“For poetry should be the expression of the whole people, not a private matter. Unfortunately, the American public, like some other modern publics, does not care for, nor understand serious poetry. Moreover, the special audience for poetry even among, let us say, those who have gone through college, is incredibly small.”
One wishes to raise his hand and ask: “And why shouldn’t it be?” Williams’ selection reflects the triumph of Modernism. He includes Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (heavily annotated by someone in pencil) and Canto I, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Hart Crane’s The Bridge. A century after Modernism first stirred, and putting aside for the moment their literary worth, these poems remain heavy going, even (perhaps especially) for “those who have gone through college.” Such work could never be as broadly popular as that written in the nineteenth century by Bryant, Longfellow, Lowell and Holmes, who, in Williams’ judgment, “produced only watered-down versions of English verse,” that was “by serious standards…second-rate.”
Williams divides his anthology into three sections: “American Indian Poetry” (eleven pages), “The Chief Poets from Colonial Times to the Present Day” (719 pages, from Anne Bradstreet to Delmore Schwartz) and “Poetry of the Forties” (113 pages). Immodestly, Williams includes eight of his own poems in the second section and five by his wife, Gene Derwood, in the third. One sample from Williams’ “The Seesaw” will suffice:
“Divine seesaw! Ply thy twin ways of higher!
The valley of the grave upholds the stars.”
On second thought, this, from “Shopping for Meat in Winter,” is too good not to share:
“What lewd, naked and revolting shape is this?
A frozen oxtail in the butcher’s shop
Long and lifeless upon the huge block of wood
On which the ogre’s axe begins chop chop.”
I wish I could remember my reaction to this stuff back in 1965. Did I read it straight or suspect parody? Probably the former. I was naïve and unschooled, and very much in thrall to what Flannery O’Connor called litachur. Even if a poem was pretentious and boring, I wouldn’t have admitted it for fear of sounding dim and unsophisticated. Williams the anthologist offered me the start of an education. In particular I was taken by E.A. Robinson, Louise Bogan and W.H. Auden, as well as a poem by Karl Shapiro, “Scyros,” that I still like but don’t claim to fully understand. Williams did all that any decent teacher can do. He opened the book and pointed at the page.