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Joe Amato

It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes:

Cary Nelson's
Anthology of Modern American Poetry


Composing this review essay puts me at some pains, for I find I must embark on an occasionally harsh critique of a recent anthology edited by a fellow academic leftist whose scholarly effort over the years has been directed both at forging a more humane, socially responsible profession and a more comprehensive understanding of literature. Cary Nelson's brand spanking new anthology on Oxford University Press, Anthology of Modern American Poetry, presents us with a passel of poetic goods that is at once so panoramic and so editorially fraught that I believe we may finally have reached a pragmatic breaking point in the contentious disputes over canonicity that have served to ally and divide members of the English profession lo these last two or three decades. In particular, this anthology presents us with such a precisely articulated collision of canonicity with identity politics that one feels much as though the sixties are once again upon us.

The anthology provokes, first and foremost, a rather Foucauldian question (or a question I would like to see addressed in Foucauldian terms ):  What is an editor?  Of course it would be helpful, too, to address this question as it applies to the classroom - because clearly an anthology of poetry by a world-renowned academic press is destined for the postsecondary institution, and may thus be viewed as telling us something about the latter - if USA Oxford UP's market analysis has any bearing here, I mean. That the independent UK Oxford UP dropped of late, and to parliamentary outcry in Britain, its contemporary poetry series adds a further irony to my musings here.


Throughout his "Preface," editor Nelson seems to rely on an age-old editorial formula. After first informing us that his anthology offers a "special claim on readers' attention" - i.e., that "modern American poetry is one of the major achievements of human culture" - here is what we have by way of editorial apparatus, or how and why the poetry was selected:

With perhaps as much catholicity of taste as one editor can muster, I have tried to present twentieth-century American poetry in its astonishing and endlessly energetic variety. There are omissions, to be sure. Like any editor I would readily trade my kingdom for another hundred pages....

It [i.e., the anthology] includes many familiar poets and poems, among them poems reprinted in anthology after anthology with good reason. In some cases this anthology urges a major reassessment.... From time to time a poet appears here with a single poem, not to signal a distinguished career but rather to honor one poem that has proven to be one of the highlights of a major literary movement. It was not just important individual careers I decided to include, therefore, but also notable individual poems. (xxix)
I don't have the space here to rehearse all of the specifics of Nelson's self-assessment, at least insofar as its more aspiring qualities (major reassessment, for one, catholicity, for another). To be sure, there is much in Nelson's ~1250 pp compilation that is of great (literary, cultural, and social) moment. Were this not the case, the anthology would surely serve as the exception that proves the rule. I was relieved to find, for example, a key juxtaposition:  the poetries found in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry orbiting next to those poetries affiliated with the poetry and persona of Robert Lowell (see Jed Rasula's The American Poetry Wax Museum for an incisive account of Lowell's prominence and influence in this regard). Nelson is surely correct in asserting that Edward Brunner's notes, unique to this volume, for Melvin Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia constitute in themselves a "major scholarly achievement."  There is much to be said, too, for Nelson's having taken editorial stock, finally, of the long poem, and poem sequences (represented here by Crane, Stein, Williams, Eliot, Millay, Tolson, Rexroth, Roethke, Rukeyser, Levertov, Ginsberg, Rich, Plath, Pound, Reznikoff). There is much to be said, as well, for the sorts of working-class, labor-centered inclusions one has grown to expect from Nelson, given his recuperative work in Repression and Recovery. His scholarly conviction is everywhere present. I would, however, like to call attention to the following back-cover gloss of what is deemed (on the back cover) a "[u]niquely comprehensive" achievement:
It presents not only the canonical poetry of the last hundred years but also numerous poems by women, minority, and progressive writers only rediscovered in the past two decades.
A few things to note:

First, and to put it in ingenuous terms, how does one go about locating the "canonical poetry of the last hundred years"? Given Nelson's remark as to the presence of poems that will be "familiar" to readers (if not necessarily to students), said poems having been reprinted "in anthology after anthology with good reason," we might ourselves be reasonable (if generous) in concluding that Nelson is simply reproducing the "classics" of this literary genre, "modern American poetry."  Of course, poems that are "familiar", that are reprinted in effect endlessly, tend to be poems that have been around for a while. So having been around for a while could be a necessary, if insufficient, condition for such poems having attained "canonical" status (even in this age of the "instant classic").

