The Making of The Oxford Canon: Part One
This week, as a special holiday gift to our readers, we present David Lehman, editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City. Lehman will write for the blog every day this week, so be sure to come back every morning to read his posts.
editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, I am frequently asked how I went about such a challenging task. It would take pages to describe just some of the considerations that went into the making of this anthology, but I’ll begin here by noting three general principles and two specific illustrations, both drawn from the work of Hart Crane.
A good anthology must work as a book. The whole of the enterprise must exceed the sum of its parts in significance and value. For this to happen, the book must have a certain coherence, and it needs to come equipped with an apparatus that helps even casual readers make sense of the subject named in the title.
Second, a good anthology will present alternatives – various self-portraits in verse, or villanelles, or poems about World War II, to give three germane examples from The Oxford Book of American Poetry – and enable the reader to compare them.
Finally, poems are not written in a void. One poem may engage in a dialogue with another, and an anthology is the perfect medium for demonstrating the linkages between texts, whether in the form of borrowings or rejoinders.
With a poet as magnificent in his means as Hart Crane, whose lines are unforgettable though their meaning may remain elusive, I thought it especially worth while to show how several of his poems came into being as responses to someone else’s work.
On page 427 of The Oxford Book you will find the head note for Hart Crane (1899-1932) as well as the last of four poems by his friend Leonie Adams (1899-1988). Adams’s poem, published in 1929, is entitled “The Bell Tower.” Here is how it begins: “I have seen, O desolate one, the voice has its tower, / The voice also, builded at secret cost, / Its temple of precious tissue.”
Once you have read “The Bell Tower,” you will find it easier to enter Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower,” one of his sublime last poems, published after his death in 1932.
In “The Broken Tower,” Crane takes Adams’s imagery of voice, angels, bells, and a tower, and works extraordinary changes on them. Adams’s “angels of the wind” become Crane’s “tribunal monarch of the air.” If the poet himself remains “desolate,” in Adams’s word, it may be because in Crane’s vision “the bells break down their tower; / And swing I know not where.”
Crane had, he writes in “The Broken Tower,” “entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love, its voice / An instant in the wind.” This is as noble a self-description of Crane’s project as we have. And the poem, though as mournful as it is ecstatic, does propose an imaginative solution to the problem of suicidal despair that ultimately consumed the poet. (Crane took his life when he jumped from the deck of a steamship sailing to New York from Mexico in 1932.) The tower may be broken, it may be unworthy of the bells’ antiphonal carillons, but the poet can nevertheless hope to build “within, a tower that is not stone / (Not stone can jacket heaven) – but slip / Of pebbles – visible wings of silence sown / In azure circles.”
Tomorrow I will say a few words about an even more extraordinary linkage – you might almost call it a semi-collaboration — between Hart Crane and another poet: in this case the unsung Samuel Greenberg.
David Lehman is Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City. His most recent books of poetry are The Evening Sun and When a Woman Loves a Man. He is the author of five books of critical prose, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection. He founded The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues to serve as general editor of this prestigious anthology. He also edited Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and co-edited The KGB Bar Book of Poems, based on the reading series he and Star Black directed in New York’s East Village.