“The Anthology Wars” reframed

Saturday, May 31, 2014

I’m back from a four-day trip to Mexico City, during which I spent a fair amount of time talking about poetry with my translators, Jose Luis Rico and Robin Myers. I also had a chance to meet a fair number of young poets and writers, thanks to two poetry readings that they set up for me. I also gave a talk about post-World War II American poetry during which I realized that the first round of the “anthology wars” had a slightly different inflection than I’d previously attributed to it. I’d always thought of the conservative volume as simply being academic, and that the decision to have both England and the United States in the Hall-Pack-Simpson project was simply the alignment of mainstream verse into one phalanx. New Poets of England and America, however, has a slightly more complicated history than is usually attributed to it. The first edition integrated all the poets from both countries into a single table of contents. In a sense, it was an attempt to conflate the cultural capital of England’s long poetic tradition with the empowering affluence of the Unite States. The editors of the second edition of New Poets of England and America decided to split apart the contributors from both countries, as if to indicate that England and the United States should be considered as separate canonical projects, and (on second thought, so to speak) that the relatively recent maturation of the United States into the dominant world power should be acknowledged by its own section in the anthology.

What I had never thought of before is that the equivalent in Mexico between 1955 and 1965 would be first to have an anthology called “New Poets of Spain and Mexico” followed by a more successful rival anthology called simply “The New Mexican Poetry.” I suspect that such a speculative pair of anthologies would have different implications in Mexico, though, than the most famous U.S. entries in the so-called “anthology wars” that began in with the publication of Hall-Pack-Simpson’s and Donald Allen’s collections. For one thing, the editors in Mexico of “New Poets of Spain and Mexico” would probably have known poets who had had to flee Spain after the collapse of the Spanish Republic in the late 1930s. My guess is that such affiliations would have generated a far different genealogy of poetics in this imaginary bi-national anthology in Mexico. This theoretical contrast I am suggesting is built on historical reality: the residential choices made by W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn hardly amount to the same caliber of exile undertaken by Emilo Prados and León Felipe.

The trip to Mexico reinforced my need to begin a long forestalled period of intense reading of poetry outside that published and valorized in the United States. The challenge is to undertake this reading of poems within the critical context of transnational poetry.