Oxford Updates Its Collection of American Poems

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David Lehman

David Lehman was charged with updating Oxford's massive anthology of American poetry after 30 years. Stacey Harwood hide caption

itoggle caption Stacey Harwood

Modern Poetry Selections

April and National Poetry Month have ended, but that won't stop us from telling you about a new collection of poems.

Even a real poetry lover might find a 1,132-page anthology a bit daunting. But The Oxford Book of American Poetry is less for heavy lifting and more for browsing, in pursuit of old and new poetic pals.

This is Oxford's third edition of its compilation of American poetry; the last revision came out 30 years ago. Since then, poets have come and gone — and it was editor David Lehman's task to pick who stayed and who didn't.

Lehman is aware of what a daunting and vulnerable position he has acquired.

"The editor must make difficult choices — must even omit some poems he greatly admires — simply because the amount of space is limited and the competition fierce," Lehman writes in his introduction, anticipating critics.

"The task is difficult almost beyond presumption if you hold the view, as I do, that it is possible to value and derive pleasure from poets who saw themselves as being irreconcilably opposed to and incompatible with each other."

Lehman here refers to the split between T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, poets who for later generations would represent a fissure in the world of American poetry between the camps of traditional intellectualism and alternative, colloquial style.

Still, Lehman offers a tip to his audience.

"The enjoyment of a great poem begins with the recognition of its fundamental strangeness," he writes. "Can you yield yourself to it the way Keats recommends yielding yourself to uncertainties and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact? If you can, the experience is yours to have. And the experience of greatness demands attention before analysis."

Excerpt: 'Oxford Book of American Poetry'

Poet: Anne Bradstreet

Born Anne Dudley in Northampton, England, the first American poet had rheumatic fever as a child and contracted smallpox just before marrying Cambridge graduate Simon Bradstreet. With John Winthrop's fleet in 1630, the couple sailed to America, where both Bradstreet's husband and her father would serve as governors of Massachusetts. Anne Bradstreet became the mother of eight children and the author of a manuscript that her brother-in-law brought back to London and published without her knowledge in 1650 under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. Six years after her death a second and enlarged edition of her poems appeared in Boston. John Berryman found it expedient to adopt her voice in his long poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953). "I didn't like her work, but I loved her — I sort of fell in love with her," he explained.

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The Oxford Book of American Poetry

by David Lehman and John Brehm

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