Second, as to those "numerous poems by women, minority, and progressive writers only rediscovered in the past two decades":  this would seem to refer to that work which, under Nelson's catholic editorial eye, urges a "major reassessment."  But writers who have been "only rediscovered in the past two decades" must at one time have been "discovered" - and lest this seem a fastidious observation, it should be remarked that poets who have been discovered as such are poets who have likely been deemed  meritorious at some point in the public past (and however meagerly so - e.g., simply by virtue of having their name in print, whether as poets, or as - ?). Which is to say:  the work of these poets may not yet be "canonical," but it is somehow nonetheless "notable" (to use Nelson's term), perhaps because the poetry itself has "proven to be one of the highlights of a major literary movement" (if only in retrospect) or perhaps because of the "individual careers" of these poets.

So:  we have in this anthology both canonical - "familiar," "reprinted" - work, and work which is notable, of note. Hence the notable would seem to be a phase in a given work's steady march toward canonization.

But canonical work is, well, canonical work. Not much (more) to say regarding "The Wasteland" (though Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's decision to exclude same from their Poems for the Millennium, Volume One, indeed speaks volumes). If Nelson understands his editorial function as bringing together works under the "modern American poetry" rubric that have been reprinted hither & thither, who among us has the time or inclination to seek out that familiar, endlessly reprinted poetry that his editorial eye has simply (if regrettably) omitted?

Which is another way of saying that, were the anthology a hundred pages or a thousand pages longer, omission is not quite the issue here.

Notable work presents us with something of a conundrum, though, especially in the absence of anything in the way of editorial logic - save for Nelson's gesturing at "major literary movement" (hereafter MLM) and "individual careers" - to help clarify what could possibly be meant by "notable" (much read? by whom? much imitated? by whom? formally innovative? says whom?) save for mere editorial predilection regarding that poetry (published by those poets) which (who) fall somehow under the MLM or "women, minority, and progressive" (hereafter WMP) umbrella. Should we simply put our faith in our editor's self-professed catholicity? (I can imagine any number of informed students who might do just that, given more traditional classroom dynamics.)  And here again, we have by way of a counterexample the recent Rothenberg/ Joris anthologies - which, in addition to situating the reductive category, "American," in a global context, and by virtue of their rather extensive editorial apparatus, enjoy the advantage of clarifying their polemics by establishing an aesthetic agenda as such. (Though here, too, there are many who remain unhappy with the results, particularly Volume Two. When it comes to anthologies, it would seem you can't win for losing.)

True, we could simply dismiss out of hand any but the more tastemaking attributes of the editorial function, and take Nelson's notable selections, in sum, as a quirky, entirely idiosyncratic mapping of poetic production. I don't think this is a good idea, though, not least because maps of poetic production are necessarily perspectival in ways that maps of the planet tend not to be. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when it comes to surveying the cultural terrain, one has first to establish some rather complex parameters of value - and there is plenty of controversy as to what these values might be (and no shortage of vested interest, in every direction one turns). Achieving something called accuracy will then turn on adherence to stated parameters. But in the context of anthologies (originally, "collections of flowers") such as the one at hand, accuracy may be better understood as coverage, or representational "comprehensiveness" (and note once more Nelson's desire for "another hundred pages") - which brings the canonical (what has been represented) into collision, or collusion, with the notable (what should be represented). And since MLM's consist both of poems and poets, it should come as little surprise that the notable (a word often applied to people, as Nelson suggests when he allows for "important individual careers") might open to questions of identity - i.e., who should be represented.

