PC Elitist Poetry Anthologies: What Sinks To The Bottom
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/19/03

  Faux fascism has hit its zenith in the last decade or so with the rise of ‘Politically Correct’ Elitism’s utter dominance of the literary markets- mostly in fiction, but increasingly in poetry. In fact, anyone who does not claim to have suffered something stands no real shot at getting a book of poetry published. Don’t get me wrong- the old Dead White Male’s good old boys network still hangs on, but for the rest of the emergent good poets out there- it’s a slowly simmering gloaming that awaits.
  In this essay I’m gonna review 2 utter pieces of garbage, 2 ‘poetry’ anthologies of recent vintage which both have some legitimate claims to being ‘representative of the times. The 1st is a 600 page monstrosity published by Penguin books in 1999 called Scanning The Century, The Penguin Book Of The Twentieth Century In Poetry, edited by Peter Forbes. Larded with reams of unreadable poetry, the book does have an occasional good poem by a recognizable poet to make it not totally vomitus-inducing. Still, it’s a bad book- BUT it’s a absolute gem compared to Unsettling America, An Anthology Of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, edited by the mother-daughter team of Maria & Jennifer Gillan. This précis of crapola came out 5 years earlier than Forbes’ garbage, but by the same publisher.
  Let’s tackle PF’s tome 1st- apparently PF edits a magalog called Poetry Review. I did not bother looking this up online since it will only further the distaste this crap has left in my mouth. The book claims to be a de facto chronological poetic journey through the last century- dividing the poems into periods defined by years & subjects- some examples being: Low Dishonest Decade: The Thirties, The Dark Side: Crime, Vice & Low Life, & We Billion Cheered: The Media. The basic problem is the book sprinkles in 1 good or great poem from a known poet with 9 other poems by virtual unknowns who deserve their anonymity. Or, worse, with ‘name’ doggerelists who will only date the anthology as the years go by. The point is that this shows how utterly out of step PF is with poetry- to group- as example- an unknown’s poetastry (Robert Wrigley’s Torch Songs) with a couple of good-not-great poems from 2 hit-or-miss poets like Yevgeny Yevtushenko (To Charlie Chaplin) & Frank O’Hara (To The Film Industry In Crisis), along with a piece from Wallace Stevens’ great The Man With The Blue Guitar under a section on the arts displays amply how utterly PF misses the point about anthologies. They are repositories of greatness, the best of a time, a culture, or an individual- not a hodge-podge lumped together by specious reasoning- I want to be representative of ALL the poetry of the last century- good, bad, & indifferent! This shows that the primary aim of the anthology is not to promote the readers’ interest in the art but to promote the name value of the anthologist. Does he choose some good & great poems? Of course, but even an idiot could do so by tossing enough darts. Does he make choices by bringing forth lesser known poems & poets? No. He, instead re-anthologizes poems that can be found in dozens of other anthologies, such as this poem about World War 1. STOP!!!! Don’t avert your eyes & look further! Can you guess what poem is coming? If you guessed a poem by Wilfred Owen or Edward Thomas you were correct. Here ‘tis:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

  This is a great poem & rightly should be anthologized. Over 8 decades since its publication it has lost none of its power. But, would you not rather have seen a great WW1 poem by, say, Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr.? Who?, you say. My point exactly. Go Google him & you’ll see that he was the closest American equivalent to WO, died young, & was a black man to boot! Yet, nowhere is a poet of that little renown & that much excellence thrust forward.
  Worse yet is when PF chooses bad poems from well-known doggerelists, just to pad out sections. As example, in his section on sex & love he has marvelous poems such as Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis & e.e. cummings’ may I feel said he, only to throw in dull, trite ruminations like this from renowned poetaster Adrienne Rich:

Living in Sin

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own---
envoy from some village in the moldings . . .
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.


