MOST OF AN ANTHOLOGIST'S work is done for him before he sits down to it -- at least if he is producing an Oxford Book in a field as intensely cultivated as American verse. There are precedents, expectations, Established Reputations which must be respected at the risk of being dubbed eccentric or unreliable.
In Ellmann's case, approximately two-thirds of his work has been done; of the 77 American poets (plus a few anonymi) in the collection, there are somewhere between 50 and 60 whose inclusion is mandatory. In relation to the older Oxford Book of American Verse (edited by F. O. Matthiessen and published in 1950), Ellmann can and does reduce the amount of space given to Whitman and increase that allotted to Emily Dickinson (using new critical texts for the latter which sometimes differ strikingly from the older versions). But such adjustments must be marginal; if you're going to rock the boat, you do it in some other anthology.
The restrictions are not quite as rigid as they would be in an Oxford anthology of English (or French or Italian or Spanish) verse, however, because the American tradition is still new and therefore less rigid. As it happens, the line that divides American verse of the 19th and 20th centuries is drawn with striking clarity. Sidney Lanier stands clearly on the early side of it; Edgar Lee Masters (who follows him in this anthology's chronological order) is obviously on the other.Ellmann has decided (and an examination of the field confirms his basic rightness) that there are 55 poets of the present century who deserve inclusion in his anthology and only 22 from the previous 250 years.
Two propositions are implied in this choice and stated (though rather tentatively) in Ellmann's introduction: that the distinctive American voice in poetry is primarily a 20th-century voice, and that in this century American poetic literature has taken a leading place among the poetries of the world.
It was only 140 years ago, half a century after the drafting of the Constitution, that America made its literary declaration of independence in Ralph Waldo Emerson's statement: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." And for the rest of that century, only the greatest writers, chiefly Whitman and Dickinson, managed consistently to make significant statements in a poetic style that was distinctively American. (A whole flock of poets, writing humorously in dialect, went off on another tangent in search of the American soul. Ellmann rightly ignores them, though he gives a few pages to an item from James Russell Lowell's The Biglow Papers .)
The courtly muses of Europe were not that easy to ignore, of course; the second great revolution in American poetry (which was also, this time, a revolution in world poetry) brought them back again as strong influences in the work of both T. S. Eliot (who later became an English citizen) and Ezra Pound. But exoticism is only a part of the Pound phenomenon, which left an impact on American poetry that is still strong among young writers today. If there is a Pound-Eliot axis that looks to the past, to Europe, to traditions and abstract ideas for poetic inspiration, there is also one formed by Pound and William Carlos Williams rooted in the American language, in close, direct observation of concrete reality and in plain statement -- "No ideas but in things," as Williams put it.
If Ellmann can be charged with bias in his anthologizing, it would be a bias toward the Pound-Williams rather than the Pound-Eliot stream of American poetry. But in this he is merely a humble reflector of the greater bias of history itself --history as reflected in the individual choices of several generations of American poets. The Williams wing has prevailed, and if dour humanists suggest that perhaps this is because writing like Williams is easier than writing like Eliot (or Pound), the fact remains that the voice of America sounds much like the voice of William Carlos Williams. Just as Hemingway, rather than Henry James, taught our modern novelists how to be Americans, Williams (and the side of Pound that leaned toward Williams) taught our poets.
On this issue, as on others that have arisen in the history of our poetry, Ellmann is scrupulously fair to all sides. He is also fair to the reader who will want to have certain (on the whole rather deplorable) classics of our 19th-century heritage on hand: "The Chambered Nautilus" (which, like Eliot's "Prufrock," was omitted by Matthiessen), "Ichabod," "The Raven," "Thanatopsis" and "The Deacon's Masterpiece." His inclusion of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (hardly a poetic landmark, whatever its historic interest) is a charming eccentricity -- but I think he is quite right in another innovation: his inclusion of a small selection of anonymous ballads. "Frankie and Johnny," "John Henry," "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" and a few more of its ilk are certainly basic Americana and better poetry than some of the more "literary" standard anthology pieces.
An anthology like The Oxford Book serves, among its other functions, as a sort of stock-market report on the current status of poetic reputations. Ellmann's estimate of market values seems reliable except for the most recent poets --who occupy roughly the last ten per cent of the anthology. There are almost certainly too many of them included, and the anthologist may have gravitated toward some poets who are trendy rather than solid (Sylvia Plath, perhaps), some who serve as tokens to represent subdivisions of our poetry still little-explored in academia (Imamu Baraka?), but he does reflect accurately what is currently thought of these writers.
Matthiessen's example here is sobering: his book included writers prominent (even effulgent) in their time who have rightly been eliminated in the new volume: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, Stephen Vincent Benet and Karl Shapiro. Who, among the new names in Ellmann's collection (Adrienne Rich, perhaps?) is the Edna St. Vincent Millay of our generation?
But that is something for time to determine; the anthologist fixes in amber the current status of his subjects, tries to make a few shrewd guesses about the future and corrects marginally what other anthologists have done with the past. Ellmann will certainly need some marginal corrections a quarter-century hence (who can imagine what unsung genius is even now scribbling poems in crayon on the backs of old invoice forms?), but for our time he has caught the poets we find most interesting and he has focused our minds on what makes them distinctively American.