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The Oxford Book of American Poetry / Edition 1

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Overview

Here is the eagerly awaited new edition of The Oxford Book of American Poetry brought completely up to date and dramatically expanded by poet David Lehman. It is a rich, capacious volume, featuring the work of more than 200 poets-almost three times as many as the 1976 edition. With a succinct and often witty head note introducing each author, it is certain to become the definitive anthology of American poetry for our time.

Lehman has gathered together all the works one would expect to find in a landmark collection of American poetry, from Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry to Stevens's The Idea of Order at Key West, and from Eliot's The Waste Land to Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. But equally important, the editor has significantly expanded the range of the anthology. The book includes not only writers born since the previous edition, but also many fine poets overlooked in earlier editions or little known in the past but highly deserving of attention. The anthology confers legitimacy on the Objectivist poets; the so-called Proletariat poets of the 1930s; famous poets who fell into neglect or were the victims of critical backlash (Edna St. Vincent Millay); poets whose true worth has only become clear with the passing of time (Weldon Kees). Among poets missing from Richard Ellmann's 1976 volume but published here are W. H. Auden, Charles Bukowski, Donald Justice, Carolyn Kizer, Kenneth Koch, Stanley Kunitz, Emma Lazarus, Mina Loy, Howard Moss, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, James Schuyler, Elinor Wylie, and Louis Zukosky. Many more women are represented: outstanding poets such as Josephine Jacobsen, Josephine Miles, May Swenson. Numerous African-American poets receive their due, and unexpected figures such as the musicians Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Robert Johnson have a place in this important work.

This stunning collection redefines the great canon of American poetry from its origins in the 17th century right up to the present. It is a must-have anthology for anyone interested in American literature and a book that is sure to be consulted, debated, and treasured for years to come.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"David Lehman's Oxford anthology is the single most important volume of American poetry in a generation. While we can all quibble about inclusions and exclusions (even in a 1,000-page selection), Lehman's eye—and his ear—have produced a work that will last us well into the new century."—Ashton Nichols, Dickinson College

"It can't get much better than this."—Rochelle Moore, Associated Content

"The book is not only a sound historical survey, but also gives the reader a powerful taste of poetry's impact upon the wider world."—The Economist

"Indeed, for the reader otherwise disinclined to pick up a volume of poetry, you may also find yourself enjoying the selections in this collection. It will be a purchase that will stay with you far longer than any meal at a fancy restaurant upon which you might spend the money. And it will be better for you as well."—The Washington Times

"There is no one more qualified to undertake such a project...a brilliant updating of the previous edition."—James Tate, a member of the Academy of American Arts and Letters and winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in poetry

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195162516
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/3/2006
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 1200
  • Sales rank: 165,330
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.50 (h) x 2.80 (d)

Meet the Author

David Lehman is Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City. His most recent books of poetry are The Evening Sun and When a Woman Loves a Man and he has written five books of critical prose, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection. He founded The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues to serve as general editor of this prestigious anthology. He also edited Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and co-edited The KGB Bar Book of Poems, based on the reading series he directed with Star Black in New York's East Village.

John Brehm (Associate Editor) is a poet and free-lance writer. His works include The Way Water Moves and Sea of Faith, which won a Brittingham Prize for Poetry. He lives in New York City.