  I will not get in to a lengthy exegesis of the # of clichés or the whole predictable trope & prosaic nature of the poem’s phrasing & narrative, save to say that comparing this poem to the 2 poems I just mentioned only vitiates the arguments for gathering anthologies in the 1st place. & don’t start in with the defensiveness over AR’s lesbianism, etc. That has nothing to do with it. Here’s an example from the Cold war section where he puts a white British male’s dull verse forth as if worth saving for posterity. This is Peter Porter’s Your Attention Please:  

The Polar DEW has just warned that
A nuclear rocket strike of
At least one thousand megatons
Has been launched by the enemy
Directly at our major cities.
This announcement will take
Two and a quarter minutes to make,
You therefore have a further
Eight and a quarter minutes
To comply with the shelter
Requirements published in the Civil
Defence Code - section Atomic Attack.
A specially shortened Mass
Will be broadcast at the end
Of this announcement -
Protestant and Jewish services
Will begin simultaneously -
Select your wavelength immediately
According to instructions
In the Defence Code. Do not
Take well-loved pets (including birds)
Into your shelter - they will consume
Fresh air. Leave the old and bed-
ridden, you can do nothing for them.
Remember to press the sealing
Switch when everyone is in
The shelter. Set the radiation
Aerial, turn on the geiger barometer.
Turn off your Television now.
Turn off your radio immediately
The Services end. At the same time
Secure explosion plugs in the ears
Of each member of your family. Take
Down your plasma flasks. Give your children
The pills marked one and two
In the C.D green container, then put
Them to bed. Do not break
The inside airlock seals until
The radiation All Clear shows
(Watch for the cuckoo in your
perspex panel), or your District
Touring Doctor rings your bell.
If before this, your air becomes
Exhausted or if any of your family
In critically injured, administer
The capsules marked 'Valley Forge'
(Red Pocket in No. 1 Survival Kit)
For painless death. (Catholics
Will have been instructed by their priests
What to do in this eventuality).
This announcement is ending. Our President
Has already given orders for
Massive retaliation - it will be
Decisive. Some of us may die.
Remember, statistically
It is not likely to be you.
All flags are flying fully dressed
On Government buildings - the sun is shining.
Death is the least we have to fear.
We are all in the hands of God,
Whatever happens happens by His Will.
Now go quickly to your shelters.  

  Is this a poem? Really, I mean to ask. Reread the poem’s end thusly:  

  Our President has already given orders for massive retaliation - it will be decisive. Some of us may die. Remember, statistically it is not likely to be you. All flags are flying fully dressed on Government buildings - the sun is shining. Death is the least we have to fear. We are all in the hands of God, Whatever happens happens by his will. Now go quickly to your shelters.

  Where would you break the lines in to a poem? Yet, this is included. Speaking of clichés & bad enjambment, he also includes widely anthologized bad poems by bad poets. OK, I can let WO’s Dulce Et Decorum Est slide, but Sharon Olds’ The Language Of The Brag? Ugh! & as the leadoff poem in the Family & Children section?


I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the center of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.


I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,
some heroism, some American achievement
beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,
magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot
and watched the boys play.


I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around


my belly big with cowardice and safety,
my stool black with iron pills,
my huge breasts oozing mucus,
my legs swelling, my hands swelling,
my face swelling and darkening, my hair
falling out, my inner sex
stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.
I have lain down.


I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and feces and water and
slowly alone in the center of the circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.


I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.


  Somehow it doesn’t exactly measure up to the best by the 2 named male poets- incidentally both gay. Hmmm? I could rewrite this poem in a TOP, & improve it immensely, by trimming it to 12-15 lines. Ironically the next poem after this atrocity is the far superior Morning Song by Sylvia Plath, the poetess SO obsessively emulates, then denies the emulation. Of course these rather manifest observations on poets & poems never pass from the words of PF, nor most of the critics of this book who- as you might guess- lavish ridiculous praise upon it:


  ‘A plethora of fin-de-siecle anthologies arrived last year and Forbes's is almost certainly the best. From the front cover...to the rear index, which links poems with the events of the century, it drips readability. This is not a book to carry into a party or a pub - it will be stolen, as mine was, three times.’ -Euan Ferguson, The Observer


[This is the conscious attempt of a critic who knows not what to say, so tries to be ‘unique’, only after the obligatory ass-kiss that starts off the blurb.]


