘poverty’ in the hope of its transcendence. This is not a model which denies poetic development. Yet, by arguing that ‘when a new reality is born and exerts its pressure on poets, their resisting pressure of language and imagination generates a new poetic,’ Vendler limits the development of ‘poetry’ (steadily elided with ‘lyric’) to a re-negotiation of the self’s relationship with shifting ‘reality’. Because she is interested in the nature of renegotiation rather than in the terms arrived at, she is a more literate critic than Bloom. But the same impulse makes her overvalue texts in ‘the transcendental strain’ which, foregrounding their procedures, allegorise epistemology and become reflexive – poems, that is, which pre-empt the reader and encode as accounts of themselves the response they require.
Hence this choice from Ammons:
I found a
that had a
mirror in it
looked in at
weed in it
Language is bent so decisively towards realising solipsism here that its energies are lost in scription. What the Dainty Device requires is blank assent; and if someone answers ‘no’ they precipitate a philosophical rather than poetic quarrel. The argument would revolve around the question: does ‘the transcendental strain’ logically end in a solipsistic play of surfaces? And it could only be resolved in the irresolutions Ashbery rehearses in his ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’. A classic extension of late Stevens, and vivid excursus through the realm of ‘poverty’, that poem is in some ways the centrepiece of Vendler’s book.
The trouble is there’s more to John Ashbery than ‘The Painter’, ‘Drunken Americans’ and his other disquisitions on the Reflective Sublime. To compare Vendler’s choice with Ashbery’s, in the invaluable Selected Poems, is to find a troubling divergence. She gives us nothing, for instance, from The Tennis Court Oath, bafflingly exquisite though much of it is. Her instinct is to bring rangy authors to heel, perhaps because form represents for her the ‘maturity’ (favoured term) of a mind coming to terms with itself. For Vendler, it appears, structure reminds us that what is said has been overseen, that thought has enjoyed reflection. Certainly, many of her chosen texts present reflective selves coherently coping with loss. It cannot simply be the tendency of American poets to drop dead in taxis, jump off bridges and gas themselves which makes so many pages in this anthology death-haunted. ‘Elegy,’ declares Coleridge, ‘is the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind.’
Even so consistent a writer as Mark Strand suffers from this bent. Half his pages are lavished on ‘Elegy for My Father’, a text so ‘responsibly’ self-observant as to wince into narcissism. Strand is at his best in surreal lyrics about sex and murder in suburbia. But Vendler prefers his seminar-room sublimity:
I have carried it with me each day: that morning I took
my uncle’s boat from the brown water cove
and headed for Mosher Island.
Small waves splashed against the hull
and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar
rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.
I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned
other half of the world until, by a distant prompting,
I looked over the gunwale and saw beneath the surface
a luminous room, a light-filled grave, saw for the first time
the one clear place given to us when we are alone.
Soliciting comparison with Thoreau on Walden pond, and Wordsworth o’er the side of his slow-moving boat, this composes in advance an MLA paper on ‘Strand and the Anxiety of Influence’, and, in the approved fashion, plumbs the solipsism of the Reflective Sublime to find absence behind the mirror. ‘I moved like a dark star ... until, by a distant prompting’: such nerveless, Parnassian gestures fill space better given to Bishop and Lowell, Berryman and Rich.
Those poets appear in the Faber Book only on the editor’s terms, which are roughly summed up by the title of Strand’s interviews with American figural painters, The Art of the Real. From the ‘light-filled grave’ of solipsistic inwardness to photographic ‘realism’ is not far. Perhaps it is no distance at all. ‘Solipsism,’ writes Wittgenstein, ‘coincides with pure realism.’ Demonstrably, Lowell is more than a realist: but Vendler admires him for holding a mirror up to nature and reflecting on the process. Her prize exhibit is ‘Epilogue’, a ‘great’ poem because Lowell laments in it that ‘everything I write ... seems a snapshot,’ but then rallies to defend the reflective impulse:
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
Tendentiously equating this ‘grace of accuracy’ with Stevens’ dictum, ‘accuracy with respect to the structure of reality’, Vendler remarks: ‘Ending his poem, Lowell can call it not by the denigrating name of “snapshot”, but by the honorific name of “photograph” – a writing with light. Its light is its accuracy.’ This is neither what Lowell says nor a persuasive misreading of it. The critique can only be squared with the words on the page by assuming, in a circular move, that the poem is an honorific ‘photograph’ because it is ‘great’. Such an assumption annexes realism to the Reflective Sublime, which may explain why Vendler ends up thinking the text written by a pen-torch.
