Oxford Updates Its Collection of American 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.

Oxford Updates Its Collection of American Poems

Oxford Updates Its Collection of American Poems

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

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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.

The Author to Her Book

 

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

Who after birth didst by my side remain,

Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,

Who thee abroad, expos'd to publick view,

Made thee in raggs, halting to th' press to trudg,

Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).

At thy return my blushing was not small,

My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,

I cast thee by as one unfit for light,

Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight;

Yet being mine own, at length affection would

Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:

I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,

And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.

I stretched thy joynts to make thee even feet,

Yet still thou run'st more hobling than is meet;

In better dress to trim thee was my mind,

But nought save homespun Cloth i' th' house I find[.]

In this array 'mongst Vulgars may'st thou roam[.]

In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;

And take thy way where yet thou art not known;

If for thy Father asked, say thou hadst none;

And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,

Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.

 

1678

 

Before the Birth of One of Her Children

 

All things within this fading world hath end,

Adversity doth still our joys attend;

No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,

But with death's parting blow is sure to meet.

The sentence past is most irrevocable,

A common thing, yet oh inevitable.

How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,

How soon't may be thy Lot to lose thy friend,

We are both ignorant, yet love bids me

These farewell lines to recommend to thee,

That when that knot's untied that made us one,

I may seem thine, who in effect am none.

And if I see not half my dayes that's due,

What nature would, God grant to yours and you;

The many faults that well you know I have

Let be interr'd in my oblivious grave;

If any worth or virtue were in me,

Let that live freshly in thy memory

And when thou feel'st no grief, as I no harms,

Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.

And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains

Look to my little babes[,] my dear remains.

And if thou love thyself, or loved'st me[,]

These o protect from step Dames injury.

And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,

With some sad sighs honour my absent Herse;

And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake,

Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take.

 

1678

 

To My Dear and Loving Husband

 

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee;

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me ye women if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay,

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love lets so persever,

That when we live no more, we may live ever.

 

1678