  ‘Marvellously readable...[Forbes] is an inspired identifier of good poems, a widely read and original collector of works often ignored by more conventional anthologists...it is an unforecastable flocking of wildly dissimilar poems all ready and willing to testify at the end of the millennium to how imaginatively poets have concerned themselves with the experiences they have lived through.’ -Peter Porter, The Sunday Times


[Um, does this not constitute a conflict of interest? Wanna bet old PP never stated his work was in the anthology?]


  ‘An exhilarating helter skelter through..the age's finest creative spirits... there's fun and wit in this marvelous book.’ -Lesley Duncan, The Glasgow Herald


[This is a 39¢ Clearance Special blurb!]


  ‘A brilliantly chosen selection of poems that manage, in the editor's words, to 'capture the flavour of the century with something like the tang of newsreel and the zest of popular song'.’ -London Review of Books


[This is the lazy blurb- cribbing from the writer/editor’s own self-defense.]


  ‘Forbes is relentless in his avoidance of the old chestnuts, and insistent on an international outlook...his selection of songs and poems from the civil rights movement are unexpected, sharp and moving. It is wonderful to realise, for example, how strong Lewis Allen's 'Strange Fruit', made famous by singer Billie Holliday, is as a poem.’ -Kate Clanchy, TES


[Actually, the ‘poem’ is not strong at all- but more on that in a minute. The reliance on chestnuts is ample, though, as I previously mentioned.]


  ‘Indispensable, for both devoted and casual lovers.’ -Metro


[Indistinguishable, this blurb is from the 1000s of others adorning poetry books.]


  Let me return to this 1 really ridiculous blurb- the 1 stating the Billie Holiday song is a poem. This is 1 of the most exasperating tendencies of PC Elitists- the utter dumbing down of everything, so that no one can claim to be better at anything than another person. This book is filled with whoops, chants, song lyrics, & such which are clearly not poems, by any stretch of the imagination, save that which would also anthologize Mother Goose & Dr. Seuss alongside Eliot, Plath, etc. Of course, the song-poems are all from icons of the 1960s: Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, &- of course- Bob Dylan. In this regard the book consciously tries to be a bit like the many wretched anthologies of Jerome Rothenberg, who would have 1 believe a war whoop is a valid poem. Perhaps worse is that the whole book follows the troubling 1990s anthological pattern of having poems picked not on excellence, but on subject matter- usually political. Whole dreary tomes have been devoted to nuclear annihilation, women in peril, ecology, abortion rights, & rightist religion. &- of course- all these anthologies have been suffused with the idiotic notion that ‘art is truth’- therefore a bad poem on Hiroshima, say, is worth more than some mere reportage on the same event. This is both condescending, & a dangerous notion. Can 1, using politics alone, sort out that the bad Hiroshima poem is worth more than a good little poem on Elvis Presley? Of course not, but anthologies are used to form Pantheons- like it or not. The anthologists implicitly KNOW this, even as they disingenuously deny that that is their intention. Reading that bad Hiroshima poem is an annealment- even if it tastes horrible. 1 of the few reviews that noted these trends was published in the Sunday Herald (U.K.) on 5/9/99 by a radio host, Brian Morton- http://www.sundayherald.com/print1658:


  It is hard not to hear some echoes of Wilfred Owen's Dulce Et Decorum Est behind the rhetoric of disarmament. This is testimony, of course, to Owen's abiding power, but it is also symptomatic of a collective inability to shift the paradigms of fear. Puffs of mustard gas on the Western front are not comparable to the nuclear erasure of entire populations. Poetic rhetoric sometimes diminishes even as it tries to humanise.