Thus endorsed by Stevens, and disabled by Vendler, Lowell staggers into the anthology as the author of unrhymed sonnets. Slack work from the Notebook years is no substitute for ‘The Quaker Graveyard’ and ‘Mr Edwards and the Spider’. To omit early Lowell constitutes censorship, not choice. Several kinds of density lie outside Vendler’s range, including that tortuous grappling with impacted matter which tends not to write itself in light. Her taste for grotesquerie reaches no further than Merrill. Religious faith and political conviction strike her as risky impurities in the lucidities of lyric. Hence the selection from Rich, which cleaves to the family-album: ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law’, ‘Grandmothers’. If we are allowed ‘Trying to talk with a man’, everything vehement, and lesbian, from the poet’s last decade has been suppressed.
All this matters because compilation is expensive when there are royalties to pay. Volumes like the Faber Book can’t appear often, and those that establish themselves must modify taste, or betray it. Innocent browsers will encounter ‘Lowell’ and ‘Rich’ for the first time in Vendler’s book. Those who decide to read no more will have a false impression of both; those who might have read more may not. Having said that, the incisiveness which leads Vendler to distort major figures helps her discriminate among lesser planets. Her inclusion of Robert Hayden, for example, is bold and welcome. Moreover, her promise to present writers ‘whole’ has more chance of being fulfilled with subsidiary figures. When Eliot judged anthologies less just to major than minor poets, he was, as often, lending his authority to a truism. Only once or twice, as with Anne Sexton, does Vendler haplessly show that a poet’s ‘whole’ reputation rests on next to nothing. Usually, as with Plath, she prints enough of what matters to configure a sensibility and vindicate her choice.
Best of all, she gives us 16 pages of Charles Wright. His compact lyrics gleam and smoulder. Their differential, not random, variety offers more to the anthologist than can be cancelled by Wright’s conviction that ‘the New Poem ... will not be photogenic.’ Whether inscribing ‘sutra-circles of cattle egrets’ or ‘the flash black flash of the light-house’, he makes the visual intensate, so that even Vendler can’t assimilate him to the picturesque. ‘The dead are cadmium blue,’ he declares in ‘Homage to Paul Cézanne’: ‘We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and panes.’ To gaze into ‘panes’ as opaque as these is mortally to reflect. That a spiritual challenge should be found in the medium is entirely characteristic. Like Hopkins, Wright makes ‘the transcendental’ an inward and linguistic ‘strain’; his intricacies are inconsistent with secular vision.
But it would be wrong to assimilate him to that US cult of Hopkins which marks, for instance, Lowell. Bred in Tennessee, Wright’s spiritualism is headily of the South. ‘The waters of Har’ run near Nashville, where ‘aphids munch on the sweet meat of the lemon trees.’ Camellias, trod underfoot in church, are ‘petals of horn, scales of blood’. A spider, ‘juiced crystal’, sways on a web, merging as by ascension with the ‘Milky Way’. Such elemental involutes recall Faulkner, except that Wright’s years in Italy seem to have lent him the fine-boned clarity of Montale – a poet he translates with distinction. The result is writing which, though steeped in imagism (hence the excess parataxis), contrives a dense and particular gothick:
Body fat as my forearm, blunt-arrowed head
And motionless, eyes
Sequin and hammer and nail
In the torchlight, he hangs there,
Color of dead leaves, color of dust,
Dumbbell and hourglass – copperhead.
Color of bread dough, color of pain, the hand
That takes it, that handles it
– The snake now limp as a cat –
Is halfway to heaven ...
