Monday, June 11, 2007

Donald Allen

There’s no such thing as a perfect anthology. For one thing, the form is too complex, carrying as it must a world of social dynamics & implications on top of all the “usual” literary ones. For another, editors – all editors – are simply human & prone to all which that implies.

Case in point: Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry , unquestionably the most influential single anthology of the last century. It’s a great book, an epoch-making one in many ways. If you didn’t live anywhere near a location that might carry the small press books of the 1950s & early ‘60s, the Allen anthology was the place where you got to hear what all the fuss was about with the Beatniks, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets & so forth. I still keep my copy of the Grove Press edition right next to the more recent UC Press re-issue. My wife still keeps her copy of the Grove Press edition in one of her bookcases upstairs.

But it’s by no means a perfect book. Only four of its 44 contributors are women & 43 of the poets are white. It would have been a stronger book, and done a better job connecting back to the traditions from which this poetry arose if it had included the work of Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Lorine Niedecker or George Oppen, all of whom were active when the first edition appeared in 1960. One could even argue that it might have been a stronger book had it included William Carlos Williams, H.D. or even Ezra Pound, all of whom were still alive in 1960. In the afterword that has been added to the UC Press edition, Allen himself suggests that this is very much the kind of anthology he himself first envisioned:

I visualized leading off with recent work by William Carlos Williams, H.D., e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, to be followed by a few poems by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Louis Zukofsky, and then a larger selection of poems by twenty-four of the “new” poets.

According to Allen, it was Charles Olson who balked at this lineup, emphasizing as it did continuity rather than change. A little selective amnesia, omitting rather than incorporating these literary elders, gave the final product a much more radical air than it might otherwise have had. And I suppose that it didn’t hurt that the book leads off with a new version of the Grand Old Man than, say, Pound or Williams, Olson himself taking up the first 38 of the edition’s 386 pages given over to verse (another 70 are allocated to statements of poetics and bio notes, with Olson taking up 20 percent of that).

Where there are exceptions to this prohibition against an “older” aesthetics, every one is in the San Francisco Renaissance section of the book, the second of the volume’s five groupings. Helen Adam, James Broughton, Brother Antoninus & Madeline Gleason all extend out of a tradition that extends more directly from Pound’s old employer, William Butler Yeats. With the plausible exception of Antoninus (William Everson), a Dominican monk whose poetry owes a great debt to Robinson Jeffers, the others were all also confidants of Allen’s closest advisor on this anthology, Robert Duncan. If, as has sometimes been argued, the Allen anthology’s neglect of women can be traced at least partly back to Duncan, it’s worth noting that two of the book’s four female poets fall under this category & that a third, Denise Levertov, was Duncan’s closest female correspondent of all. Without Duncan’s influence, it’s conceivable that the Allen anthology would have been 39 guys and Barbara Guest.¹ But one wouldn’t have had to change the aesthetics or reach of the anthology in the slightest to have included, say, Diane DiPrima, Hettie Jones, Bunny Lang, Mary Fabilli or Lita Hornick. You could have tripled the presence of poets of color by adding Bob Kaufman & Steve Jonas. And you could have had a parallel to the West Coast “exceptions” out of New York if you wanted to be completely fair: Edwin Denby, F.T. Prince, David Schubert.

But this was not the only perceptible omission the Allen anthology made. Notably missing are non- or anti-academic poets who don’t come directly out of the Pound-Williams tradition, including Bern Porter, Bob Brown, Jackson Mac Low & Jerome Rothenberg.² If anything, these poets would have given Allen’s collection a more revolutionary feel than it eventually had. But there were also poets whose writing owed a heavy debt to William Carlos Williams, in particular, but who didn’t share in the vaguely Beat counter-culture that was the unspoken common ground for all the poets in the Allen, such as David Ignatow and Harvey Shapiro, whose absence I suspect drove a wedge between camps. Ignatow, Shapiro & Rexroth are all poets who could easily have been in the Allen who were later taken up as influences by more conservative writers who treat them as integral to a less Anglophiliac, less formalist variant of the School of Quietude. One can only imagine what poets like Phil Levine or journals like the American Poetry Review might have become had they seen the likes of Rexroth et al as part & parcel of the New American Poetry & thus understood their own history differently.

