In The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, former Poet Laureate Rita Dove offers a fresh take on the most important poetry of the previous hundred years.
You were tasked with offering your own version of the 20th Century canon—how did you go about it?
By the time I began working on the anthology, the 20th century was done. It was a closed chapter, and that meant I could go back and see how things really begin to shake out. I was going back to look at all the ways people viewed the 20th century at various points—in 1960 the view was completely different from how we view it now. So, of course, emphasis began to shift. I kept asking myself, How much space do I give to this person, who used to get 25 pages?
Those must have been hard choices...
I loved it! But there were moments when I banged my head against the wall. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of relying on the first half of the century, to have the book be early-heavy. And I wanted to give a sense of what was going to happen, but I had this very firm rule that nothing in it could be published after the year 2000, and that meant cutting out a lot of really interesting stuff that’s been going on in the last decade.
Was it hard to pick poems and poets of your own and younger generations?
That was one of the hardest things. I must have gone through I don’t know how many tables of contents. After I had a certain outline, I would go and pick up a book, I don’t even know whose it was, and start looking through it to try to surprise myself. Because I did know people, I’d sometimes feel really bad if I didn’t include someone, but then I’d ask myself, did this poem capture something about the 20th century, and sometimes that could help me make a decision. Most difficult was choosing people born around my generation and the very oldest ones, the early 20th-century poets, because they were so frozen. Also, the whole rights and permissions things—that was the purgatory I had to pay for the paradise.
Did you find yourself thinking more about the poets or the poems?
I was trying to be more loyal to the poems. My initial feeling was that there was a 20th century vision that was uniquely American, and then, going through the poems, I began to see how the pieces were fitting together. There were certainly schools that would propel things, but out of those schools would come particular poems, the one that you carry around, like a brilliant little stone you just rub and it starts to shine again. Taking those poems as stepping stones meant I could be a little less reverent toward the idea of the poet and the reputation.
Do you think of this as more of a book for readers or for students?
A reader’s book. I tried to think of it as someone who loves poetry and grew up around anthologies—that’s how I got started: the first book of poetry I read was an anthology edited by Louis Untermeyer. The idea is that between those covers was a cornucopia of voices. That’s the thrall of an anthology.