This is a poetry anthology born in fire, a fire lit by a sharply critical review by the poetry critic Helen Vendler in The New York Review of Books and by a vituperative response in that same journal by the anthology's editor, poet Rita Dove. At issue are two things: Dove's 24 page Introduction to the volume and her criteria for which twentieth century American poets to include in the anthology.
I read the Introduction with care. Was it as poorly written as Vendler said it was? Alas, the answer is yes. At the outset, Dove declares her intention to present the poets in chronological order as opposed to, say, alphabetical order. Because of this choice, she feels impelled to offer background material; she is reluctant to let a poem stand alone, without our knowing "the conditions that spawned and nurtured it." At the same time, she freely acknowledges the difficulty of writing literary history, "for there are so many exceptions to whatever grid one tries to superimpose on living, breathing material." Dove should have heeded that inner warning, for the grid she does impose---"trends---patterns in a tapestry whose many colorful threads exult in running riot" is superficial and clichéd. Decades get their own little tags: "start[ing] afresh" (the early century); "the party before the knock on the door" (the 20's); "the self-satisfied fifties;" and so on. The "melting pot" gets several mentions. Poets stride onto the poetic stage (Wallace Stevens), woo "an entire generation" (Ezra Pound), "plunge headlong in the Long Poem" (H.D., William Carlos Williams, Melvin B. Tolson). The effect is like one of those illustrated Time Marches On timelines in a student's textbook. Believe me, you can skip the opening here; it offers little by way of insight. If you're interested in a particular poet, Wikipedia is probably more efficient.
The pleasures of this anthology are, of course, in the poems. Each poet gets a brief biography and list of published works. It goes almost without saying that no anthology is going to make everyone completely happy. Here, Dove dedicates herself to what she calls "the panorama of twentieth-century American poetry," which signals that she will offer a little bit by many poets (176 in all) rather than a more in-depth look at fewer. Thus more than one-third of her poets, including many born in the 1940's and later, are granted only one poem. Accomplished living poets like Carl Phillips, Sherman Alexie, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Alberto Rios, Marilyn Nelson, and Joy Harjo, to name a few, are limited to two each. An anthology offers readers a chance to fall in love with poets they've never read, but it's awfully hard to do so on the basis of just one poem.
As for the great poets of the first part of the century, you may find yourself looking in vain for old favorites, since Dove uses selection criteria that are often hard to figure out. You'll find "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" but not "After Apple Picking, "The Emperor of Ice Cream but not "Sunday Morning," "The Red Wheelbarrow" but not "To Elsie," "Harlem" but not "Theme for English B." In order to fit all of those 176 poets in, Dove had to put even the great ones on starvation diets of five or six pages. And because of problems with permissions (as Dove explains), there is no Ginsburg or Plath.
Are there pleasures to be had in this anthology, with its imperfect introduction and "panorama" approach? Well, of course. There is wonderful poetry here, including four by Dove herself. This book will do---until somebody writes a better one.