The father of all poetry anthologies was Greek—the Anthologia Graeca, known in English as The Greek Anthology, the first version a collection of epigrams and poems compiled by Meleager of Gadara. That was in the first century B.C.
Ever since, the poetry anthology has endured as a form that strives to represent or establish a particular tradition or mode of practice. Its role is vital not only in canon building but in audience building; more often that not, it is through anthologies that readers first encounter poetry.
Palgrave's Golden Treasury, first published in 1861, was a favorite book of Robert Frost's, and its influence continues. There were many important 20th-century anthologies edited by Louis Untermeyer, who is credited with helping popularize the sometimes obscure art of versifying. Mid-century witnessed a famous war of anthologies: Donald Allen's The New American Poetry 1945—1960, with its gathering of edgier—indeed, “new” voices—like Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Gregory Corso and Jack Spicer, challenged Donald Hall's The New Poets of England and America, which worked a more traditional vein. In the small but contentious world of poetry, anthologies have determined who's remembered and who's forgotten. Anthologies are a staple of poetry curricula—teachers and professors often center classes around an anthology. They are also a staple of the poetry publishing world. This year alone, there are about a dozen new poetry anthologies coming to market, most of them pubbing in April, National Poetry Month.
The Norton Anthology has become a brand in the academic and poetry world. Norton has two new entries this spring, Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, edited by Robert Pinsky, and American Hybrid, edited by poets Cole Swensen and David St. John.
Pinsky, a former U.S. poet laureate, is one of the country's most well-known literary personalities. The handsomely produced Essential Pleasures is a gathering of poems Pinsky believes are especially suited to being read aloud; the book includes a CD of Pinsky reading some of his selections. Swensen and St. John's American Hybrid is based on the idea that the long-upheld division in American poetry between “traditional” and “experimental” no longer applies.
There are three anthologies coming this spring that feature works found in a specific literary journal or Web sites. Perhaps most ambitious is A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years, edited by Rebecca Wolff and Fence editors, published by Fence Books. Fence is a quarterly literary journal that began publishing in the late 1990s and became a widely influential forum for experimental literature. The anthology features work chosen by the magazine's poetry, fiction and nonfiction editors, with each contributing an essay. Next comes Don't Leave Hungry: Fifty Years of Southern Poetry Review, edited by James Smith and published by University of Arkansas Press. Again, this book gathers poems from an established literary journal, this time on the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from Fence. Then there is From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems That Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, edited by Camille T. Dungy, Matt O'Donnell and Jeffrey Thomson, published by Persea Books and drawn from the Web site www.fishousepoems.org. Founded in 2004, fishousepoems.org makes, collects and offers for free audio recordings by emerging poets. The book reprints some of the poems from the site and includes a CD sampler.
Anthologies can be gatherings of many different things. And in 12 × 12: Conversations in 21st Century Poetry and Poetics, edited by Christina Mengert and Joshua Marie Wilkinson, published by University of Iowa Press, what is gathered is talk—about poetry, mentors, traditions, baseball, snowstorms, etc.—the things that poets discuss in unguarded shoptalk. Two dozen poets, young and old, are heard from, and poems from each are included.
Anthologies for Sale
Publishers basically divide anthologies into two groups: those targeted at general readers and those intended principally for academic audiences, though publishers often hope for a crossover. According to Jill Bialosky, a v-p at Norton, “At least two recent [Norton] anthologies have sold into the six figures.” University of Iowa Press also publishes lots of anthologies, though it targets a narrower audience. Press director Holly Carver says, “A tightly focused anthology that has an enduring theme, and that is short enough to be reasonably priced, can sell very well in the consumer and academic markets. Of course 'very well' for a university press can mean 2,000 copies over the anthology's lifetime, not the 20,000 copies you might hope for.” Nonetheless, Iowa has had great success with poetry anthologies that have appealed to a wider audience, such as last year's Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, which Carver says has sold almost 10,000 copies. Cole Swensen co-edited American Hybrid with both her peers and students in mind: “Other poets were one group we were interested in reaching. And we were also thinking of people working in other arts and people interested in contemporary American culture in general. I'd love to think we might attract people who are simply avid readers. And students, especially upper division undergraduates and graduate M.F.A. and literature Ph.D. students.”
Gabriel Fried, poetry editor of Persea Books, a small press that does about one anthology a year, says that, relative to an individual volume of poetry, anthologies sell “much better on average. We wouldn't acquire them if we weren't virtually positive they'd sell more than a typical poetry collection.”
The drawback to publishing anthologies is the cost of permissions. Many contributors means many copyright holders, and acquiring the rights to reprint all that work is time consuming and can be expensive. Fried got lucky this year with From the Fishouse, but he says, “Fees for an anthology can vary. It really depends on who the contributors are and how much goodwill exists toward a project among the people who control the rights to that work.” In the case of From the Fishouse, says Fried, rights holders—most of them early-career poets—were very generous in support of the Fishouse project.
A book that features canonized poets, however, can be extremely expensive. At Norton, permissions fees are a key factor in deciding whether to green light a project. “We have to assess how much we think the permissions costs will be,” says Bialosky, “and then determine whether the project makes economic sense.”
Of course, poetry publishing is not all about money. It's more a labor of love, done in the spirit of introducing a revered but often demanding form of expression to readers. According to Fried, “Someone may be an anxious poetry reader, but an avid gardener. An anthology of gardening poems makes poetry feel more approachable to that reader.” Carver has a musical metaphor for the anthologies she publishes at Iowa: “Anthologies are the tribute albums of the poetry world, and for this reason they are ideal for readers who prefer to approach poetry by way of subject.”
For the poets and editors who actually compile anthologies, they are a way to get the word out about poetry to a larger audience. According to Matt O'Donnell, he and the other editors of From the Fishouse want to propagate the idea upon which their site is founded: “The success of the poem on the page and the success of the poem in the air are not exclusive of one another,” O'Donnell says. He also wanted to expose new readers to the Fishouse brand: “We also envisioned the anthology as a lure that will lead readers and listeners back to the Fishouse Web site, where they can experience more work—print and audio.” For Wolff, the primary reasons behind compiling A Best of Fence are celebratory and, well, self-congratulatory; she says she hopes “to create a historical record of the inception and earlyish years of the journal. The secondary purpose is to remind readers of what an awesome job we have done.”
Books Mentioned in This Feature
Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, edited by Robert Pinsky (Norton, Apr.; ISBN 978-0-393-06608-1)
American Hybrid, edited by poets Cole Swensen and David St. John (Norton, Mar.; ISBN 978-0-393-33375-6)
A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years, edited by Rebecca Wolff and Fence editors (Fence, Apr.; ISBN 978-1-934200-06-3)
Don't Leave Hungry: Fifty Years of Southern Poetry Review, edited by James Smith (Univ. of Arkansas, Jan.; ISBN 978-1-55728-893-6)
From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems That Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, edited by Camille T. Dungy, Matt O'Donnell and Jeffrey Thomson (Persea, May; ISBN 978-0-89255-348-8)
12 × 12: Conversations in 21st Century Poetry and Poetics, edited by Christina Mengert and Joshua Marie Wilkinson (Univ. of Iowa, Mar.; ISBN 978-1-58729-791-5)
Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Mark Falkoff (Univ. of Iowa, 2007; ISBN 978-1-58729-606-2)