For printing this poem, and Tattoos entire, Vendler deserves thanks. (Wright’s books are unobtainable in England, except as imports.) Yet she mars a good deed by interspersing the notes which, in Country Music, end the cycle. That torchlit serpent should uncoil in the text as the hard-won yield of reading. But Vendler tags it with a gloss (‘Snake-handling religious service; East Tennessee’), and inserts similar notes throughout. Tattoos thus becomes a score of self-contained lyrics, while what might hold between poems is obscured by explanation.
Yet Charles Wright is, just about, an established name. Perhaps the real test of an anthology is whether it convincingly brings fresh material forward. Michael Harper, Dave Smith, Albert Goldbarth: Vendler takes risks at the Contemporary end of her Book, and mostly carries them off. Though one looks in vain for Hass or Dulpen, there is much to please, including a clutch of decorously unfeminist women. Louise Glück, for instance, seems well-chosen. In a disembodied way, her idiom is effective, as when plumbing the Sublime to find an Elegy:
‘The Drowned Children’
You see, they have no judgment.
So it is natural that they should drown,
first the ice taking them in
and then, all winter, their wool scarves
floating behind them as they sink
until at last they are quiet.
And the pond lifts them in its manifold dark arms ...
Others seem more marginal. But to compare, say, Jorie Graham’s uneven output with Vendler’s selection from it is to concede that, where her sensibility coincides with that of a poet, choice and ordering become creation by other means. Vendler then finds in herself the rudiments of compilative art.
By arranging its 54 poets alphabetically, The Poetry Book Society Anthology 1986/87 rejects that art outright. Even so, it asks to be read against the Faber Book because its editor claims that Wallace Stevens has ‘shaped’ the style of our brightest young writers. The anthology may not begin with ‘Sunday Morning’, but Jonathan Barker suggests that Ron Butlin, James Lasdun, Oliver Reynolds and other talents have been influenced, like Vendler’s Americans, by the world of Canon Aspirin. This seems doubtful. To read the PBS volume after the Faber Book is to be almost crushed by the pressure of social detail. It is to enter a moralised landscape of betting-shops, dilapidated wharfs, ‘acres / Of housing’ and ‘lunchtime drinks’. Despite the supposed vogue for ‘making strange’, for giving fancy free rein, the writing seems determinedly familiar. If any continuity is visible, it’s with the Movement. Sometimes a debt is obvious – as in Blake Morrison’s sonnet about a yardful of used cars. More often it is covert. But it’s clearly a huge leap from the ‘dauntless master’ of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company to Peter Porter among the ‘takeaways’, ‘civic galleries’ and ‘cement escarpments’ of Rusholme.
When the history of indebtedness comes to be written, quirkier contributions will be charted: Eberhart’s gift to Geoffrey Hill; Muldoon’s ‘Immram’ as a rewrite of Slinger. Perhaps because our own Romantic tap-root is in place, Stevens’s predicament seems more analogous than formative. Moreover, the analogy is not exact. For while the post-Stevens US lyric (as approved by Vendler) reduces Romanticism to a diagram, ‘strong’ British poetry ironises it by means of that Movement ploy, juxtaposition with the way we live now. Hence, in the PBS volume, Peter Reading:
Trollies marked Kwik Save poke wheels and baskets from
thick-frozen slurry massed in the paddle-pool;
their wires, wind-twanged, zither. Coke cans,
light alloy clackily rolls on chimed ice,
stuttering, blown, tintinnabulant ...
Ditched in a municipal wasteland – lo, Muse, the Sixties state abandoned – Coleridgean harps, ripped off, strum dementedly. The scene is moralised with a vengeance. Reading, frequently misunderstood, writes as an outraged puritan. His windswept parks are Woods of Errour, the English pub his Bowre of Blis. And he images American influence as it ‘clackily’ impinges: rattling in the trash and orthography of popular capitalism rather than prompting sensitive souls to read Wallace Stevens. And he vindicates compilation. For all his recent books, including the last and best, Stet, jostle texts in demotic polyphony. News reports, letters to the press, a pub bore’s chuntering, scientific fragments: juxtaposed, these discourses make a scrapbook out of Britain, effective even by omission, since, grim in themselves, they can only deflect readers into the ‘stuttering’ dis/continuity which holds between texts.
