An interview with Leslie M. Pockell, editor of 100 Essential American Poems, which was just published by St. Martin’s Thomas Dunne Books.
PW: What were the qualifications for selecting these Essential American Poems, and how difficult was it to stick to that number?
LP: As I mention in my introduction, I think it’s self evident that our collective view of the U.S.A.—its history, its traditions, even what we generally recognize as our characteristically American voice—is largely determined by our literature, and in this book I wanted to collect poems that I feel contribute something important (in fact, essential) to our understanding of the roots of our shared culture. Of course there are many more than 100 works that fit that description, but keeping the number manageable (and round!) gave me what I consider a workable structure instead of an open-ended list. My own qualifications are non-academic, but I believe my generation (just barely pre-Baby Boom) was exposed to more poetry in school than has been the case for students of more recent decades, and I’ve compiled a number of successful anthologies in the past.
PW: What makes these choices “essential” ?
LP: It’s certainly not simply literary quality, because a number of the works included would be on no one’s list of the best American poems (e.g., Edgar Guest’s “Home,” or “The Face on the Barroom Floor” by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy). If you think of American culture as an edifice made up of many stones, some well shaped and some a bit off, but fitting together in some inimitable way that is instantly recognizable as American, each of these works would have a place in the construction of that building. Many of the poems included are indeed classics, and you will find virtually every great American poet represented here, from Anne Bradstreet to Billy Collins, but some are largely notable for the traditional American quality of sentimentality, and others struggle with unequal success to deal with American concerns of race, gender and personal identity. Some exhibit the uniquely American taste for tall-tale humor and others the equally American quality of cutting irony. Some are canonic, and others just popular or traditional, but I think that together they provide a fair picture of the origins and current state of American culture, and an understanding of the roots of that culture would be incomplete without reading every one of them.
PW: With an increasing amount of leisure-time pursuits available these days, how have the poetry category and the audience for poetry changed in recent years?
LP: I think the audience for poetry in general is small and getting smaller, not just because of competition from other pursuits, but because most poetry today seems to have been written and published primarily for other poets and critics. I believe every child exposed to it grows up loving poetry in the form of nursery rhymes and lullabies, and at least in my experience most spend at least part of their adolescence writing, if not reading, poetry of all kinds. Then that activity stops, suppressed partly by an academic concentration on parsing the meaning of a poem, and partly by the esoteric and inward-looking nature of so much modern poetry. And then there’s the triumph of free verse, which to many people turns poetry into largely banal or incoherent stream of consciousness prose. Robert Frost called free verse like playing tennis with the net down. Was he really so wrong?
PW: What do you think makes this collection special/different/etc. from among the many anthologies on the market?
LP: The book isn’t just a handy anthology of familiar poems in the public domain, nor the arbitrary selections of one or another celebrity. I have nothing against such books, because they bring fine poems to the attention of a large reading public due to their low price or the authority and attractiveness of their presenters. But what I’m trying to do is a bit more complex: I’m trying to show that our culture and traditions are to a great extent influenced and shaped by the poetry of the distant and recent past, and that this influence is continuous and consistent. Read the wonderfully unsentimental and even wry poetic insights of Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and you will see that they could have had a wonderful three-way conversation though they wrote in three different centuries.
PW: In what ways do you think the 1996 establishment of National Poetry month has affected this category?
LP: For some years after April was named National Poetry Month came, many bookstores, especially independents, devoted tables and even window displays to promoting poetry books, which was good for the category and the stores. However, as the role of independents has diminished in recent years, the book-selling effect of National Poetry Month seems to have diminished as well. I may be wrong, but based on my observation National Poetry Month was barely observed by bookstores last month. Too bad, but poetry presumably doesn’t generate as much revenue in April as books on baseball, and business is business...