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Varigated Contours


Masoodul Hasan

THE OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN POETRY
Edited by David Lehman
Oxford University Press, New York, 2006, Rs. 1275.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 2 February 2007

Strangeness and surprise, endorsed by academic approval, are Lehman's basic criteria of choice here. Realizing Americas multiplicity of taste and culture, he prefers to call the corpus 'American poetries' (p. viii) instead of just 'American poetry', and consequently offers a much wider canon than before. The first Oxford Anthology of American Verse edited by Bliss Carmen (1927) contained only 424 poems by 174 poets. F.O. Matthiessen's edition of 1950 reduced the choice to 57 poets only, on the principle of 'Fewer poets with more space for each'. Equally exacting in his choice, Richard Ellman's edition (1976) listed 78 poets, but he claimed in his introduction full identity and adulthood for the American muse, no more an alter-ego of its trans-Atlantic sibling: 'American poetry, monce an offshoot, now appears to be a parent stem' (p. xv).   Lehman's superb anthology distincly excels its predecessors in scope, variety of form and number of poets. He lists here 1290 extracts from 211 poets, dating from 1650 CE to 2005 CE. Unlike his predecessors, he adds brief, informative head-notes on each poet. While masters, including Emerson, Whitman and Longfellow receive their due, some later major poets, like Auden, Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, Gertrude Stein, Ogden Nash and• Louis Zufosky, excluded earlier as unacceptable to contemporary taste, are restored in the present anthology. Also, women-poets and Mro-Americans find larger representation. Phillis Whearly (1753-1784), a black slave¬poetess appears for the first time here. Though rather strict on the masters, Lehman is lenient on peripheral writers and 'rough-edited poetry', as he puts it, 'to strike a balance between anthologies of poems and anthologies of poets' (p. xiv). An unusually liberal assortment of prose-poems fills the anthology, evidently a hangover of Lehman's earlier notable work Great American Prose: Poems from Poe to the Present. Incidentally, he has also silently changed the brand name of Oxford Book of Verse to Oxford Book of Poetry, presumably to justify the overdose of prose- poems. His predilection for contemporary poetry is equally evident. Almost three centuries of American verse are represented through nearly 600 pieces, while only 60 years of post-World War II contribute about 470 poems. Of these, 236 extracts belong to the post-1976 period, which easily makes it a mini-anthology of post-modern poetry. The selections are well-spaced, chosen generally phase-wise. Each entry bears the date of its first publication, which may enable the serious scholar to trace the poet's evolution.   The variety of poetic forms is well-represented in the book. Apart from prose¬poems, sonnets, ...


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