Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Aimless Reading: Anthologies, Part 3 (Comprehensive Anthology Of American Poetry)

Aiken, Conrad, ed.
Comprehensive Anthology 
Of American Poetry

During the Poetry of the Forties Conference in Orono a few years back, Theodore Enslin took part in a panel on Zukofsky, alongside Robert Creeley, Mark Scroggins, Barret Watten, Bob Pearlman and Lyn Hejinian. He talked about how he had originally studied music under Nadia Boulanger, who had encouraged him away from composing music and towards the writing of poems.

Before beginning what he called a "correspondence course" in poetry with Zukofsky, he spent a year or so studying under Conrad Aiken, who, he said, taught him little but "how to drink." I am pretty sure it was Enslin, but it might have been someone else at the conference, who brought up Aiken's Comprehensive Anthology of American Poetry in very unflattering terms. I don't remember what was said, but there was a lot of derisive laughter. (Deservedly so, it turns out).

On my way home from Orono, I stopped for a night in Gloucester, where I visited with Gerrit Lansing, then moved on to New Haven, where I spent a couple of nights visiting with Nancy Kuhl and her husband, the literary outlaw Richard Deming. One afternoon we wandered into a used bookstore/coffeeshop, where I happened to notice a copy of the Aiken anthology on the shelves, which I immediately purchased.

It's not a bad anthology on the whole. It is made ridiculous, however, by the inclusion of some truly wretched poetry. I can't imagine some of these bad poems would even pass the "what if I put a good poet's name above the poem" test. They are just really, really bad. The following fine specimen of misogynistic doggerel was penned by one H. Phelps Putnam, who apparently once had an affair with Katherine Hepburn.

About Women

Fair golden thoughts and lovely words--
Away, away from her they call,
For women are the silly birds,
And perching on a sunny wall
They chirp the answer and the all;
They hold for true all futile things--
Life, death, and even love--they fall
To dreaming over jeweled rings.

Their bodies are uncouthly made,
And heavy swollen like a pear,
And yet their conquered, undismayed
And childish lovers call them fair.
Their honor fills them full of care,
Their honor that is nothingness,
The mystery of the empty air,
The veil of vain delightedness.

Their subtleties are thin and pale,
Their hearts betray them in their eyes:
They are a simple flute, and frail,
With triple stops for playing lies.
These poor machines of life are wise
To scorn the metaphysic glow,
The carelss game that laughs and dies,
The heady grace they cannot know.

Well, give them kisses, scatter flowers,
And whisper that you cannot stay;
We shall have clarity and hours
Which women shall not take away.

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