Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, Robert Pinsky. W.W. Norton. 508pp, $29.95.
Who reads John Dryden today? Mark Van Doren says in his still useful John Dryden: A Study of His Poetry (1920): “Ears are not everything, but the absence of them leaves poetry dangerously dead. Dryden had great ears.” To repeat, who reads John Dryden? Who reads these lines from “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” (1684), and who has the ear to hear their melody?
Farewell, too little, and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own:
For sure our souls were near allied, and thine
Cast in the same poetic mold with mine.
One common note on either lyre did strike,
And knaves and fools we both abhorr’d alike.
The obvious answer is any reader of poetry with historical sense and a fine-tuned auditory capacity—but not, apparently, Robert Pinsky, a knowledgeable, well-read poet and critic, whose Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud omits Dryden and a substantial number of other essential pleasures. In alphabetical order the omitted poets include:
Kingsley Amis, W.H. Auden, Edgar Bowers, Basil Bunting, William Empson, Anthony Hecht, Zbigniew Herbert, Geoffrey Hill, Donald Justice, James Merrill, Herbert Morris, Les Murray, Eric Ormsby, Isaac Rosenberg, Kay Ryan (though he finds room for the execrable Michael Ryan), Allen Tate, Edward Thomas, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan, and on and on.
Every anthology is an implicit act of criticism, despite what Pinsky says in his introduction:
I have worked to make a collection of poems attractive for the reader to say aloud, or to imagine saying aloud. The book is not a selection of my favorite poems, and certainly not an attempt to construct and fortify a “canon.” Time punishes rigid, would-be authoritative lists of that kind—not that all anthologies do not, sooner or later, become dated.
Let’s take Pinsky at his word and assume his principle criterion for inclusion is that a poem be “attractive for the reader to say aloud”—an excellent and probably essential criterion, for without music the words are merely second-rate prose. If so, then Pinsky must judge these lines a pleasure for the mouth and ears:
these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved.
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
I have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips,” is not poetry, merely a skinny stack of clichéd prose. There’s no musicality, no wit, no tension and release of the sort virtually ensured by deftly deployed meter and rhyme. These fifteen lines are embarrassing, and surely Pinsky knows better. So why does he include non-poetry in an anthology carrying the imprimatur of the former Poet Laureate? In “Tradition and the Jewish Writer,” Cynthia Ozick provides a partial explanation:
In recent decades, almost all anthologies of fiction, in order to be “inclusive,” have occasionally harvested weak prose. This practice, steeped in societal good will, results in ill will toward literature.
I had never heard of Lucille Clifton before reading her “Homage” in Pinsky’s anthology. I can only assume that she was included as an expression of Pinsky’s “societal good will.” There’s certainly no literary rationale for the inclusion of her poem. Other examples of Pinsky’s “ill will toward literature” include Gregory Corso, Rita Dove, Allen Ginsburg, Sharon Olds, Carl Phillips (whose entry is pornographic), Ishmael Reed, and a dozen other twelfth-raters. Ultimately, an anthologist must ask himself one question: Is this poem well written? If the answer is no, the literary or poetic reason for its inclusion is absent. It may serve documentary or historical purposes, but as a poem, as an artful arrangement of words, it’s a nonentity.
Presumably, Essential Pleasures is aimed at students and other young people still learning literary history and developing their tastes in poetry. If so, the young readers are on their own, with little guidance from Pinsky aside from his acts of selection. He has arranged his anthology in loose categories—”Short Lines, Frequent Rhymes,” “Love Poems,” “Stories,” “Parodies, Ripostes, Jokes, and Insults.” He provides birth and death dates, and brief introductions to each section, but no context, no sense of chronology or tradition. Lucille Clifton comes after Thomas Campion and before Coleridge.
To his credit, Pinsky has included dozens of excellent poems in Essential Pleasures. He seems especially fond of 16th- and 17th-century English poetry—Donne, Drayton, Elizabeth I, Fulke Greville, Herbert, Jonson, Marvell, and Shakespeare. None of these poems will surprise devoted readers, though it’s always a pleasure to test one’s memory against the hard copy. Among Pinsky’s inspired inclusions is “Nature, that Washed Her Hands in Milk,” by Sir Walter Raleigh, with this closing stanza:
Oh, cruel Time! Which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And Pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days.
Young readers can learn to relish the infinite adaptability of the humble iamb. Another favorite is Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder,” which manages to be both sexy and wise in matters of art and the human heart:
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
Were Essential Pleasures to survive in a post-apocalyptic midden, and were an extraterrestrial archeologist to discover it, and decode and study its curious contents, the creature might logically deduce a civilization’s decline. The distance traveled from Drayton and Herrick to Ashbery and Hejinian is measured in mere centuries, and yet whole worlds of “wild civility” have lapsed. Poetry’s role, like its audience, is diminished.
Poems I set out to memorize as a teenager are here, each a delight on the tongue and in the mind—”Kubla Khan,” “Pied Beauty,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And how pleasant to re-encounter such spavined war horses as Henley’s “Invictus” (Huey Long’s favorite poem) and Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” There was a time when schoolchildren knew such now-discredited poems and memorized them while hardly trying because they sounded so good and made such intuitive good sense. Pinsky says as much in his introduction to the section titled “Odes, Complaints, and Celebrations”:
This may be the most basic of poetic categories: every poem, by definition, says here is an occasion worth making a poem about. A certain element in poetry resembles pre-verbal sounds: a cheer or a sigh or a groan—or a subdued, wordless murmur of awe . . .
Pre-verbal, yes, but not pre-poetic. Pinsky erred when he left out Dryden, he of the “great ears”:
O early ripe! to thy abundant store
What could advancing age have added more?
It might (what nature never gives the young)
Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue.
But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
Thro’ the harsh cadence of a rugged line:
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betray’d.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Bellevue, WA, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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