  Another obvious failure of this approach is that anything deemed not ‘politically correct’- however excellent- is not even mentioned, much less included. How about some of the pro-Soviet poetry from the 1920s & 1930s? None of the American ‘Red’ poets nor their apparatchik Russian counterparts make the cut. Again from the Herald piece:


  Why nothing from Josephine Miles, one of the best public poets of the century, who wrote with magnificent reserve and finely judged black comedy of the "pure pot" that took out America's most ambiguous President? Miles is certainly a finer poet than the Nobel Prize winning Wislawa Szymborska, and isn't there just a hint of sentimental snobbery in Forbes's seeming assumption that Eastern-Bloc-equals-authentic?


  While Miles was an OK poet, the author is certainly correct in judging her superior to the Nobel Prize’s version of Marissa Tomei. Unfortunately this piece, more or less, tasks PF for not picking poets this writer would have picked. That’s not why the anthology fails, though. It’s that the poems & poets, overall, stink. There are no more than 15-20 good poems, most of which, ala Wilfred Owens’ poem, you’ve grown accustomed to reading in anthologies. An even better attack on this book- & lo, praise a Higher Power that any contemporary book of poetry could generate not 1, but 2 essays vilifying it. The 2nd piece can be found at http://www.richmondreview.co.uk/library/harris01.html, called Editorial contra Editorial, by Amanda Harris. In it she echoes many of the points I’ve made in this essay & many others. Let me give you a few prescient snips with my addenda:


  There is an infiltration of banality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the contemporary poetry anthology--that dumbed down effort to 'contextualise' verse which perpetuates the notion that the reader is too stupid to appreciate it on its own merits. In an ideal world, the poetry anthology would be a means of teaching students of literature about the ebb and flow of literary movements, and the way each movement is necessarily a continuation of every previous one.


  Actually, an ideal anthology would be to expose students to excellence in the art, period. But her point has merit. She then rips PF’s book as being 1 of too many generic anthologies of this sort. She then tasks him for including Brodsky in the 1st section on the years 1900-1914, because he was not born yet, & PF’s reasoning is that the Georgian poetry of that time was too 19th Century. A better rip would be to ask why the section is about Omens- as if the Chicken Little notion of history has not always been a trite & banal presence in apocalyptic-minded poets through the eons? Still you gotta love it that AH has the balls to rip off a criticism like this:


  'Convergence of the Twain' (the poem Forbes includes to exemplify Hardy's apparent archaism) is actually deeply critical of the self-satisfied bourgeoisie (those bastions of traditional sentimentality) who were largely the victims of the Titanic disaster. Hardy's phrase 'the Immanent Will', i.e., god or fate, is undeniably satirical. One could argue that Hardy's language in this poem is subversive in that it evokes staid traditionalism (both poetically and in society) in order to criticise it. It's distressing to realise that the very people who are supposed to be the arbiters of taste in contemporary poetry, journal editors like Forbes, don't have a proper grasp of poetic chronology, or an intimate knowledge of the poetry itself.


  Outside of Cosmoetica it is rare, indeed, to read anything approaching that last sentence. Or this:


  Forbes also suggests that modernism, in the guise of Robert Frost, 'brought a new plain vernacular voice to poetry.' Here is a phrase for undergraduates everywhere to parrot.


  In the next paragraph she rips PF’s conflation of the Modernists’ rebellion against over-simplisticness with that against formalism. Yet, she suffers from a bit of overreaching when she parrots the nonsense about Rudyard Kipling merely being accessible, or paternalistic. Of course, anyone reading his Top 20 might conclude that, but RK’s overall brilliance of technique, combined with a shrewd subversiveness when read more deeply & closely, is something for another essay. She then takes on PF’s boner over irony in Modern Poetry:


  As such, it supposedly signals a writer's detachment from what is being observed. Does it really though? Isn't it more likely that this type of detachment is a rhetorical posture designed to elevate the status of the writer because, this line of reasoning seems to suggest, if one is capable of sneering then one must necessarily derive one's opinions from a position of complete, yet incidental knowledge? If the knowledge is incidental, however, than so is the ironic, or sarcastic put-down. Further, sarcasm, roughly translated from the Greek, means 'to tear flesh'. The point is the verbal aggression, not the subject of that aggression. So, the subject that generates such detachment can't really be that important. It follows, then, that if the writer's verbal aggression is more important than their subject, the writer is more concerned with their own image than they are with their point of argument--hence the often faulty logic displayed in 'ironic' editorial writing. Hence, also, the banal themes.


