The Curse of the Anthologist

It’s difficult to do anything in the world these days without a) someone complaining, b) someone else rushing to the defense of the maligned, and c) twenty or thirty unrelated parties commenting on why all the dramz is relevant/irrelevant/fascinating/ridiculous.

File this under c).

I’ve been looking through the Vendler/Dove disagreement with some surprise. But this won’t be a blog post that questions Dove’s editorial decisions or one that approves of/disqualifies Vendler’s response. My personal take on the anthology and the review of it don’t really matter; after all, who am I? I thought you’d agree.

But what I am invested in is the value system that created this conflict. It’s situations like these, I think, that make the work of the anthologist a thorny venture. I think back to the days when Legitimate Dangers was first released–2006–and I recall many of the same arguments made. This isn’t to say the arguments, such as issues relating to representation of diversity of race, gender, and other marginalized identities, are not essential ones; I’m just saying, “People, we’re still having the same conversations.” And that’s a problem.

The anthologist carries the unnatural burden (it has been so proven) of satisfying everyone. This is a task Sisyphusian in scope. In fact, the only person the anthologist is sure to satisfy is him or herself–but even now, with Dove’s situation, we see that, too, is not necessarily the case.

Vendler’s perspective on the issue connects to a larger community of writer and critique who believe less is more. Fewer poets in the canon means closer scrutiny merited by only the absolute best poets of our time. This is an excellent perspective to adopt. If only we could establish, once and for all, the objective criteria of what is “the best.”

Dove’s perspective (if I may intuit it from her response) is that there are more poets whose work bears inclusion. I don’t believe Dove sought to speak on behalf of The Canon. But in adopting the work of the anthologist, she is perceived (by some or all) to have done so.

Partly, I think this is because her anthology’s title stakes a claim as an important evaluation of the work of the last century. These are big shoes to fill in a world where there are long standing assumptions about who those poets are.

My lingering question is: “Why do we bother to publish new anthologies if they will only include the usual suspects, whose work has been anthologized previously in other books?”

If that was the only goal of the anthology, we could all congratulate Norton on a job well done and leave it at that.

But many of us writing now, I believe, see value in adding to–not replacing, not supplanting, not necessarily criticizing–the established anthology gang. Vendler, in her review, allowed that some readers, especially young ones (!), might feel electrified by some of the work Dove included that isn’t commonly found in other anthologies. But Vendler didn’t believe this was a criterion that permitted the exclusion (purposeful or not) of the poets she (and others like her) expected to see.

It’s that expectation that troubles me, and that has troubled me in all of the responses I’ve read to this particular anthology. And to every anthology ever produced. Especially when the expectation is voiced as “I expected to see X poet instead of someone like Y poet.” If you felt this way, I’d hazard it’s because you’ve seen X poet in other anthologies with a scope like Dove’s.

But I’d also hazard you hadn’t seen Dove’s anthology before.

I believe it is the job of the anthologist to show us something new. Those poets who are regularly anthologized? Their work is taking care of itself. It will endure. The people who want it (expect it) can find it in any number of places. But the work on the brink of extinction–those poets not commonly anthologized, those poets Dove, as anthologist, feels need a second look–those are the pieces I’m most interested in.

I may not like them. I may not believe they are really worthy of inclusion in an anthology that, by its title, suggests it is a comprehensive look at a century of writing.

But I will value the opportunity to have made that decision for myself, rather than to have experienced, yet again, the same book with a slightly different title, a different editor, and some new cover art.

And if I disagree with Dove’s choices, or another editor’s choices, I won’t disparage her or suggest she failed in her endeavor. I am, after all, but one person (see above: who am I?).

I will close the book, place it on a shelf, and wait for the next editor’s unique perspective on poetry, to see what can be found there.

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