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Interviews & Essays

The Making of a New Classic
by David LehmanThis new edition of The Oxford Book of American Poetry is the first since Richard Ellmann edited The New Oxford Book of American Verse in 1976. Twenty-six years earlier F. O. Matthiessen had assembled and introduced the previous edition under the title The Oxford Book of American Verse. It is an honor to join the company of two such accomplished scholars and skillful anthologists. Matthiessen (1902-1950), a renowned Harvard professor, wrote an early book expounding T. S. Eliot's achievement. He also wrote American Renaissance (1941), a classic study of five nineteenth-century writers. Ellmann, who died in 1987 at the age of sixty-nine, held a titled professorship at Oxford and later at Emory University. He was justly acclaimed for his biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Less well-known are Ellmann's excellent translations of Henri Michaux, which introduced American poets to this hero of the French prose poem. Though my task in creating this book necessarily involves overhauling Matthiessen's and Ellmann's, I mean to build on both. It is my good fortune to inherit their work, which has served my own as scaffolding or source. The Oxford Book of American Poetry is a comprehensive, one-volume anthology of American poetry from its seventeenth-century origins to the present. The words canon and canonical acquired new layers of connotation during the culture wars of the past quarter-century, but we shouldn't shy away from such terms when they fit the case, as they do here. The goal of this volume is to establish a canon wider and more inclusive than those that formerly prevailed but to do so on grounds that are fundamentally literary and artistic in nature. Not one selection was dictated by a political imperative. Matthiessen in 1950 picked fifty-one poets. Ellmann's anthology contained seventy-eight. There are two hundred and twelve in this volume.The discrepancy between the seventy-eight poets in Ellmann and the 212 included here is not attributable to the difference in cut-off years alone. Naturally, I needed and wanted to include poets born since 1934, the birth year of Ellmann's youngest poet, but I was determined also to rescue many who had been eligible but were overlooked in previous editions. To make room for the new you need to subject the old to stringent reevaluation, and so I needed not only to reconsider Ellmann's selections but to ask whether such major figures as Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Moore, and Bishop can be better represented than they were formerly. It is especially vital to reassess the selection of poets who were barely hitting mid-career when Ellmann made his selections - poets of the magnitude of A. R. Ammons, John Ashbery, and James Merrill.
Their Sex Life

One failure on
Top of another.
--A. R. Ammons, 1990
In Matthiessen the youngest poet was born in 1917; in Ellmann, 1934. Needing to advance the cut-off date, I settled on 1950, which virtually replicates the previous interval and has the additional advantage of being both the exact midpoint of the twentieth century and the year Matthiessen's selection was published. Making an anthology involves making a lot of lists -- beginning with a list of the poets too young to be considered by Ellmann in 1976. Thirty years have gone by since then, and I can hear America clamoring. Scores of fine poets born since 1950 are rapping on the doors, pressing their case for admission. It would be tricky enough to accommodate the impatient newcomers in any circumstances. But what makes things infinitely more complicated is that the list of outstanding poets who were eligible in 1976 but not included may be even longer. Missing from Ellmann is W. H. Auden. (Matthiessen had included him in 1950, but Ellmann - in the single parenthetical sentence he devotes to the question - explains that he considered Auden "English to the bone.")
But I Can'tTime will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.
--W. H. Auden, 1940
The omission of Gertrude Stein goes unexplained, but then it would doubtlessly astonish both Matthiessen and Ellmann to learn that this relentlessly abstract writer should have the continuing and growing influence on American poetry that she has. In Ellmann you won't find any evidence of the Objectivist movement (Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker).
Poet's Work

Grandfather
advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoff
from this
condensery
--Lorine Niedecker, 1964
Absent, too, are New York School stalwarts Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler and eminent San Franciscans Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Spicer. Not in Ellmann, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Angelina Weld Grimke, Jean Toomer, Melvin Tolson, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, and Robert Hayden, African-American poets who have become better known in recent years. Nor in Ellmann such smart-set poets of wit and satire as Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash, who lacked gravitas at a time when that quality was deemed essential, as though real poetry (as opposed to light verse) had to be as deadly as a press conference with a presidential hopeful.
The Harlem Dancer

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely smiling-face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
--Claude McKay, 1922
Some of the poets overlooked in 1976 were once celebrated, later deprecated (Amy Lowell); some died young and obscure (Samuel Greenberg, Joan Murray); some were once in fashion but fell into disregard (H. Phelps Putnam, Leonie Adams); some. Others may have seemed too eccentric (John Wheelwright, William Bronk) or were underrated until somebody else made it his or her business to champion them (Weldon Kees) or were better known for their work in a different field (as were Lincoln Kirstein,
1926
The porchlight coming on again,
Early November, the dead leaves
Raked in piles, the wicker swing
Creaking. Across the lots
A phonograph is playing Ja Da.

