Notes for a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (part one)
In almost all instances, we encounter the writing of a long-dead poet in a volume of collected or selected works, or in an anthology. The individual books making up a writer’s career tend to slip out of the frame of readerly attention, gathering dust in a public library or secondhand bookshop. With some poets, of course, the individual books, or a few of them, remain ubiquitous long after they go out of print. But even when we decide to read those poets, we tend to set aside the multiple “slim volumes” for a more comprehensive or more judiciously chosen selection.
The pattern is different with novelists. With them, individual titles predominate and omnibus collections are less appealing. If I am going to read Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, I would rather pick out one novel and finish it, and then pick out another if I like the first; the entire series would be premature. And I would not want a book of excerpts either. An abridged novel does not appeal to me, and chapters are rarely self-sufficient — almost never. Short stories are another matter. As with books of poetry, the volumes in which they originally appeared can be dismantled and rearranged to make bigger or littler collections, and that is just fine. The difference is largely a matter of how novels are read, as distinct from stories and poems: the former from front to back, the latter two in hops, skips, and jumps. One commits to a novel. With stories and poems one flips randomly in search of something interesting. And when that is the case, you may as well maximize your chances by choosing the biggest book around, or at least by choosing a book where somebody else has done some sifting before you. One wants it all or one wants the best. The individual book seems, in comparison, merely random.
It may be that I am extrapolating too much from my own experience, but there is no doubt that collected and selected volumes eventually replace a poet’s individual books, which is not the case with novelists. There are exceptions, of course: Sylvia Plath’s Colossus, Ariel, and Winter Trees continue to coexist with her Collected Poems; and Hart Crane’s White Buildings and The Bridge have likewise remained in print despite the appearance of ordinarily superceding volumes. I am hard put, however, to find comparable examples from the nineteenth century. Only a few stray books come to mind, long poems or unified collections that make sense as freestanding works (Hiawatha, Battle-Pieces). A miscellaneous compilation of equivalent poetic or historical worth (The Seaside and the Fireside, Timoleon) does not seem to arouse the same interest from book buyers or publishers. Specialty houses tend to follow the same pattern, preferring collected works to individual volumes, and long poems or unified collections to miscellanies.
What one loses in all this is a sense of how the work unfolded historically, book by book, for a readership that came to terms with the work in a form very different than we do. Sometimes, of course, a retrospective collection keeps the contents and order of previous volumes intact, and then it does become possible to read as if part of the literary culture in which the work first appeared, or at least to read as if the poet’s career were unfolding all over again, just for us. But this is not always the case. Some rearrange the contents in chronological sequence, inserting uncollected poems in their proper temporal order, and others create entirely new sequences. (Is it any surprise that George F. Butterick adopted the former strategy for historian-poet Charles Olson, while Laura Riding, who hated history, adopted the latter?) Moreover, because a poem can appear in more than one book, even a collected poems that does respect the integrity of previous volumes requires the making of choices. Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems retains the contents and order of For Love (1962), a compilation of poems written between 1950 and 1960, but necessarily loses the contributing volumes Le Fou (1952), The Kind of Act of (1953), The Immoral Proposition (1953), All That Is Lovely in Men (1955), and A Form of Women (1959). Respecting the fifties volumes would have meant in turn losing For Love (and its companion volume, The Charm, which gathered up what For Love left out).
Textual critics and literary historians have long appreciated the value of attending to original publications, even those that seem inconsequential, and this bibliographic sensitivity has become widespread in recent years, at least among scholars. This is due in large part to the eye-opening case studies of Jerome McGann, George Bornstein, and Robin Schulze, though renewed interest in minor or forgotten poets has also contributed, especially in the field of nineteenth-century American poetry, where the absence of scholarly editions has long made the serious researcher a de facto antiquarian. The influence on readers is predictable, if not yet fully realized: collected or selected volumes cease to be automatic preferences, and wven when they are the contributing books remain potent as aesthetic objects or objects of study. I have certainly noticed the change in my own patterns of reading. Again and again these days, I start with a collected poems only to find myself setting it aside for alternative approaches. For example, a stray reference by Whitman led me to Bayard Taylor’s Poetical Works — the “Household Edition” is a monument to good taste in the Gilded Age — but as I became more absorbed in Taylor’s life, I came to see that his best poetry is best read in smaller collections, and not only because key works were left out of the larger one. Taylor at his best was not a monument maker, but a world traveler, eager to break free of good taste’s constraints. His ragged early books are a truer measure of his interest than the gilded tomb in which he was interred.
All of which makes me wonder what a library of nineteenth-century American poetry might look like if it excluded collected and selected volumes; if it focused instead on the individual books most crucial for understanding the era. The distinction I am making here is admittedly nebulous: selections can acquire the status of individual books (For Love would be a good example of this), and individual books can be collected volumes in all but name (Leaves of Grass). Some authors only wrote one book (Adah Isaacs Menken), and others never lived to see even that many (Emily Dickinson). Careers vary considerably, and not all would be well served by this approach. Even so, the question interests me: “What would a library of ten or twenty-five (or fifty or one hundred) essential books of nineteenth-century American poetry look like?”
This is not the first time I have given the question some thought. A few years ago, Annie Finch and I talked about a reprint series with introductions by contemporary poets. But our talk did not get very far. Not even so far as a list. Thoughts on such a list (and a title or two) to follow…