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A tale of two anthologies: stale clich'es and freshly baked verse

The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Helen Vendler. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 440 pp. Biographies and index. $20. The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Robert Pack, Sydney Lea, and Jay Parini. Hanover, N.H., and London: University Press of New England. 347 pp. Bibliography. $25, cloth ; $14.95, paper. Here are two new, 300-page-plus anthologies of contemporary American poetry. Both are from university presses. The titles fit a formula: ``The X book/anthology of contemporary American poetry.'' Both are edited by authorities in the field. The Harvard book is edited by Helen Vendler, poetry reviewer for The New Yorker; for her books, Vendler has won several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. The Bread Loaf anthology was edited by Robert Pack, whose other anthologies were distinguished by generosity as well as good taste, and by Sydney Lea and Jay Parini. All three are poets; all three have contributed to the Bread Loaf Anthology.

A comparison of early pages of these books reveals differences of intention: Helen Vendler's introduction is not a definitive overview of recent American poetry, as one would expect from her, but a logjam of critical clich'es. She clearly has the academic audience in mind. From her introduction we learn, for instance, that American and British English are two different languages. We learn that ``excess'' in style is a harbinger of great poetry. We learn that, in the best poems, style and content are ins eparable. We learn that to be significant in our day a poem must bear witness to ``the absence of transcendence.'' We learn that, because of our pluralistic society, recent American poems do not end firmly, but ``dissolve'' -- as in a fade-out on TV.

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Eureka! Half-truths all!

For its part, the foreword to the Bread Loaf anthology simply states that by providing a setting for the practice and criticism of poetry, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference of Middlebury College in Vermont has encouraged poets who otherwise might feel discouraged and isolated to ``explore values: political, moral, and spiritual.'' The Bread Loaf Anthology seems to have been composed with the general reader in mind.

A comparison of the tables of contents strengthens our sense of difference. The Harvard book includes the work of 35 poets; the Bread Loaf, more than 70. Harvard includes substantially more of each; the assumption is that each of Vendler's poets is a literary VIP.

The omissions from the Harvard Book are egregious. Although ``contemporary'' for Vendler includes Wallace Stevens (born 1878), it does not include T. S. Eliot (born 1888) or Ezra Pound (born 1885) or William Carlos Williams (born 1883) -- and this doesn't even include living writers. Speaking of the living, omissions from the Harvard book are sometimes supplied by the Bread Loaf: X. J. Kennedy and Anthony Hecht, among others, two of our very best.

But comparisons, however amusing, may be beside the point: It's clear that Vendler has ``produced'' a volume that will be adopted as a textbook. Its success, as a business venture, is a fait accompli. Professors using it in their courses will likely submit to the platitudes of its introduction with bored indifference or the smug satisfaction of the fellow traveler. It is a very heavy, authoritative-looking volume. The combination of Harvard University Press and Helen Vendler is pretty potent.

``Contemporary'' is in the title of both volumes. And yet only the Bread Loaf has a freshness about it -- the aroma, if you will, of freshly baked bread! Indeed, the poems in the Bread Loaf are brand new, chosen by the poets themselves, and the book, in the editors' words, ``represents a `moment' in the history of American poetry.'' Perhaps it's not surprising that, despite the bulk of Vendler's selections, poets represented in both tend to fare better in Bread Loaf.

Robert Pinsky, for example, comes off in the Harvard book as a poet who risks in poetry what no good prose writer would in prose. It's all monologue, and not even very dramatic monologue at that. But in the Bread Loaf Anthology, Pinsky has three lovely, modest little poems that positively sing in your ear. Would that Pinsky were known by his ``Sonnet,'' which begins:

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Afternoon sun on her back,

calm irregular slap

of water against a dock.

Among the delights of Bread Loaf are poems by Jay Parini, one of the editors, and by Anne Stevenson. Jay Parini's odelike ``This Kampuchea'' gives the lie to the noxious commonplace that formal verse is today unpoetic. Ten six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter and a complex rhyme scheme cunningly handled make possible the brilliant sound of this personal and public act of contrition and understanding. ``This Kampuchea,'' the poet writes, came to him as a gift:

. . . a place to bow

in obeisance to the darkest gods

who rule the heart whenever we ignore

our greatest charge: to watch and pray. The shore-

line glistens as a boy lets down a bamboo

rod, an old man settles by a tree and nods . . . . And so it goes, a seamless meditation on our responsibilities in an age of of political disaster.

Nineteen eighty-five has been Anne Stevenson's year. This year saw her ``Selected Poems'' and ``The Fiction Makers''; together these books should convince the general reader that Stevenson has a very great gift. Born of American parents in England, where she lives now with her family, Stevenson writes various kinds of poems in various styles; she always writes an English of superb authority and humanity.

She can write a poem that belongs with the greatest medieval anonymous lyrics, and she can write as she does in ``Shale'':

Bedded in shale, in its negative evidence,

this Venus shell is small as maybe she was.

The fan-shaped tracery of vertical ridges

could be fine-spread, radiant hair . . . . We begin to see the goddess in the language. Is that language English or American? The question, raised though it is by Helen Vendler, is merely obnoxious. But it does lead to the reflection that Stevenson's language is English full tilt. Complex, fragile with history, easily abused and vulnerable to manhandling, yet packed with stories about who and what we are now, modern English, as written by Stevenson, challenges us. It takes a poet like Stevenson to make us realize its riches.

Like the shale she writes about, the language we -- poets, critics, and general readers -- must use ``comes to pieces in your hand/like stale biscuit,'' if we aren't careful. But if we are -- and Anne Stevenson can help us learn how to be -- we may well discover Venus there.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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