Thus, in the absence of stated agenda, Nelson's taste (if that's what it is), courtesy of Oxford, must at least be understood as operating within a relatively powerful publication sphere - i.e., a public sphere, if a primarily postsecondary one. And here I would hold him to the same accountabilities that I would hold myself, or any writer. I would ask, To what effect is your taste (if that's what it is) deployed?

But that's just the point - that's not quite what it is. Taste, I mean. It's not quite taste, or at least, not quite the sensation we get when we eat pistachio ice cream (not even quite the sensation we get when we imagine eating pistachio ice cream). There are simply too many overdetermined, profoundly institutional variables at stake in an anthology such as Nelson's (or Oxford's), too much at stake in the various systems of production and distribution and marketing that brought my complimentary copy to me (thank you Oxford UP, in any case), to speak of his, or anyone's, editorial function strictly in terms of taste.

Which is all a somewhat circular way of returning to my initial claim regarding the clash of identity politics with issues of canonicity. And by way of illustrating how, because of the aforementioned and largely tacit institutional variables, identity-based imperatives  - or what are apparently viewed as imperatives - undermine Nelson's canonical | notable agenda, I turn, finally, to Nelson's selection of two-dozen poets born after 1945 - or, born during and after the baby boom. In terms of poetry, this selection comprises something like the last quarter-century of new arrivals on the "modern American poetry" scene (if only about 120 pages of the anthology - and yes, I am quite conscious of my membership in this latter group of poets).

I will be working strictly with Nelson's headnotes - biographical information, solicited or no, likely to have been provided in the main by the authors themselves. Sampling from same, very selectively, my aim is to produce something resembling an editorial thematic, or logic, in accordance with which (and aside from mere taste) this notable poetry, and these notable poets, might have been selected. Bear with me, please - despite the nature of my excerpts, there will be nothing of the characteristic "reverse racism" charge leveled here (albeit simply sampling as I have might itself be perceived as making such a charge).
Ron Silliman:  "He has worked as an organizer in prisoner and tenant movements, as well as a lobbyist, teacher, and college administrator.... For several years he was executive editor of Socialist Review, and since then has worked in the computer industry in Pennsylvania as a marketing communications specialist."

Adrian C. Louis:  "Born and raised in Nevada, Louis is an enrolled member of the Lovelock Paiute Indian tribe.... A former journalist, he edited four tribal newspapers and was a founder of the Native American Press Association."

Yusef Komunyakaa:  "Komunyakaa is an African American poet who was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the son of a carpenter.... From 1965-1967 he served a tour of duty in South Vietnam, where he was an information specialist and editor of the military newspaper Southern Cross; he won a bronze star, but it was not until more than a decade after returning from the war that he would begin writing poems about the experience."

Ai:  "Born Florence Anthony in Albany, Texas, Ai did not learn her real father's identity until she was sixteen. Then she learned she had a Japanese American father; her mother was black, Irish, and Choctaw Indian."

Wendy Rose:  "Rose was born in Oakland, California, of Hopi and 'Me-wuk ancestry."

C. D. Wright:  "Born and raised in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, C(arolyn) D. Wright is the daughter of a judge and a court reporter.... She has remained in touch with her roots."

Jessica Hagedorn:  "Born in Manila and raised in the Philippines before coming to the U.S., Hagedorn is known as a novelist, a performance artist, a poet, and a playwright."

Ray A. Young Bear:  "An enrolled member of the Mesquakie Nation of central Iowa, Ray Young Bear grew up on the tribal lands near Tama."

Carolyn Forché:  "Forché was born in Detroit; her father was a tool and die maker, while her mother was a journalist.... From 1978-1980 she worked as a reporter and human rights activist in El Salvador."

Garrett Kaoru Hongo:  "Born in Volcano, Hawaii, of Japanese-American parents, Hong grew up on the North Shore of Oahu and later in California. His father was an electrician and his mother a personnel analyst."

Rita Dove:  "A book-length poem sequence, Thomas and Beulah (1986), presents her maternal grandparents' family history in the broad context of African American migration north after Reconstruction."

