The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine
ed. by Don Share and Christian Wiman
University of Chicago Press, Hardback, 2012
214pp, 978-0-226-75070-5, $20.00
Imagine trying to curate an exhibition that faithfully reflects the developments of modern art in all its various guises between 1912 and 2012. You have access to work by key figures representing all essential isms – from Picasso to Rothko, from Wahol to Emin – but not necessarily to their best, or more celebrated, pieces. To make it fiendishly difficult you can only select 100 works. London’s Tate Modern does a fair job, but has the luxury of multiple galleries in which hang many times more than 100 works. That developments are underway to increase the available wallspace at Tate Modern by 60% should give some clue to the enormity, or perhaps impossibility, of the challenge.
If nothing else Don Share and Christian Wiman deserve to be cheered for their plucky, or perhaps foolhardy, ambition in attempting a similar feat with poetry rather than paintings. Share and Wiman are well-qualified for their endeavour: they are both current editors of Poetry magazine and have published over ten books of poetry between them. On reflection, however, Share and Wiman deserve more than warm appreciation for, as Wiman wearisomely recollects, ‘reading through, […] week after week of issue after issue, some forty thousand poems.’ They have distilled a century of Poetry into a subtly-assembled anthology that also manages to pay bombastic tribute to an icon of American publishing.
Ezra Pound, whose poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’ opens the anthology, wrote to Harriet Monroe, Poetry’s founder, in 1915 decrying the state of American magazines: “why I think they should be exterminated in revenge for the damage they have done to American poetry is that they specialize in two or three tones. There is no literature for precisely this reason, that they are all stuck into uniforms.” Yet from the outset Poetry aimed to be different: in Monroe’s view it should be more receptive to ‘the most important and enduring poets,’ it should be like an ‘open door’ – hence the anthology’s title. Placing Pound’s poem at the opening of the anthology instils it with the status of gatekeeper attending the door through which 99 poets follow, either inspired by Pound’s legacy as master of high modernism or reacting against it.
If ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is a somewhat obvious opening gambit, the remainder of the anthology meanders down a road less travelled, pausing to stop-off at more familiar points along the way. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, for example, is sandwiched in between two contemporary works: August Kleinzahler’s ‘The Hearafter’ and Laura Kasichke’s ‘Look’. The book is full of many poems like these that readers with a general interest in poetry are unlikely to have encountered before but which deserve to be better-known.
Share and Wiman’s juxtaposition of poems is cleverly realised, rather than clumsily forced upon the reader. Wiman’s introductory essay refers to ‘quantum entanglement’, a concept which plays out in The Open Door through verbal echoes and formal symmetries. The poems are grouped into loosely-thematic clusters, just like the galleries in Tate Modern, which are prefaced by sagacious one-liners from Poetry’s most celebrated contributors. These insertions, witty or thought-provoking as they are, distract from the poems rather than add anything meaningful to how the adjacent work should be approached. Seamus Heaney’s insight that ‘Form is not like a pastry cutter – the dough has to move and discover its own shape’ seems both critically astute and ridiculous.
The Open Door is not an exhaustive study of modern poetry – how could it be, presenting just 100 poems? Nor is it a primer for the uneducated reader: Pound, Eliot and Yeats are represented by arguably some of their best known works, but readers are likely to be less familiar with the poems by Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Frank O’Hara chosen for inclusion. It is a valuable and surprising anthology for that reason. The Open Door reveals modern poetry to be an art form alive and well – 32 of the poems were published within the last decade – and just as enjoyably diverse as the painting or music of the last 100 years. The poet A. R. Ammons once remarked that ‘the histories of modern poetry in America, and of Poetry in America are almost interchangeable’. On the evidence of The Open Door, he might just be right.