  I could argue with her flow of logic & some of her conclusions, but not here. It’s enough to know that AH even attempts to think things through, something PF has manifestly never done. She then tackles the cult of banality- for lack of a better term- before ripping on modern poets’ lack of engaging the unknown, if not unknowable. Granted, this is a plague on ‘published’ poets mostly- since theirs are the only 1s read by even a small audience- at least outside of poetry circles & readings. Here she nails PF in a nutshell, although 1 could easily apply its arrow to the whole of the PC Elitist mindset:


  These days poets portray the knowable in conversational prose. Otherwise, what most published poets have in common is a superficial ability with obvious imagery. Paradoxically, it is innovators like Ezra Pound who we can blame for the notion that modern poetry must only ever depict simple, clear, and concise images (which poetry editors across the country still maintain as law today). Pound put this view across in his Imagist manifesto, and then moved on. Peter Forbes hasn't.


  After a personalized defense of Derek Walcott’s blandeur, presumably by people she thinks as Forbesian, AH ends with this paragraph:


  In conclusion, I am not arguing for cultural elitism, where literature, particularly poetry, becomes the province of educated cliques, but rather, for a greater effort, on the part of the writers, editors, and the readers. Of course it is easier for us to comfortably swallow minute portrayals of the everyday (i.e. the poeticisation of nose hairs), to cheer when the vernacular of the mundane smiles benignly, or alternatively whines in a manner we can all identify with. But we must all stretch ourselves and confront the territory of deeper meaning, and wider flights of the imagination. If we don't, we run the risk of never really being moved beyond self-absorption, and that's terribly dull.


  Amen to that! & an apt description of the crap that kills PF’s book, which is so trite & predictable that I can heartily recommend letting it settle into memory as swiftly as possible. That said, it did reveal 1 gem of a poem by noted Australian poetess Gwen Harwood:

Schrödinger's Cat Preaches To The Mice

Silk-whispering of knife on stone,
due sacrifice, and my meat came.
Caressing whispers, then my own
choice among laps by leaping flame.

What shape is space? Space will put on
the shape of any cat. Know this:
my servant Schr¨odinger is gone
before me to prepare a place.

So worship me, the Chosen One
in the great thought-experiment.
As in a grave I will lie down
and wait for the divine event.

The lid will close. I will retire
from sight, curl up and say Amen
to geiger counter, amplifier,
and a cylinder of HCN.

When will the geiger counter feel
decay, its pulse be amplified
to a current that removes the seal
from the cylinder of cyanide?

Dead or alive? The case defies
all questions. Let the lid be locked.
Truth, from your little beady eyes,
is hidden. I will not be mocked.

Quantum mechanics has no place
for what's there without observation.
Classical physics cannot trace
spontaneous disintegration.

If the box holds a living cat
no scientist on earth can tell.
But I'll be waiting, sleek and fat.
Verily, all will not be well

if, to the peril of your souls,
you think me gone. Know that this house
is mine, that kittens by mouse-holes
wait, who have never seen a mouse.