Jimmy Santiago Baca:  "Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, of Chicano and Apache Indian descent, but abandoned at age two, Baca lived part of the time with a grandparent. By his fifth birthday, his father was dead of alcoholism, his mother had been murdered by her new husband, and Baca was in an orphanage. He escaped at age eleven and lived on the street, moving on to drugs and alcohol. Soon he was convicted on a drug charge, though he may not have been guilty."

Anita Endrezze:  "Endrezze was born in Long Beach, California, of Yaqui and European ancestry."

Ana Castillo:  "Castillo was born and grew up in Chicago of Aztec and Mexican ancestry."

Mark Doty:  "Born in Tenessee, the son of an army engineer.... In addition to his poetry, he is the author of a 1981 critical study of James Agee and of Heaven's Coast (1996), a memoir of his partner Wally Roberts's death from AIDS."

Harryette Mullen:  [discussed below]

Louise Erdrich:  "She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe of North Dakota; her mother is of French-Chippewa descent, and for many years her grandfather was Tribal Chair of the reservation.... [S]he has taught poetry in prisons and edited a Native American newspaper."

Sandra Cisneros:  "Born in Chicago to working-class parents - her father was an upholsterer, her mother a factory worker - Cisneros spent her early years shuttling between the United States and her father's family in Mexico City."

Thylias Moss:  "Born Thylias Rebecca Brasier into a working-class family in Cleveland, Ohio, Moss's mother was a maid and her father was a recapper for the Cardinal Tire Company. She enrolled at Syracuse University but left when she found the racial tension there unpleasant."

Patricia Smith:  "Born and raised on the impoverished West Side of Chicago ... A former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, she was also a columnist for the Boston Globe for a number of years ... A nonfiction book Africans in America (1998), coauthored with Charles Johnson, accompanies a PBS television documentary on slavery."

Marilyn Chin:  "Born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon, where her father was a restaurant owner...."

Sesshu Foster:  "... [H]e has coedited a collection of multicultural urban poetry, Invocation L.A. (1989)."

Martín Espada:  "Born in Brooklyn, New York, of Puerto Rican parents - his father was a photographer who illustrated his first book.... He was a night clerk in a transient hotel, a journalist in Nicaragua, a welfare rights paralegal, and later a tenant lawyer in Boston."

Sherman Alexie:  "The son of a Spokane father and a part-Coeur d'Alene mother, Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington."  [Note that Alexie, b. 1966, is the only poet here who is technically not a baby boomer.]
WMP:  more women than men (refreshingly), more minorities than whites (refreshingly), and various indications of progressive, socially responsible leanings (taking "progressive" in a more contemporary light, of course). Some of these poets may be understood as having been key figures in MLM's, as well, if such movements are defined both as aesthetic and social phenomena (e.g., Nelson calls attention to Ron Silliman's seminal work as a language poet-writer, which latter poets clearly understood their work as contributing to a renewed understanding of sociolinguistic realities; and the journalistic credentials of Adrian Louis, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carolyn Forché, and Patricia Smith might be taken as implying a somehow more democratic, less elitist conception of the public domain).

Lots of attention here, too, to socioeconomic class - as dictated by parental occupation, childhood experience, place or region of birth, upbringing - and lots of attention to work in general. One gets the distinct impression at times that a particular poet has been around the block, as it were, understands life from the other (if not wrong) side of the tracks, has suffered appreciably, hence has earned her notable status - such "real world" experiences a much discussed phenomenon in the world of rap, in fact, which perhaps might encourage in readers a more performative grasp of the poetry-poet complex.

(I should mention that there is lots of attention, too, to formal education, which I've chosen not to sample. Nor have I sampled Nelson's explanatory and evaluative commentary on the poetry, which often takes the form of simple assertions as to literary worth.)

Still, readers are likely to infer from these headnotes the now familiar, if problematic, equation at work throughout:  viz., that a poet's identity, as determined by her social experience - the structural and personal consequences of ethnic or racial lineage, gender, sexual orientation, familial circumstances, class status, occupation, place of birth, and so forth - corresponds to a poet's social (and sometimes socialist) agenda, and accounts for the work's having been written the way it is, and published (and critically received, or no), in the first place.

