Friday, July 15, 2005

Norton on my mind

I'm teaching 20th-century British poetry this summer via the second volume of the seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (NAEL2, edited by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt, published in 2000). It's a choice dictated by necessity: teaching at a college with a Textbook Rental System (sic), I must use any new book that I order over three semesters. As I seldom teach modern British, I chose a book already in the System.

I'm not against anthologies, which can be great means of discovery. I found Gregory Corso's "Marriage" in an anthology as a college freshman and immediately had to revise my sense of what a poem could say. (Thanks to A. Kent Hieatt and William Parks' College Anthology of British and American Poetry.) More recently, Andrei Codrescu's American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late and Ron Silliman's In the American Tree opened my eyes to what I'd been missing in recent American writing. But Norton anthologies do not inspire my affection. When I began to really learn my way around the New American Poetry sixteen or seventeen years ago, the absurdities of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (NAMP, ed. Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair) quickly became clear. Not only did the emperor have no clothes; he had his--well, never mind. (See Clayton Eshleman's "The Gospel According to Norton" [American Poetry Review, September-October 1990] for the gaps and errors in the second edition of the NAMP.)

Coming to the NAEL2 for modern poetry, I find unfortunate (unconscionable?) omissions. I know better than to expect poets from, say, Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain's Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 or Maggie O'Sullivan's Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK (and, yes, I'm directing my students to sources beyond the NAEL2, especially as we near the present). But Basil Bunting is missing from the NAEL2. So are William Empson and Mina Loy and Charles Tomlinson. There are no Auden poems later than 1952's "The Shield of Achilles." David Jones is here only as one of several "Voices from World War I," in brief excerpts from the Preface and Part Seven of In Parenthesis, with one of the most important sentences of the Preface omitted ("I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men"). Edith Sitwell is here only as one of the "Voices from World War II" (there's nothing from Façade). As one might expect, Yeats dominates "The Twentieth Century," with thirty-four poems, and a career divided, according to the headnote to those poems, into five periods (like a schoolday--fourth period gym; fifth period Yeats!).

Which brings me to another way in which this anthology dissatisfies me--in its commentaries on individual writers. My sampling of these headnotes is relatively small, and it may be that I'm seeing what are only haphazard glitches. But a book of this size--3,024 pages, including the prefatory matter--is the work of numerous hands, and I suspect that four kinds of problems I find in individual headnotes are to be found in various ways throughout the book.

1. Odd omissions: The intro to Hopkins, which is in many ways clear and helpful, glosses inscape with no reference to haecceity ("thisness," as opposed to quiddity, "whatness"), the term of scholastic philosophy that's crucial to Hopkins' thinking. The intro to Auden makes no reference to Hardy ("my first Master," Auden called him) or to Auden's importance to later poets. (John Ashbery: "I once said to Kenneth Koch, 'What are you supposed to say to Auden?' And he said that about the only thing there was to say was 'I'm glad you're alive.'")

2. Factual weirdness: Here's a bewildering glitch, from the intro to "Voices from World War I": "the battle casualties of World War I were many times greater than those of World War II." This statement does hold if it applies to U.K. casualties, but there's no indication that that is the context. There is in fact no indication that this statement applies to anything other than the total battle causalities of the two wars. And there's also nothing to clarify for a student-reader that World War I was not fought on British soil (a common confusion, at least among undergraduates).

3. Cliché, vagueness, and tonal failure: Here the problems are more amusing, as one listens for the sound of the wind, rustling through the tweed.

Auden combines "clowning" with "cunning verbal craftsmanship" and finally learns to control his desire to "shock." Edith Sitwell too engages in "clowning" and "cunning exploration of rhymes and rhythms" and uses "shock tactics." It seems reasonable to suspect that the tired phrasing in these headnotes is the work of the same tired writer.

Characterizations are sometimes so vague as to defy an attempt to trace them back to individual poets: "a thoughtful, seriously playful (if one may put it in this paradoxical way) poet"; "pain and pleasure alike rendered with a Keatsian specificity"; "combines the ironic and the visionary in a highly original manner"; "at home, one might say, with the universe, with all that is deep-rooted and elemental in the Individual and Nature"; "had a poetic sense of life"; "has since proved the truth of Yeats' statement that 'out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.'" I'm tempted to devise a matching test, but after collecting these comments, I've lost track of which poets they apply to (aside from the fourth, which does seem to describe D.H. Lawrence).

The tweedy tone in the headnotes--if one may put it in this paradoxical way, one might say, pellucid clarity, finely disciplined movement, richer harmonies, the accents of drawing-room conversation, deep yet unsentimental feeling--sometimes makes me wonder whether some smart-alecky graduate students or assistant professors are having fun at the expense of their (imaginary?) sherry-sipping elders. If not, such phrasing represents a genuine failure of tone. I can't imagine any undergraduate, dedicated to literature or already skeptical, being engaged by such stuff. Drawing-room conversation, indeed.

4. Oracular judgment: The Preface to the NAEL2 states that the headnotes "are designed to give the information needed, without imposing an interpretation." That's a remarkable sentence, as if a judgment about what "information" is needed doesn't presuppose an interpretation. Does an undergrad need to know anything about anti-Semitism in relation to T.S. Eliot's poetry? The headnote to Eliot's work doesn't mention it (though Anthony Julius' T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form is mentioned in the back-of-the-book bibliography).

While claiming to refrain from interpretation, the headnotes offer several absolute judgments of poetic value: Yeats is "beyond question the greatest twentieth-century poet of the English language." T.S. Eliot--and you'd never know from this anthology how sharply his reputation has declined--is "the poet of the modern symbolist-Metaphysical tradition." (There is one? How large?) And Seamus Heaney is "the best Irish poet since W.B. Yeats" (Robert Lowell's words, certified by the headnote). I can't find further pronouncements this absolute in the Twentieth Century section of the anthology: Auden is "uneven," but still "one of the masters," and the appraisals become more moderate in their enthusiasm as one reaches the present.

My dissatisfactions with the NAEL2 are not a matter of buyer's remorse. I chose the book, eyes open. If my choice had not been constrained by circumstance, I would gladly have ordered Keith Tuma's Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (Oxford UP), an anthology far better attuned to innovation, far less oracular, two-thousand pages shorter, and several pounds lighter. Bunting, Empson, Loy, and Tomlinson all have a home there, along with many other poets, early- and late-century, who are missing from the NAEL2.

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