  The humor & tight structure of this little known poem & poet (at least Stateside) is enough to recommend PF’s otherwise dreadful book over the absolute & irredeemable atrocity I will next discuss- the Gillan ladies’ horrific Unsettling America, An Anthology Of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. However, I recommend poetry lovers to merely check PF’s book out of their local libraries & photocopy the GH poem- it’s on pages 454-455.
  Unfortunately, no one has been as willing to rip in to this horrorshow before now. So, let me draw the virgin blood. UA is probably even worse than the aforementioned Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies- if only because they could induce stupor &/or humor; useful for meditation & manic depression. This book does neither. Then, why should it? Especially if you see what its editor’s capabilities are. Here’s a stanza from 1 of Maria Gillan’s poems, My Daughter at 14, Christmas Dance, 1981, found at http://english.binghamton.edu/faculty/mgillan/


all too well. He kisses you goodnight,
his body moving toward yours, and yours
responding. I am frightened, guard my
tongue for fear my mother will pop out

  How Confessional, eh? The book is even worse. You basically get ‘poets’ included for no reason other than they are not white, nor male, nor heterosexual. The verse is atrocious, repetitive, & the reader is utterly unable to distinguish poet from poet- there is an utter genericness to all the work, & it gets very repetitive. The basic reason is that the ‘poems’ are not poems, merely banal sentiments which are deemed ‘just’ sentiments. Yet, the readership of a book like this is the absolutely wrong choir to preach to- they already BELIEVE. To the rest of the 99.9999% of humanity & 99.99% of poetry lovers, the book lacks any real reason to exist- unless documenting Leftist benightedness, woundology, & preening has purpose. Regardless the book is really 1 long unbroken screed which neither unsettles the reader, nor provokes- despite the entendre of the word ‘unsettling’. Unlike PF’s tome, this book’s sections are not blatant. They are so ill-defined & nebulous that virtually any ‘poem’ could be deposited in any of the sections without anyone noticing. Some of the sections’ titles? Re-envisioning, Performing, & Negotiating. Each section comes with a dumbed down explanation of its title. I shan’t bore you. Nor shall I tell you which sections the poems I mention & quote from come from. Why? It’s irrelevant. But I will go forth numerically through the book’s pages. Here’s a poem, or proem, from a Luis J. Rodriguez- the J. supposedly lessens the utter genericness of the rest of the name? Read it:

We Never Stopped Crossing Borders

  We never stopped crossing borders. The Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo, which is what Mexicans call it, giving the name a power "Rio Grande" just doesn't have) was only the first of countless barriers set in our path.
  We kept jumping hurdles, kept breaking from the constraints, kept evading the border guards of every new trek. It was a metaphor to fill our lives—that river, that first crossing, the mother of all crossings. The L.A. River, for example, became a new barrier, keeping the Mexicans in their neighborhoods over on the vast east side of the city Don't speak Spanish, don't be Mexican—you don't belong. Railroad tracks divided us from communities where white people lived, such as South Gate and Lynwood across from Watts. We were invisible people in a city which thrived on glitter, big screens and big names, but this glamor contained none of our names, none of our faces.
  The refrain "this is not your country" echoed for a lifetime. 

  What do these 3 little paragraphs say? # 1 says ‘my people are better & stronger than yours’. #2 says ‘We will triumph despite your hatred. #3 says “I hurt’. Why is the title repeated in the 1st sentence? This is laziness. This is needing to pound the reader over the head didactically because the poet distrusts & reviles them. What is gained by this not being broken in to lines? This lacks the density, focus, & mystery true proems possess. This proem is terrible. The assumption of the poem is paranoid & has been stated better in many poems before. This is just LJR needing to fart his resentment out. Why publish, then anthologize, it? A later poem, by Greg Shapiro, called Tattoo, is similarly generic. Here, the speaker feels pity for his Holocaust-surviving father. Larded with clichés, the poem ends with this: ‘I would scrub the numbers from his flesh/extinguish the fire and give him back his life.’ Trust me, you need not read the whole poem, those last 2 lines are the sentiment- & even it is banal & clichéd.
  There are poems which deride white culture as evil beyond all others. A poem by a black lesbian (I know because the book’s index tells all) named Cheryl Clarke (would you know her race or sexual preference via that name?) typifies this stance. It is called 14th Street Was Gutted In 1968 & opens with its 1st line repeating the title. Oy! It ends by claiming the city is like the buffalo or dinosaurs- ‘everything else white men have wanted/for themselves,/endangered/or extinct.’ Note to CC- dinosaurs were not killed off by men & Native Americans were as wanton in their destruction of the buffalo as the whites, they were just not as efficient. Those facts would be irrelevant if the poem’s art could carry it- but since its truth is the claimed value, its real world fallacy becomes a proper component of damning the poem.
  Another trope we get is the suffering of forgotten minorities, like Asians. Here is an oft-anthologized Dwight Okita poem (shades of PF’s chestnuts?):