Hence it would seem - another inference - that your standard editorial attention to literary-poetic value, which we could regard as taste, along with an obviously careful, multicultural accounting of identity (as above) has produced the requisite panoply of notable poetry, notable in fact for the degree to which it includes poets the sum total of whose social and personal experiences, hence whose poetry presumably articulates something other than your more customary white male heterosexual suburban? capitalist? able-bodied? "modern American"? reality. Not an extraordinarily outrageous set of assumptions, actually. While I wouldn't assign essential value to experience - which is to say, while I wouldn't want to see authenticity (e.g.) invoked as any but a contingent response to social realities of one sort or the other - I would view different social experiences as likely to produce correspondingly different artifacts that, upon close examination, speak to said experiences, however they do so.

But as I said earlier, that's not quite what it is. Taste, I mean. I can't account for Nelson's taste, finally - he certainly has taste of course, but I can't seem to be able to account for it. Maybe it's me, but I have no idea whether he likes pistachio ice cream. (I do.)

And even if I could account for this thing called "taste," it would surely take second seat to Nelson's orchestration of identity politics. It comes as no surprise to this reader, anyway, that such an obviously careful accounting practice - correlating so strongly, as it does, social experience with aesthetic value - produces an appropriately (and refreshingly) diverse array of poets (appropriate, that is, to a diversely populated postsecondary educational setting, if not a diverse readership). Likewise, it comes as no surprise to this reader that such an obviously careful accounting practice should result in such a conservative display of formal innovation (not to be a blithering formalist about it but





p? AGAINST THAT LEFT MARGIN, IN Standard Typeface -


SLAM/ PERFORMANCE/ SPOKEN/ WORD/ POETS/ POETRY with an exception or 2 though


& btw a half-dozen of Nelson's baby boom poets appear in The United States of Poetry video/book - out of ~80 poets total



esp. nota


- odd, given the book's accompanying website, @ [maps?


should tend toward the realist mode, 2/3 of the poems perhaps first person experiential, so many narrative, so many lyrical even (not to be a blithering statistician about it but






HURRY NOW WHILE SUPPLIES LAST! if occasionally provocative



should reveal so entirely its preoccupation, its infatuation with social-materialist factors (not to be a blithering poet about it but





(I know - I'm cheating (& getting cute with my word processor) - raising again the question of omission, refusing to provide specific examples. But if you don't believe me, just have a look at the poetry. It may yet be an anthology worth owning, even at the going rate of $45 in paper.)

Harryette Mullen - an African American poet whose "prose poems . . . wittily display human motivation with a linguistic basis," as Nelson puts it (and which poems clearly deserve inclusion in such an anthology) - is an interesting exception to the lot of headnotes (as above). I'm left wondering why her headnote seems so curiously devoid of racial or ethnic markers (curiously, that is, in the context of this anthology) - especially as the excerpt from Mullen's S*PeRM**K*T exhibits at least a concern (e.g.) with African American dialects and cultural realities. (Perhaps Mullen herself did not wish to see her writing compartmentalized in this manner?)  But in any case, Nelson's commentary, linking her (somewhat narrowly, in my view) with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, at least underscores the fact that she is hardly working in the realist-lyrical mode, any more than is (another exception whose poetry proves the rule, the much anthologized of late) Ron Silliman - himself editor of a landmark anthology, In the American Tree, only three of whose featured poets, Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, and Silliman himself, are included in Nelson's tome.