The New American Poetry also didn’t do a great job with its inclusion of younger poets. The two “babies” in the gathering, Ron Loewinsohn & David Meltzer, both turn 70 this year, having had very different careers. Meltzer stayed true to his neo-Beat roots & his recent selected poems, David’s Copy, demonstrates that the Meltzer of the Allen anthology was a solid & worthy selection. However at 23, Loewinsohn was still very much the perfect imitator of William Carlos Williams & not yet much more, a fact that let to considerable derision among his peers that was quite evident on the scene when I first came into it five years later. As Loewinsohn grew up as a poet, his own aesthetic evolved in a more narrative direction, eventually yielding one legit small masterpiece, Against the Silences to Come, a couple of decently sized collections, the most recent of which, Goat Dances, came out in 1976. Having gotten into Harvard after a fairly rough time as a Beat (he & Richard Brautigan were roommates for a time in an automobile), Loewinsohn published two novels, got tenure at Berkeley, and to my knowledge hasn’t published a book now in 20 years. Allen could have done much better by focusing more attention instead on the Spicer Circle (Joanne Kyger, George Stanley, even Harold Dull), some of the younger New York poets (Kathleen Fraser, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett) or looking away altogether from the “scenes” to writers like Besmilr Brigham, James L. Weil or Judson Crews.

One could make similar arguments concerning the problematic inclusion of at least six & conceivably as many as ten of the 44 contributors to the Allen anthology. Realistically, tho, one could make a case for the inclusion of every poet there, even Bruce Boyd. A more important question, tho, has to do with the book’s structure. Allen’s decision to divide his collection into “groups” was controversial enough at the time, but I think it had a lot to do with the book’s power & influence. By separating out different modes of the new poetry, Allen made the reading experience of unfamiliar work much easier for readers far from either literary center in the U.S. In essence, this strategy tells you not only who to read, but how to read them. Not devoting a section to Boston, for example, was every bit as important as devoting one to San Francisco, even if the so-called S.F. “Renaissance” is largely a fiction of this volume, one rendered even less intelligible by Allen’s decision to put Duncan – the archetypal San Francisco poet – into the Black Mountain section, as well placing Philip Whalen, Michael McClure & Loewinsohn into the final “independents” grouping.

In addition, there’s an implicit hierarchy of sections that goes well beyond the disproportionate number of pages given to Charles Olson. The hierarchy is: (1) Black Mountain, (2) San Francisco, (3) Beats, (4) New York School & (5) independents. This certainly downgrades the New York poets unfairly, and it misses the already emerging New Western poetry (now sometimes called ecopoetics) that Allen could have acknowledged by placing “SF Renaissance” poet Lew Welch (whose poems in the issue are entirely from his “Chicago period”) alongside Welch's Reed College roomies, Whalen & Snyder, perhaps adding “Black Mountain” poet Ed Dorn. That may have required more forward thinking analysis than anyone could have done at the time, but by the start of Coyote’s Journal by the middle of the next decade & the rise of other New Western poets like James Koller, Bill Deemer, Drum Hadley, John Oliver Simon & Keith Wilson, it was a joining together just waiting to be put on paper. The absence of the New Westerns from the Allen anthology has a lot to do with the ongoing neglect of this writing here nearly a half century later.

But for all of these warts, the Allen anthology is still unquestionably a great book, and it makes sense that it should be the most influential collection of the latter half of – indeed of any point in – the 20th century. Again, Allen himself notes how, in the 1950s,

Oscar Williams’ frequent collections of verse had given contemporary anthologies a bad name.

Which is surely true to my memory of the time (tho I first read Frank O’Hara in one of Williams’ gatherings when I was in high school before I ever saw the Allen). Anthologies like that were pitched, as are those today by Garrison Keillor, Caroline Kennedy & Billy Collins, at people who don’t read poetry & who may well find the simplest piece by Robert Creeley too taxing, too threatening for their noggins. Such readers desire a poetry without questions or ambiguity, which is like weightlifting without weights.

So Allen not only changed poetry, in making all this newfangled stuff widely available, he rehabilitated the genre of the anthology itself. That’s a tremendous achievement. Which is why I want to keep its limitations in mind later this week as I look at a series of new anthologies that have arrived on my desk (or, more accurately, on the floor next to it) over the past few weeks.


¹ Gertrude Stein’s absence from Allen’s original roster is attributable to her death 14 years before, but it definitely narrows the poetic range of what he was proposing.

² Thus one might read the debacle of Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 2, which embarrassingly under-represents the New American Poetry and its participants, as simply a matter of “payback” several decades later.