In Response to Executive Order 9066:

All Americans of Japanese Descent

Must Report to Relocation Centers

Dear Sirs:
Of course I'll come. I've packed my galoshes
and three packets of tomato seeds. Janet calls them
'love apples.' My father says where we're going
they won't grow.

I am a fourteen-year-old girl with bad spelling
and a messy room. If it helps any, I will tell you
I have always felt funny using chopsticks
and my favorite food is hot dogs.
My best friend is a white girl named Denise--
we look at boys together. She sat in front of me
all through grade school because of our names:
O'Conner, Ozawa. I know the back of Denise's head very well.

I tell her she's going bald. She tells me I copy on tests.
We're best friends.

I saw Denise today in Geography class.
She was sitting on the other side of the room.
"You're trying to start a war," she said, "giving secrets away
to the Enemy. Why can't you keep your big mouth shut?"
I didn't know what to say.
I gave her a packet of tomato seeds
and asked her to plant them for me, told her
when the first tomato ripened
she’d miss me.

  This is a classic ‘moment’ poem & not a bad 1, although not good either. It could be 50% shorter & gain in power, + it lacks music. DO’s best as a minor humorist. “Heavy’ subjects are too much for him, but even DO, on his webpage http://dwightland.homestead.com/WRITERPAGE.html, admits this poem is his most anthologized. 

"In Response to Executive Order 9066" is one of my most anthologized, reprinted poems. Every year I get several requests from students and teachers studying the piece, as well as from publishing houses wishing to reprint it. I have written some notes which I hope will be helpful to all of you. And thanks for your interest in my work.

Do the Gillans believe that by printing it again they are doing a service? Or is this a de facto admission that DO has no other poems worth ‘preserving’? Then there’s Lucille Clifton’s ‘Sam’. The poem is from a child’s POV & attempts to do what Countee Cullen’s classic Incident did years earlier. It fails because the incident in LC’s poem is never specified, but generic, & larded with woe alone. There is no art nor parallel to reality. It’s just the poet’s desire to moan. The same is true of a poem like Today Was A Bad Day Like TB, by Chrystos- an American Indian woman. Here, a few Native American codewords- medicine bundle, Raven (note the capital R), sacred- are dropped into an otherwise banal rant to Indianize it, yet, with a few different codewords the poem could be from the POV of a Jew, Gypsy, or homosexual. The rest of the poem could remain unchanged & this American Indian poem would morph instantly. That’s the marker of generic writing. Worse is when codewords will not suffice but the poet must announce their ethnicity right away. Here’s Naomi Shihab Nye’s Blood (yes, that’s the trite title!):

"A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,"
my father would say. And he'd prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.
In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.

Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn't have one. 
After that, my father told me who he was,
"Shihab"--"shooting star"--
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, "When we die, we give it back?"
He said that's what a true Arab would say.

Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page. 
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.

I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air: 
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?

