Friday, May 13, 2011

The Canon Is an Argument (Ongoing)

Lest We Forget: The American Canon (Flashback!)

Desire did this to me.

Of course we know the canon is an argument that says as more about who we are now than who we were, but it’s nice to see examples now and then, just to be sure.

This is what Louis Untermeyer thought the American Canon was, as of 1948. Ahem.


Anne Bradstreet 1612(?) – 1672

John Saffin 1632 – 1710

Benjamin Thompson 1642 – 1714

Edward Taylor 1644(?) – 1729


Francis Hopkinson 1737 – 1791

Philip Freneau 1752 – 1832

John Quincy Adams 1767 – 1848

Joseph Hopkinson 1770 – 1842

Francis Scott Key 1779 – 1843

John Pierpont 1785 – 1866

Samuel Woodworth 1785 – 1842

Emma Hart Willard 1787 – 1870

Richard Henry Wilde 1789 – 1847

Fitz-Greene Halleck 1790 – 1867

Lydia Sigourney 1791 – 1865

Charles Sprague 1791 – 1875

William Cullen Bryant 1794 - 1878

Joseph Rodman Drake 1795 – 1820

James Gates Percival 1795 – 1856


Edward Coote Pinkney 1802 – 1828

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803 – 1882

Charles Fenno Hoffman 1806 – 1884

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807 – 1882

John Greenleaf Whittier 1807 – 1892

Edgar Allen Poe 1809 – 1849

Oliver Wendell Holmes 1809 – 1894

Jones Very 1813 – 1880

John Godfrey Saxe 1816 – 1887

Henry David Thoreau 1817 – 1862

James Russell Lowell 1819 – 1891

Julia Ward Howe 1819 – 1910

Herman Melville 1819 – 1891

Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892

Frederick Goddard Tuckerman 1821 – 1873

Thomas Buchanan Read 1822 – 1873

George Henry Boker 1823 – 1890

Henry Timrod 1829 – 1867

Paul Hamilton Hayne 1830 – 1886

Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886

Thomas Bailey Aldrich 1836 – 1907

Bret Harte 1839 – 1902

Edward Rowland Sill 1841 – 1887

Sidney Lanier 1842 – 1881

Emma Lazarus 1849 – 1887

Edwin Markham 1852 – 1940

Lizette Woodworth Reese 1856 – 1935

Edwin Arlington Robinson 1869 – 1935

Amy Lowell 1874 – 1925

Robert Frost 1875 –

Carl Sandburg 1878 –

Vachel Lindsay 1879 – 1931

Wallace Stevens 1879 –

*T.S. Eliot –

Sara Teasdale 1884 – 1933

Elinor Wylie 1885 – 1928

Jean Starr Untermeyer 1886 –

H.D. 1886 –

William Rose Benét 1886 –

John Hall Wheelock 1886 –

Marianne Moore 1887 –

Robinson Jeffers 1887 –

John Crowe Ransom 1888 –

Conrad Aiken 1889 –

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892 –

Archibald MacLeish 1892 –

E.E. Cummings 1894 –

Horace Gregory 1898 –

Stephen Vincent Benét 1898 – 1943

Hart Crane 1899 – 1832

Léonie Adams 1899 –


Merril Moore 1903 –

Karl Shapiro 1913 –

Muriel Rukeyser 1913 –

Robert Lowell 1917 –

*T.S. Eliot is not included in the anthology because Pocket Books could not come to an agreement with his publisher.

The canon made a boom-boom.

Note One: As we all know, the canon was a very white male heavy thing back then, but it’s interesting to see that this version of the canon is not as lopsided as the first Donald Hall anthology that came out ten years later.

Note Two: Here’s Untermeyer’s note on his selections:

“No collection of poetry, no matter how large or how inclusive, can call itself complete. There will never be space enough for all the poets of any period; there will always be readers ready to detect and quick to resent the omission of their favorite, no matter how obscure or unimportant he may be.”

On the other hand, Untermeyer, as was his usual, published his wife in the anthology. Which is another important factor in canon formation (attempted).


At 5/13/2011 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think Blogger is going to resurrect the eight comments on your previous post that disappeared during the system downtime yesterday? Or will we simply have to reinvent the canon all over again?

At 5/13/2011 1:40 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think they were all written by Vachel Lindsay, weren't they? In dialect?

At 5/13/2011 1:57 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Halleck deserves another look, by the way.

At 5/13/2011 2:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I rather liked one of the poems by Stephen Vincent Benét, by the way.

At 5/13/2011 5:00 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

mr u will not be missed

At 5/13/2011 5:08 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

There's always another mr u, its hour come round at last, that slouches toward norton to be born.

At 5/13/2011 9:31 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Ah, but mr u ends not with a bang but with a canon

At 5/14/2011 7:25 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Looks like Hart Crane committed suicide sixty-seven years before he was born. He must have jumped off one of those ships in the Twilight Zone.

