Thursday, July 21, 2005

Anthologize This! (II)

Kasey on "hot ecleticism":
I'll leave myself open to the possibility that there is a way of valuing both Sharon Olds and Carla Harryman on a hotly eclectic level. My instinct tells me, however, that such appreciation must occur on a carefully measured and considered individual level that is a bit much to ask any anthology to be responsible for.
True enough. There are any number of collections that make absolutely no aesthetic sense in the sense Kasey's referring to: they juxtapose totally weird or historically or aesthetically disparate choices and insist that these choices somehow cohere. See, for example, any anthology assembled by Ezra Pound, which tend not even to respect massive chasms of culture and language (troubadours::Noh theater::imagism, etc.). Such collections tend only to work when seen as the idiosyncratic and even monomaniacal vision of a single individual--hotly eclectic, then, because they make sense when we understand who's editing them--which make them really useful as glimpses into the aesthetic of that individual but almost totally useless for any of an anthololgy's usual functions (which I tried to describe in my last post). (It's possible that such an idiosyncratic collection may work when the anthology is edited by someone more self-effacing than Pound; this may be why Hayden Carruth's The Voice That Is Great Within Us, mentioned several times in this discussion, is at least a partial success.)

It might be argued that an anthology shouldn't be expected to be anything more than that: the considered choices of one individual. But nearly every anthology--certainly any anthology that's put on the market today--is weighted down with other kinds of expectations: that it will make a historical statement, that it will be an authoritative catalog of what is considered the "best," etc., etc. The paradox is that the more "authoritative" the anthology is supposed to be, the more the editor has to fade into a kind of studied neutrality or even anonymity. This is why Norton can continue to publish an anthology while listing many of its editors as dead: these aren't personal choices but the abstract spirit of Judgment. Any expert in a given literary field can see through this facade (although students generally can't, which is the point), but it should be obvious to any of us who have ever flipped to the contemporary section of one of these anthologies how narrow the range of choice really is.

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