  The whole ‘true Arab’ trope is tired; part of the whole ‘this part of my clan’ poesizing used to distinguish bad people from the group- Rightists, extremists who disagree, etc. The poem is really chopped up prose- a Naomi Nye specialty- fuck her shooting star middle name. As anyone who’s ever met NSN can tell you- she is as white, suburban middle class as they come- a true bourgeois princess! In fact, ironically, the best poem in the book (although it’s not good at all) comes from what I presume to be a straight white male- William J. Harris (why the pretentious initials crap?)- since there is no mention of any personal info about him save that he’s a professor (sigh along with me). But. the ‘poem’ is a ditty trying hard to be Williamsian or cummingseque: 

Rib Sandwich

I wanted a rib sandwich

So I got into my car
and drove as fast as I could
to a little black restaurant-
and walked in
and so doing
walked out

and didn't even
need a passport 

  This is a mere ‘gimmick’ poem- a 1 noter, as well. & this is the best of a raft of them from this terrible anthology. But, look at how poorly constructed it is. What reason is there for ‘of’ having a line to itself? Much less ‘bar’? These basic questions matter even less to the Gillan girls than it did to Peter Forbes. If they did they would not include such crap like Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s I Defy You?

I defy you Wallace Stevens
to prove "the exquisite truth."
Your thirteen blackbirds rolled into one
continuous seamless world
bob in and out of my world
as do the black men and women
in Durban who skitter
on my tv screen. There is something else
than mere vision, mere imagination,
fat man of language. Something other
than words and quiet time and cold mind,
although you have emptied your pockets
and peeked over the horizon of our desires
and turned back preferring your onanistic treasures.
The young Cambodian whose father drowned
in monsoon ocean knows
his sister's raped eyes are truth;
the hungry and dead are his "exquisite truth,"
and you an American fiction. 

  Attacking a great poet for rising above the petty nonsense of his times is not a good technique (if not bizarre, although often done to embolden bad poets that they are on par with the Master), especially considering the poverty of quality that the attacking poet displays. Not to mention his lack of self-pity being linked to masturbation, more properly displayed in SGL’s words. As a rebuke the poem lacks sting & individuality. Also, WS was not a part of some hegemonic system but a consummate outsider. As for words, why repeat the 1st 3 words? It seems bad poets feel a need to choose titles from 1st lines, or repeat title in those 1st lines- why? The Gillans have not a clue. Besides, art is truth, & all; suffering is art, therefore suffering is truth- or am I misreading?
  As I said, negative reviews are hard to find- the 2 for PF’s book are oddities. Here’s the closest to a negative review for the Gillans’ mess- from old Jack Foley. Yet, here’s its trope: 

  Unsettling America is a powerful anthology full of good work. There are, by my count, one hundred and forty-four poets in the book, and the range of ethnicity is wide….A good anthology creates a sense of community among the people included, and Unsettling America accomplishes this goal with considerable skill.


  Unfortunately the skill JF notes is the aforementioned bad poem from Luis J. Rodriguez. Quoth JF: ‘Crossing borders is precisely what Unsettling America is about.’ Unfortunately that’s NOT what anthologies are about. Then JF laces a criticism:

  Unsettling America is 406 pages long and, as the jacket blurb says, it "stretches across the boundaries of skin color, language, ethnicity, and religion." Not once in its stretching, however, does it encounter an Irish American—and this despite the fact that co-editor Jennifer Gillan describes herself as "half Italian American and half Irish American." (There are plenty of Italian Americans in the book.) I think the omission of Irish Americans is a serious one in what is otherwise an extraordinarily fine and energetic book….Unsettling America is open to many ethnicities, but: No Irish Need Apply. Where have we heard that before?

  What are the odds JF is an Irisher? My point is that a criticism whose only point is to counter a bias with another bias is very weak. In addition to the lack of the Irish is a lack of ‘experimental’ poets like (ugh!) Jerome Rothenberg, Susan Howe, & Michael Palmer. Guess what kind of poets JF likes? His approach to criticism, even when making a good point, is based on a specious approach- that of conflating objective quality with subjective likeability. 
Another interesting feature I encountered in researching this essay was how many college courses are based on these anthologies & the many poems & poets within. I won’t even go into the ramifications of that- although they should be manifest in their applicability to rising high in the world of Academia. Too bad that neither Peter Forbes nor Maria & Jennifer Gillan based their respective anthologies on quality, rather than career advancement.

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