Peter Reading is not the only compiler compiled. The Poetry Book Society Anthology includes several tantalising extracts – from Frank Ormsby’s ‘The Sports Section’, for instance, and Ken Smith’s cycle about life in Wormwood Scrubs, ‘House of Green Ginger’. As though to remind us that the Return of the Sonnet is a creative, as well as Lit Crit, phenomenon, Tony Harrison and Seamus Heaney offer texts from The School of Eloquence, dis/continuous with Continuous, and from the autobiographical Clearances. Wallace Stevens could not be further from these political family sonnets. Indeed, no American – even one brought up here, like Levertov – could begin a poem, ‘They took our iron railings down to dump / on Dresden as one more British bomb,’ because an outsider wouldn’t trust the resonant cliché (‘They’ didn’t take rails from round posh homes) to get the reflex Harrison knows he can count on. But that raises the question of what happens to the British sensibility when transplanted to America. For Harrison’s Florida poems, though written from the left, are not determined by a polarity of ‘Them – [uz]’. To compare the formidable PBS sonnets – or the decade just pamphleted by Anvil – with Harrison’s last-published American poem, The Fire Gap, is almost to find two poets.Sinewy and perplexed, merging its nature with the rattlesnake it figures (rippling down the page), the latter feels half a world away from Luddite traditionalism. It’s as though the ‘one continuous US’ – pitched to rhyme with ‘buzz’ – that the family sonnets in Continuous recover had been realised in a larger US, allowing new eloquence, free of British class constraints, to emerge.
But one can’t generalise. Some émigrés are obsessed by the fatherland: Donald Davie goes transatlantic and promptly writes The Shires. Others adapt without fuss: Prince Charles, when traversing North America last year, announced his allegiance to the Reflective Sublime. ‘I rather feel,’ he declared, ‘that deep in the soul of mankind there is a reflection as on the surface of a mirror, of a mirror-calm lake, of the beauty and harmony of the universe.’ (Those iterative genitives, confusing which mirrors what, show our Prince a kindred spirit of Ashbery and A.R. Ammons.) Then again, the British-bred poet with a green passport will find an American perspective complicating. Such matters are too serious to be reduced to schema, but it may be significant that the Heaney who now bestrides the ocean – one foot in Harvard and the other in Dublin – is also the writer who sets out to explore, in Clearances, the Protestantism in his background. From erudite Boston can Britain and Ireland seem more heterogeneous than inextricable? Certainly, in the first issue of Numbers– an excellent Cambridge-based mag – Heaney not only translates from Old English but publishes ‘A Peacock’s Father’: his celebration of a Gloucestershire country house and its ‘tilth and loam, / Darkened with Celts’ and Saxons’ blood’, composed in an idiom which melds Yeats and Edward Thomas. Times, or places, have changed since the poet of ‘Bone Dreams’ pushed ‘past philology and kennings’ in a retaliatory ‘invasion of England’.
Still more fascinating is the case of a writer who leaves England for America as, conceptually, nowhere. Emigrating to Texas in the early Sixties, Christopher Middleton seems to have projected such a dissolution. Among the ‘limestone belts’ and ‘miles of scrub’ he sought ‘to move once, / free, of himself, into some few things’. Without doubting the material persistence of creativity – ‘radiants of a star-stuff buried in the human mind ... neural activity which is in the writer’s trust, the writer as artist, uniquely’ – Middleton developed, in America, a poetic in which mind was ‘continuous’ (as he put it in ‘Itinerary for the apparent double’) with its own alterity. Art became a venture into the common otherness of ‘things’ and ‘self-consciousness’: Denken and das Ding were felt to share a root. That such a quest would render the self dis/continuous and its productions anthological explains the title of Middleton’s first transatlantic book, Nonsequences/Selfpoems – the subtitle dangling Scrabble-wise from Non – and its reading like a compilation. No doubt the strangeness of the project also explains the book’s reception. An audience weaned on the Movement could hardly warm to ‘Sketch of the old graveyard at Col de Castillon’ (‘I like it here’) or ‘What would you have made of it, Kavafis’ (‘Foreign Poetry? No.’). Yet it’s grotesque that, having had twenty years to think it over, reviewers should still complain that Middleton’s lyric anthologies or self-compilations don’t add up. Two Horse Wagon Going By – a pointedly disparate, indeed double, book (Silent Rooms in Several Places plus Apocrypha Texana) – offers such readers another chance to change the way they read. One day, after all, the neglect of Middleton will seem as bizarre as the apotheosis of Larkin, and not unconnected.