Further, it would seem that Nelson, though himself a literary theorist of considerable talent, is not much persuaded as to the utility of critical-historical classifications such as "postmodern" in distinguishing more conventional postwar poetry from avant-garde, "experimental" work (as Paul Hoover has done in his generally fine, classroom-friendly Postmodern American Poetry anthology, for Norton). I place "experimental" in quotes, vexed term that it is for those of us whose work does not fit neatly into prevailing poetic categories; Nelson himself deploys the word very selectively. But to ride my hobbyhorse for a moment:  the experimental as such - using a new procedure or method to generate unpredictable, if thereby delimited, results - would seem to have fallen largely outside of Nelson's purview of the contemporary scene, judging by the notable absence both of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low (poets born well before 1945), whose procedural writings have influenced any number of today's "experimental" poets, including Ron Silliman. (Though I must admit, it's nice to see Louis Zukofsky not get dropped out of the mix, for a change.)  While Nelson wisely includes the aforementioned Susan Howe (b. 1937) - "[o]ften grouped with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets," and "also very much an experimental writer" - Nelson's baby boom selections render largely invisible the influence of Howe's poetry upon poetry communities (and poetry) today. For instance, Nelson provides Sandra Cisneros as an example of baby boom experimenters, whose "published work includes not only poetry but experimental collections of fiction and sketches."  Yet Cisneros, if in fact she could be considered an "experimental" poet, is represented here by but a single, fourteen-line, first-person lyric (some might say, sonnet) - evidently one that qualifies, somehow,  for MLM designation, in addition to satisfying the WMP criteria, but does not qualify as an "experimental" poem (let alone one influenced by earlier "experimental" writing).

MLM, WMP:  my point is not to deride the latter, but to suggest that such categories are far more complex, far more variegated, than Nelson's contemporary selections might suggest. The problem stems in part from the word "American," so neatly couched as it is within his title, no doubt Oxford's (Norton's, the National Poetry Foundation's, Talisman House's, countless others') marketing short-hand. It is easy today to assert the following:  women who are Native Americans will (in this day and age anyway) most certainly be more prone to representing Native American experience in their writings than will WASP American men - and are likely to do so with more insight, in any case. The same may be said for African American men, Italian American women, gay American men, transsexual American women, working-class Asian American lesbians - all "American" identities, albeit some far more disenfranchised than others. It is not easy today to assert the following:  the matter of "representing" (social, individual, "American") reality via language is never merely one of verisimilitude based on first-hand experience; rather, and at the risk of sounding a specific aesthetic chord, it is a matter of rendering said experience with due account for the ways in which the words themselves, however literarily conceived, participate as well in those dominant discursive realities that have helped to impoverish, and to enslave. It's not that there are no structural homogeneities, such as "whiteness," at issue here - it's that confronting such social and institutional contours via poetic language may not be for the formally weakhearted.

And if you imagine, instead, political efficacy (e.g., "major reassessment") as emanating naturally (as it were) from the representational artifact; if you imagine that a radical renewal of language practice is (or has been) possible in the absence of a correspondingly radical understanding of identity, as evidenced in numerous radically conceived and articulated poetries (and I make no apologies for using "radical" here to denote the apprehension of linguistic form as content, content as form); if you fail to demand of poetry (if not the poet) substantive attention to those selfsame, highly fraught categories of representation, identity, and experience that you, as editor, are so obviously laboring to identify - you are bound to compromise any "special claim" on "readers' attention," and any attendant ideological agenda. Hence while it might be instructive to see a (still) controversial work like "Congo" (by Vachel Lindsay) dusted off and featured alongside the poetry of someone like Harry Crosby - thus ostensibly speaking both to more conservative and more liberal views (if you will) of the canon - one gets the distinct impression that difficulties attendant to the reception of these disparate writings were (and are) a matter of degree, and not kind (a leveling effect that, e.g., mutes the aesthetic agenda and editorial urgency behind inclusion of someone like Crosby, but not Lindsay, in Rothenberg's recently reprinted Revolution of the Word).