An orange moon. I see the lives
Of neighbors, mapped and marred
Like all the wars ahead, and R.
Insane, B. with his throat cut,
Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.

I did not know them then.
My airedale scratches at the door.
And I am back from seeing Milton Sills
And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.
The porchlight coming on again.
--Weldon Kees, 1954
the director of the New York City Ballet, and Edwin Denby, the foremost dance critic of his time). Some were overshadowed by a great contemporary, as Josephine Miles (born 1911) and May Swenson (b. 1913) were overshadowed by Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911). Some may have been resented and therefore overlooked because of their perceived editorial power (Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker); some were just plain overlooked (Donald Justice, John Hollander). Yet others never got the attention they deserved (Ruth Herschberger, Joseph Ceravolo) or were acknowledged or dismissed for reasons having little to do with their actual writing (Laura Riding, who was Robert Graves's companion and collaborator and who later renounced poetry and became a first-class crank). What many of these poets have in common is that they stood outside the prevailing tradition, the mainline of American poetry as the academic literary establishment conceived it in 1976. It was not very difficult to leave them out.Donald Hall, in a critique of Ellmann's anthology, writes that the New Oxford Book of American Verse "gives us poetry by the Star System." There is a less prejudicial way of putting this. Matthiessen in his introduction to the 1950 edition says pithily that his first rule was "fewer poets, with more space for each."Matthiessen -- and Ellmann as well -- aimed for amplitude; they wanted to present the best poets in full measure, at the expense of "several delicately accomplished lyric poets whose continuing life is in a few anthology pieces" (Matthiessen). In Ellmann, the major figures get star treatment -- thirty-nine pages for John Greenleaf Whittier, including all of "Snow-Bound," twenty-nine pages for William Carlos Williams, twenty-eight for Robert Frost, twenty-three for Marianne Moore -- while putatively minor figures such as Stephen Crane and Trumbull Stickney are lucky to get two pages apiece.To the extent that hierarchy is an inescapable ordering principle, some of this is inevitable. Walt Whitman is and should be the gold standard in number of pages allotted, Emily Dickinson in number of poems included. They are our poetic grandparents, these two, and no two poets could seem less alike: a robust and expansive bard who wrote in long lines and proposed his poems as an embodiment of a vision of American democracy, on the one hand, and a reclusive shut-in who wrote in short breath utterances broken by dashes and made her interior life a cosmos. People who habitually divide everything in two may contend that all poets make themselves in the image of one or the other of these two great predecessors. And it is likely that the leading poets of our time have all read certain poets in common -- Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Williams, Frost, Bishop, Ashbery -- whom we must therefore take pains to represent at length. Nevertheless there are alternatives to the star system. "We used to make anthologies not of poets but of poems," Donald Hall says, and it is possible to balance the claims of major figures with the case for great poems by poets considered peripheral. That is the path I have elected to follow. As comprehensiveness tends to vary inversely with focus, the gain in variety and ecumenicism may not come cost-free, but then the making of an anthology is neither an exact science nor a pure art but a vision projected and sustained to fulfillment.
Train Ride

All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year's leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite,
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled truck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.
--Ruth Stone, 2002
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2006

    Eminently readable

    Although I haven't read every poem (there's 1085 pages of them), nor have I sat down and analyzed who is or isn't included, I have found every poem that I have read accessible to the average reader of poetry. A biographical paragraph precedes each poet's works and each poem is dated. You won't find the obscure here, but you will find solid, often familiar poems that reflect the landscape of American experience, emotion, and image. An essential poetry shelf tome.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 2, 2012

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