The Academy of American Poets, who initiated the designating of April as poetry month, hoped above all for one thing: more readers of verse. And one of the best ways to introduce poetry to wider audiences is the anthology, which, until recently, was seen simply as the repository of an editor’s favorite poems. Contemporary anthologies, though, have narrowed in focus, implicitly arguing for new schools and styles, or, worse, these increasingly bulky collections have come to exploit multiculturalism in its lowest form: today no group, however defined by ethnicity or gender, goes unrepresented.
By asking Harold Bloom to select the best poems from Scribner’s annual Best of the Best American Poetry series, editor David Lehman correctly assumed that Bloom would seize the opportunity to ride his hobbyhorse. And he does so with a vengeance in his delightedly bilious introduction to this selection of 75 from 750 poems. Bloom rightly chastises the multicultural avatars of correctness – what he calls “the school of resentment” – for the destruction of “aesthetic and cognitive standards” in judging poetry. What you might overlook in Bloom’s spirited prose, though, is his own agenda: a reductive and determinist aesthetic that leads him to prefer, among other things, poetry difficult for the sake of being difficult, poetry that discusses Bloom’s beloved notion of anxiety, and poetry that aspires to prophecy – or how else explain his inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s risible poem?
At the other end of the anthology spectrum is Robert Hass’s Poet’s Choice, a collection that grew from this former poet laureate’s weekly columns syndicated in over 20 newspapers. Hass’s contribution to “a shared, literate public culture” involved selecting poems mainly from new books and commenting on them in simple prose. The result, though, is often dumbed-down lit-crit: chatty little introductions that, at best, remind readers to use their dictionaries. The selections do include a number of canonical poets (Keats, Hardy, Frost), but most are poems that would make Harold Bloom gag. A Birkenstock populist, Hass doesn’t seem aware that Kingsley Amis did this sort of thing much better in a tougher venue – a British tabloid – and ended up with a terrific anthology of accessible quality verse, The Pleasure of Poetry.
In that vein, two recent anthologies can in fact be recommended with little comment. Both generated abroad, they flow from two of poetry’s common springs: love and madness. Norman Jeffares Irish Love Poems speaks for itself, while Ken Smith’s Beyond Bedlam needs a word of caution: these poems written “out of mental distress” may be, at times, extra-literary, but they are always compelling.