Moreover, in the world of letters in general, and the world of poetry in particular, resistance has often been voiced, and status has often been denied, to those WMP writers who do not take for granted the representational capacity of their constructions. Think, for example, of those largely unheralded African American postmodernist poets whose work has only recently received due critical attention, poets such as Harryette Mullen - and Russell Atkins, and A. B. Spellman, and Lorenzo Thomas, and Nathaniel Mackey, and Will Alexander, et al. (see Aldon Lynn Nielsen's Black Chant, which examines the formative role that orality has played in such critical appraisals). If nothing else, what the numerous anthologies of our recent fin de siècle have illustrated is that the vast range of poetries and poets operating even within U. S. borders (to the extent that poetry obeys borders as such) defies any simplistic correspondence between poetic persona and (say) oppositional stance, let alone oppositional poetry (whatever we mean by "oppositional"). Hence the correlation of a poet's (authentic?) identity/experience with her poetry's presumed content/value is apt to produce a re-presentation comprised primarily of those poets who, through relatively unimpeded recourse to representational logic, essentialize their identity/experience - regardless how necessary (in social terms) or accessible (in aesthetic terms) the results may be deemed.

So, having construed contemporary poetic practice largely through a core curriculum of disenfranchised "American" identities, Nelson likewise elects to collect those poems that speak to his editorial logic. Thus it becomes as easy to characterize Nelson's (albeit diverse) grouping of poets as it is to characterize the bulk of the poetry thereby selected. He would have been better off (if without a contract from Oxford) stipulating to a specific "American" identity, and exploring its formal range and thematic variation. He would have been better off pursuing something along the lines of what (editor) Walter K. Lew has managed in Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, which features three of the poets in Nelson's baby boom group (Hagedorn, Chin, and Foster); not that Lew's modifiers ("New Asian North American") are themselves without controversy - but by tightening his focus, Lew has managed to open (not close) his poetic field. To state the matter obliquely, if with more urgency:  I'm not certain Sandra Day O'Connor is doing women the feminist good they deserve, just as I'm not certain Clarence Thomas is doing African Americans the racial good they deserve; hence I'm not certain either is doing the social good we all deserve.

Some will no doubt observe that I am flogging a dead horse. But if so, it's a horse that needs flogging.

Some will no doubt observe that I have singled out specific poets for praise (Cage, Mac Low, Zukofsky, Silliman, Mullen, and Howe), poets whose literary sensibilities, influences, or communities overlap somewhat with my own. Mea culpa.

And some will no doubt question my recourse to a rather strict chronological reading of literary history. But after all, I'm only attending to Nelson's chronology, which to be fair is SOP in the anthology world (and which situates always at book's end that difficult matter of what poetry to include within proximity of today).

Now, I've never been much given to seeing canonicity per se as a pressing literary concern - who's permanently (?) "in" or "out" much less important, in my view, than establishing the need for ongoing engagement with the question of literary (and social and cultural) value (especially in the classroom). And it's not that I don't like so much of the poetry Nelson has collected here, either. Indeed, his anthology is a catholic compilation, both formally and in terms of the communities of poets it musters together, at least until it attempts to grapple with poetry written so squarely "in the age of media" (to borrow from Marjorie Perloff). But by permitting the current imperatives of multicultural coverage - or what are apparently viewed as imperatives - to dictate, tacitly, a progressive, chronologically-marked editorial shift toward poetic persona, if not away from poetry, Nelson has diluted the formal range of his presentation, and compromised any claim to a "comprehensive" agenda. And it's disappointing, to this poet, to find one of our relatively few scholars whose field includes contemporary poetry faltering in this way.

In all, as it zeroes in on contemporary practice, Nelson's is a bracingly disparate compilation, on the one (experiential, identity-based) hand, an embarrassingly normative compilation, on the other (formalist, aesthetic). Still, when you consider that sea changes in our institutional fora can often be precipitated by tiny catalytic moments - a massive anthology produced under imprimatur of a major press with serious (and I mean serious) distribution and marketing clout being one such possible moment - well, such an ultimately reductive and self-cancelling editorial strategy is unfortunate, especially coming from a scholar whose notable agitations for more democratic and participatory social and professional realities make him a scholar after my own heart.


photo of Joe Amato

Joe Amato is the author of Symptoms of a Finer Age (Viet Nam Generation, 1994, available through SPD); and Bookend: Anatomies of a Virtual Self (SUNY Press, 1997).

You can read two poems by Joe Amato in Jacket # 10. He may be contacted at, and his online work is available at

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