But didn't Merrill Moore record "Blowing My Mind" with The Fugitives nine years after he died? Or walk barefoot around Boston crying "Woe to the bloody city of Boston" more than two hundred years before he was born...long before Timrod sampled Dylan...

At 5/14/2011 8:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yes, it's important to remember what a typing error can do to the canon. Want to live 1,000 years? I can take care of that for you.

At 5/14/2011 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know we're having fun, but c'mon--leave LU alone. He was a man of his time. It's easy now to look at his list and cry foul. Plus, John, remember that your man Ashbery has said--a few times--that he became a poet thanks to Untermeyer's anthology of modern poetry. Ashbey won it on a game show, I believe, a Jeopardy-like production out of Rochester.

At 5/14/2011 6:07 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hah! Well, the mr u stuff was really only in fun. U was no more a rough beast than any of us who put any sort of anthology together. But they are arguments. That was my only real point. We sometimes get into this mindset where the past, this CANON thing, is set. It's never really set but for the generation that sets it.

When it comes to the books that brought us to poetry. When I was in High School, the first anthology I bought was The Caterpillar Anthology edited by Clayton Eshleman. The second, which I got about a month or so later, was Chief Modern Poets of England and America, by M. L. Rosenthal, et al.

For years that's all I knew about poetry. When I finally went to college (I started college when I was 22), I was a Journalism major, so I never really got the current (mid-80s) version of the canon.

I'm not sure why I'm saying this, but my experience of the canon was quite different from what colleges were then presenting. Kenneth Fearing and Jack Spicer were as much a part of the canon as Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell (to me, at least).

It's all just what it is.

At 5/15/2011 6:51 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I was sucked into poetry by rock 'n roll poets: Dylan, Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Jim Carroll, Patti Smith. The impression they left has never been planed away by subsequent reading.
But I'm not too nostalgic about that poetry-discovering time, the mid-80s. My young self obscurely sensed a lot of wrongheadedness, and in retrospect I think I was right. So much Hall-like talk about revision. You had to write a crappy first draft and then solemnly dutifully push it through about fifty revisions, and revising meant cutting. Cut cut cut--cook it down like collard greens--until you had this logically unified, boring little piece. Nothing Bly had written about, say, Neruda had affected the advocates of collard-green poetry. And if you didn't write that way--if you were more an adder than a cutter--well, you weren't a real poet. Though Ashbery was King of the Cats and some surrealists (e.g., Tate) were much admired, if you came to a workshop with a poem that was about language, not about a subject, people would freak out. And there was an atmosphere of left-wing censoriousness that was very bad for young writers trying to overcome inhibitions. Certain words or thoughts were just proscribed, regardless of context. So if your poem called a woman's backside an "ass," your workshopmates could get huffy about that breech of political correctness. And then there were the squabbles about New Formalists, people like Brad Leithauser. They sounded like Larkin: we started losing our audience with Modernism, so we need to turn back and make our lines go dadum dadum dadum again, and then our books will sell. Once I brought a surrealist poem to a workshop, and the teacher advised me to rewrite it in heroic couplets. His preoccupation with traditional prosody seemed totally irrelevant to what I was trying to do... I remember people talking about how boring Marvin Bell was, how overrated Joseph Brodsky was... Does anyone talk about those guys anymore? No, I don't remember a lot of good about that time.

At 5/15/2011 7:24 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm glad to have largely skipped it, through luck, mostly.

But I will say that when I first took creative writing classes, sometimes around 1988 or so, when I was 23, my teacher was also a "clarity" dude, but he also liked Bly a lot, and I was able to sneak down the Ch. Wright avenue to where I found Ashbery, largely on my own.

Ashbery didn't seem to be king of the cats until sometime in the 90s. Or maybe even more recently, as suddenly Stevens also loomed large again. In the late 80s, it was the waning of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and the rise of Jorie Graham and Ch. Wright. it's always waves. Maybe it will be Jorie Graham and Ch. Wright again. Or maybe someday this will be spoken of as the Age of Kay Ryan. Cue the streamers.

At 5/16/2011 2:38 PM, Blogger G.C. said...

I agree that encountering an anthology in the early going can shape any poet's sense of the landscape, i.e., the operative "canon." In my case it was Hayden Carruth's The Voice That Is Great Within Us, which is memorably cranky--something I'm glad for, now, although I didn't recognize it then. What this has meant for me is that a number of poets who aren't generally read anymore--to my knowledge--are an integral part of my own poetic landscape: Tom McGrath, Harvey Shapiro, Paul Goodman.

At 5/16/2011 3:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

What poetry people ae brought to, and when, matters a lot. It matters more, in the long run, than what happens at MFA programs, etc. At lest that's my line.


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