The anthology clearly plays a more central role in the dissemination and consideration of poetry than it does with fiction. The appearance of a new anthology, whether surveying the "state of poetry" as a whole or identifying a particular group or movement within current poetic practices, usually provokes much discussion, as critics and poets themselves debate the validity of the principle of selection or point out glaring omissions and outrageous choices made by the editor. For poets and readers of poetry, something seems to be at stake in the publication of an anthology that doesn't seem to be similarly true of fiction and its readers.
Perhaps what is at stake is literally the access to readers for poetry. In a culture that at best expresses a collective ignorance of poetry (even among readers of serious fiction) and at worst an active disdain for it, an anthology might be an opportunity to gather a few additional readers who would be willing to sample the work of the poets represented, even if they likely would not read individual books by those poets or seek out the magazines or journals in which their poems more regularly appear. No doubt some prominent anthologies (especially those published by relatively large and well-known publishers, such as Norton) do stir up a few such readers, but it is my impression that the bulk of the audience for most anthologies is among poets and the small critical establishment that still exists in English departments and the preeminent poetry journals. Thus, the work of the anthology surely extends beyond occasionally reminding readers who don't really like poetry, or who can sometimes tolerate it in measured doses, that it still exists.
What may motivate both the creation of poetry anthologies and their subsequent reception is suggested to me by Ron Silliman's discussion of 2009's Norton anthology American Hybrid (edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John):
[American Hybrid] is an attempt at a comprehensive anthology of “Third Way” poetics by poets representing both of the major traditions that feed into the hybridization process. This fact alone ensures the book’s historic importance, not only for the effort at codifying what hybrid poetics might actually be, but also because one of these two traditions has been historically shy about announcing its collective identity in the form of movements, wings, tendencies, whatever you might wish to call the collective formation of like-thinking writers.
The last significant instance of a Quietist movement, as such, was New Formalism, which was a lot like the Old Formalism, only younger, rising up about 20 years ago after the Iowists & Leaping Poets had taken the quietist mode of free verse lyric & confessional monolog about as far as they could go. Not unlike the New Coast / Apex of the M uprising at the same time amongst post-avant poetics, New Formalism saw itself as a corrective, a return to core values of a literary tradition that had been abandoned by their elders in a postmodern time. . . .
The forthright acknowledgement here of factionalism in contemporary poetry is a little startling. The numerous movements identified--old and new formalists, lowists and Leaping Poets, not to mention Silliman's signature dichotomy of "Quietists" and "post-avants"--seem to take precedence over the poets and poems they might encompass, while American Hybrid has primarily "historic importance," its apparent role the "effort at codifying" and each movement ultimately notable for its "collective formation of like-thinking writers." Silliman probably thinks he is merely providing some historical context for the appearance of this new attempt at categorization (which ironically is based on the blurring of categories), but even attempts to question categorization in poetry wind up offering even more categories, as in this proposal for an anthology of "Populist Poetry" and all of its attendant subcategories.
Both the publication of American Hybrid and the discourse responding to it and to the philosophy of anthology-making suggest to me that anthologies present an opportunity for labeling that many poets find not only helpful but necessary. I can think of two ways in which it might be necessary, at least as contemporary poets see it: to help them make sense of the proliferation of poets and poems in the United States (abetted by internet publication), if not the proliferation of audiences for these poems, and to provide handy guides to contemporary poetry for use in poetry and poetry writing courses in colleges and universities. I would not discount the importance of the latter, since the very survival of poetry might become even more dependent on its continuing to claim a place in academic curricula. Perhaps some poets want to locate their own work in relation to whatever trends or movements an anthology identifies; perhaps some hope to align themselves with these trends and movements. It does seem safe to suggest, however, that anthologies do not merely gather together a few poems by poets deemed notable simply for the quality of their work. "Quality" is now reckoned as so relative to the "school" to which the work belongs that overarching judgments just can't be made--although often enough it seems that simply belonging to the school is itself, at least for its adherents, a sufficient guarantee of quality.
American Hybrid is most immediately an attempt to blur boundaries between schools (or what are perceived to be schools) by suggesting the Quietists have become more like the post-avants and the post-avants more like the Quietists.This move allows the editor to blunt sharp edges and implicitly to attribute quality more generously across party lines. Unfortunately, the sharp edges are sometimes what gives a poem its appeal, and their general absence in this anthology lends these poems a sense of sameness, mitigated only to the extent that some of the poems are kinda accessible but mostly difficult while others are kinda difficult but mostly accessible. Since I assume most of the poems were chosen because they helped to position the poet somewhere on this continuum, almost all of the selections do less to establish that the poem in question is an important poem and more to demonstrate this poet deserves to be designated as one of those employing the "American hybrid" mode. The reader gets no help in determining whether or why the poem might be a particularly good example of this mode and thus might survive its categorization to be regarded by future readers as an important poem.
If the ultimate purpose of this anthology is to establish that increasing numbers of poets are prepared to incorporate such elements of "experimental" poetry as "non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure," as the editors enumerate them in their introduction, while not necessarily claiming the title "experimental poet," it probaby succeeds. Perhaps younger poets, especially, are receptive to the new hybridity and only the most hardcore older Quietists, such as Billy Collins or Dana Gioia, really continue to uphold the traditional values of lyricism, coherence, and clarity. If a few readers were to take from American Hybrid the impression that poetry doesn't need to resolve itself into assimilable "meaning" it would have provided a service to the future of poetry. Still, a too often undifferentiated mass of poems exhibiting "resistance to closure" doesn't do very much service to the individual poets involved.
Part of the problem is that the editors' introductions to each of the poets are, in my opinion, almost universally horrible. The very definition of perfunctory, usually a mere paragraph or two, they only reinforce the perception that these poets are significant mainly for the way in which they can be made to illustrate the anthology's thesis. The outlines of the poet's career are presented, preceded by a paragraph allegedly describing the poet's work but phrased in the most vacuous boilerplate imaginable: "emotionally charged vocabulary"; "tracks the subtle movement of consciousness against the backdrop of a culturally shifting and spiritually depleted world"; "rapturous and dense, yet paradoxically precise and incisive"; "the intensity and density of his images pick up, and as soon as the grip of sense starts to slip, sound steps in, often with tremendous momentum, to keep the whole thing aloft." These introductions substitute promotional spiels for criticism, and if the editors weren't really up to the task of providing insightful commentary on the included poets, perhaps they should have called on other poets, critics or scholars who are. I eventually stopped reading them because they were so obnoxious; many of these poets, particularly those whose names I did not recognize, would have been better served without any introduction at all than with these vapid declarations.
If something that could be called hybridization is indeed an important development in current poetry, a development that could help determine the future course American poetry takes, more was needed to delineate the precise features of this hybridization, to separate out the truly significant examples and to explain why this process is occurring than is offered by American Hybrid. It does acquaint us with a potentially new variety of poetry and with some names to associate with it (although the appearance of so many older poets--Ashbery, Graham--who have never previously been considered "hybrid" suggests it might not be so new), but ultimately does very little to establish it is more than a vague trend. If "American hybrid" is just another label to pin on some otherwise amorphous group of poets in order to keep track of everybody, or just a convenient marketing device to get more textbooks in the classroom, then its appearance signifies little, either about the current state of American poetry or about the poetic practice associated with the "hybrid."