[Note: I've belatedly realized that I stole the title of this post from Shin Yu Pai's review of several Asian American literary anthologies in the most recent issue of Hyphen. Apologies to Shin Yu for that. Guess it was a good title.]
Ron and Kasey, among others, discuss what it would be like to construct an Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, or whether such a thing would even be desirable.
I've been thinking about this topic quite a bit, since I've been working on a review of the anthology Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. What is an anthology for, anyway, and why do people put them together?
It seems to me there's a few different functions an anthology can have, which may overlap but which are ultimately fairly distinct:
1. The historical or textbook anthology. Something like your typical Norton Anthology, heavy with introductions and headnotes and designed primarily for the classroom. Its goal is to provide a definitive survey for an entire historical period: e.g. medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, modernist. There will be a focus on choosing the most "important" (i.e. most collected in other anthologies) works by the Major Writers, of whom there will be between five and a dozen, with a corresponding lack of concern about how "minor" writers are represented.
I'm guessing that it's only possible to put together an anthology of this kind for a body of work that is more than 100 years old; 200 is even better. Only with that kind of distance is it possible to shed worries of the kind Ron talks about: who will be upset if they are left out, whose partisans will go on the warpath for or against them, will your friends speak to you afterwards, etc. More importantly, I think, you can't do a historical anthology until a more or less complete paradigm shift separates you from that period. The aesthetic issues are no longer "live"; they can be viewed in a historic context, and you become more concerned with how you can put together a collection that is useful to you, as a later reader, than one that fairly represents every aesthetic current of the age. The vast majority of the verse written in English between 1790 and 1850 didn't sound much like Wordsworth or Coleridge, but for the most part we don't care. This is why it's possible to do a historical anthology of Victorian poetry, but not yet of modernist poetry: modernism is still "live" to us, its offspring still among us.
With this kind of anthology it's possible to have something that lasts for a while: David Perkins's English Romantic Writers remains a standard text almost 40 years after its first publication. Radical revisionism isn't out of the question--see how much anthologies of 18th-century and Victorian poetry have changed over the past decade--but those revisions tend to happen, again, because our demands on those anthologies change, not because one aesthetic school suddenly triumphs over another.
I agree that American Poetry: The Twentieth Century is as good an anthology of this sort on the 20th c. we're likely to see anytime soon (I'm using it in a class this year): but it contains 1400 poems over two volumes and barely gets halfway through the century. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, even in its recent revision, seems like a hopelessly Anglocentric dinosaur--less usable each year, it simply can't keep up with the contemporary, which has been spun off into a second volume whose selections are simply too short to be usable--and the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry is an odd patchwork, reflecting its editor's scholarly interests more than classroom realities. Rutgers has released a New Anthology of American Poetry, whose second volume covers 1900-1950; it's not bad but is hampered by obtrusive notes than follow nearly every poem, ending up too broad and not deep enough.
I respect Ron's sense that the number of poets is getting larger and larger with each generation; but I honestly think that is a product of contemporaneity: the fact that we are able to be aware of all of our peers in a way that we could not possibly be aware of, say, the full range of poetry going on in mid-1912, even if we lived in 1912. At some point--whether through merit, ambition, perserverence, dumb luck, or better distribution, a few people will end up getting remembered and a lot won't, and later anthologists won't be sensitive to the feelings of dead poets who get left out. Actually, though, the other sorts of anthologies I'm about to describe can play a role in determining who ends up surviving this Big Forgetting.
2. The "movement" anthology. Not a great title, but what I simply mean is an anthology centered around a particular aesthetic or group, usually produced contemporaneously by a member of that group (or sometimes by a sympathetic bystander). The goal is to stake out aesthetic ground, either by bringing the activities of a local avant-garde to the attention of a wider public or to create a "movement" by bringing together the activities of disparate writers into a single documents. The Lyrical Ballads, even if they were only written by two people, might be the first major example of such an anthology in English; but it's the 20th century that really perfects this form, from the Objectivist Anthology to The New American Poetry to, say, In the American Tree. I would probably also put anthologies organized around, say, Asian American writing in this category, for they often do (implicitly) endorse a certain aesthetic that goes hand in hand with their vision of Asian American identity and politics; but some such anthologies end up falling into category 3 (below) as well.
When they work, such anthologies can create durable new "schools" of poetry, as The New American Poetry shows. But they can also be the first step toward the Big Forgetting: they have to include some people and leave out others, drawing hard lines around what's probably a much more amorphous realm of practice. Language poetry, in many ways, has probably suffered from this phenomenon.
There are anthologies like Poems for the Millennium or From the Other Side of the Century--both of which I think are remarkable achievements--that I would consider blends of 1 and 2: they are in part historical, but their historical interest is largely in tracing the genealogy of a particular aesthetic tendency (which they may see as the central aesthetic tendency), rather than trying to single out the few writers that matter. This, I think, is the most we can hope for out of a 20th-century anthology at the moment: something that traces the history of one mode of practice in the century. Indeed, this may be the only kind of 20th-century anthology that would be useful and usable for anyone, since one that tried to do this work for several modes of writing would have to do so much work and be so big as to be incomprehensible.
3. The promotional anthology. This one's hard to separate from 2, but I think it's becoming increasingly prevalent. When you see an anthology with "young" or "new" in the title these days, it's a pretty good bet it falls into this category. I think of the Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets from the '80s as a prime example, with something like American Poetry: The Next Generation a more recent one. You'll often find that such anthologies are prefaced with remarks about the "diverse" and "unclassifiable" nature of the work within; what usually holds such things together is the sense that anyone within might be the Next Big Thing. (Sometimes an anthology that presents itself as a (2) will in fact turn out to be a (3); I'd put Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation in this category.) The increasing number of people earning MFAs in poetry virtually demands that this genre will expand; already we're seeing series of "new work from the writing workshops" lining the shelves. I'm not claiming that this is a phenomenon solely of the workshop culture, or even that it's an inherently bad thing; Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books partakes of the same logic. Every (3) anthology is going to have some element of (2), some aesthetic slant (often determined by its institutional origins--just whose rising stars it's charting); every (2) anthology is ultimately a (3), too, trying to make you pay attention to what its contributors are doing.