An acute critic, Middleton is intelligently aware of his distance from the Movement mainstream. ‘The owls / have built a stinking nest,’ one sideswipe reads, ‘in the Eighteenth Century.’ Those owls should take wing, by twilight. For Middleton, a live tradition runs from Hölderlin’s Tübingen through Heidegger, including such figures as Franz Mon and Robert Walser. To this Germanic strain he adds, however, what the PBS poets don’t have: a genuine feeling for Stevens.
Fabled scavengers, make room,
You turkey buzzards inking out the skies,
Avert your crotchety stare, if you can,
Save me a vastness in mid-air
To fuel my eyes.
Unfold, rainbow. Never enough. Some fifth
Element, neither a clod nor an empire
To float a gaze or steady a hand,
How will it beckon home, into the open,
A star stuff all other acts have orphaned?
Sometimes, as here, Middleton flirts with Exposition while devoting himself to Art. At worst, as in ‘Rosenkavalier Express’ – a ‘moody aria’ which redoes ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ in ‘the dust of Mitteleuropa’ – an unstable relationship between Stevensian statement and lyric centring makes impressive work fall short of attainment. But when, discursively or in Selfpoems, Middleton’s ‘star-stuff’ is thrown free, the result is lucid evidence of what the mainstream excludes.
‘Coral Snake’, for instance, contorts as expressively as ‘Tattoos 3’ or The Fire Gap. Fear, awe, violence fuse in the poet’s reaction to a serpent, vividly ringed, in his vegetable patch. Like ‘One for the Birds’, just quoted, the lyric is self-concerned. But while the snake, slithering across gravel, is an image of raw creativity (the ‘torse’ and totemic ‘snake axe’ haunt Middleton’s poetic), it remains mysteriously other. Neither solipsistic nor reflective, this text adumbrates rather than nesting owlishly. When the potato-planting poet whops his hoe down on the snake, that is, and crushes its poisonous head with stone, the clash between fixity and lithe beauty, nurturant intellect and ‘taut pure body’, figures a conflict resolved in ‘Coral Snake’s’ not coinciding with its ‘coral snake’:
The broken body, I lifted it up and dropped it
Later into a vacant honey jar. The colours
Now have faded; having no pure alcohol,
I pickled the snake in half a pint of gin.
Such is the ‘preserve’ of poetry, its sweetness and intoxication. Making is fearful of, and preys upon, experience. It destroys, to possess, inspiration. Except that – ‘there was more snake now in me than him’ being the text’s pivot, the trigger of its violence – through that dialectic, the mind moves ‘free ... into some few things’.
So farewell, then, the Reflective Sublime. For Middleton, photo-poetry starts where realism ends; it decreates illusion along with the observer. While Vendler dotes on texts like Bishop’s ‘About the size’, in which oils ‘fresh-squiggled ... on a piece of Bristol board’ spring into picturesque meaning with an assertion of self (‘Heavens, I recognise the place, I know it!’), Middleton begins one of the best poems in his book, ‘An old wine press / With its iron screw ...’, reduces this object to ‘Not the very thing but a photo dated / No later than 1910’, and then reads in the sepia ‘a human imprint’ (farm folk round the press) and bleared theophany. His lyric ventures into a region where thoughts are things, where ‘I’ is absent but ‘You can plot’ meaning, where
As good as a second skin, these denims
Are worn as the sun
Wears its light, or as the god they nourish
Squid-wickedly has thrown
History over his tentacles, a robe
Smoky in colour, a tissue of bloodstains,
Whose, fading, sepia
There is no last stop. And as the print stains, not light only but the dark powers become manifest: blood, Dionysus, History. Such writing is more than ‘photography’, a grafted language of the sun. The words of Middleton are harsh after the songs of Apollo. But then, the used-car yards and ‘cement escarpments’ of PBS Britain are no place for reflection. Hitch your ‘star-stuff’ to a Two Horse Wagon. Gods don’t live in mirrors.