American Poetry : The Twentieth Century, Volume 2 : E.E. Cummings to May Swenson

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9781883011789: American Poetry : The Twentieth Century, Volume 2 : E.E. Cummings to May Swenson

“The editing is more than brilliant: It is nearly unimaginable how the Library of America team managed to do so much so well. . . . Every possible kind of poem is here in its best examples. No one has ever done a better anthology of modern American poetry, or even come close.” — Talk

This second volume of the landmark two-volume Library of America anthology of twentieth-century poetry, organized chronologically by the poets’ birthdates, takes the reader from E.E. Cummings (1894–1962) to May Swenson (1913–1989). In the wake of the modernist renaissance, American poets continued to experiment with new techniques and themes, while the impact of the Depression and World War II and the continuing political struggle of African Americans became part of the fabric of a literature in transition. New schools and definitions of poetry seemed often to divide the literary scene. This was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, the Objectivists, the Fugitives, the proletarian poets. It was also an era of vigorously individuated voices—knotty, defiant, sometimes eccentric.

The range of tone and subject matter is immense: here are Melvin B. Tolson’s swirlingly allusive Harlem portraits, Phyllis McGinley’s elegant verse transcriptions of suburbia, May Swenson’s playful meditations on the laws of physics. The diversity of formal approaches includes the extreme linguistic experiments of Eugene Jolas and Abraham Lincoln Gillespie, Rolfe Humphries’s adaptation of traditional Welsh meter, the haiku of Richard Wright, the ballads of Helen Adam and Elder Olson, the epigrams of J.V. Cunningham. A selection of light verse is joined by lyrics from the era’s greatest songwriters, including Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, and Ira Gershwin. Several important long poems are presented complete, including Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Louis Zukofsky’s Poem beginning “The” and Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon: A Vision. Rounding out the volume are such infrequently anthologized figures as Vladimir Nabokov, James Agee, Tennessee Williams, and John Cage.

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If the first three decades of the 20th century mark the real birth of American poetry, then the following three might be considered a long and sometimes contentious adolescence. Not that there's anything juvenile about the work of Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, or Theodore Roethke--quite the opposite. But after the fireworks of early modernism, there's a sense of American poetry finally coming into its own, multifarious identity. And the editors of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume Two: E.E. Cummings to May Swenson--i.e., the same Gang of Five that compiled the stellar first volume--have done very handsomely by the era.

Again there are generous servings of the indisputable giants, from Hughes to Roethke to the underrated Louise Bogan. Perhaps the editors have been too generous with Cummings's lowercase frolics, but there is a historical argument to be made in his favor: who else gave modernism such a human (not to say antic) face? Hart Crane certainly gets his due, with nearly 40 pages devoted to the linguistic spans of "The Bridge," and Elizabeth Bishop's section alone is worth the price of admission--indeed, I'd push cash on the barrelhead simply to read the exquisite conclusion to "Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance":

...Why couldn't we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
--the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets,
--and looked and looked our infant sight away.
As they did in the first volume, the editors have included a smattering of song lyrics, from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Frank Loesser. And while purists may sniff at these confections from Tin Pan Alley, you won't find any more memorable, slang-slinging light verse in this century. There's also the organizational principle of the book to reckon with. The poets have been arranged according to date of birth, with the cutoff year fixed at 1913--which explains the absence of Randall Jarrell (b. 1914) or Robert Lowell (b. 1917), who certainly ran with Elizabeth Bishop's poetic pack. Still, this strictly chronological system has produced some delightful surprises. What other anthology would slot country-blues avatar Robert Johnson between Paul Goodman and Josephine Miles? Or John Cage between Tennessee Williams and William Everson? These are miniature lessons in cultural border-busting, which is what the entire volume accomplishes on a larger and infinitely pleasurable scale. --James Marcus

About the Author:

Robert Hass is one of America's most acclaimed poets, winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He was poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997.

John Hollander (1929–2013) published nearly two dozen books of poetry, including Selected Poetry (1993), Figurehead (1999), and A Draft of Light (2008), as well as five books of criticism. He received the Bollingen Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship, and was Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.

Carolyn Kizer (1925-2014) was the author of more than a dozen works of poetry, prose, and translation. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1985.

Nathaniel Mackey is a poet, novelist, anthologist, literary critic, and editor. He is the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University and a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.

Marjorie Perloff teaches courses and writes on twentieth and twenty-first century poetry and poetics. She is Professor Emerita of English at Stanford University and Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California.

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