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.
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Oxford Updates Its Collection of American Poems

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Oxford Updates Its Collection of American Poems

Oxford Updates Its Collection of American Poems

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April and National Poetry Month have just ended, but that doesn't stop us from telling you about a new collection of poems, though even a real poetry lover might find a 1,132 page anthology a bit daunting. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says this anthology, The Oxford Book of American Poetry, is less for heavy lifting and more for browsing in pursuit of old and new poetic pals.

SUSAN STAMBERG, reporting:

This is the third edition of The Oxford Book 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.

That's some big job Mr. Lehman; everybody, I'm sure, busy telling you who you missed and who you shouldn't have included.

Mr. DAVID LEHMAN (Editor, The Oxford Book of American Poetry): Yes, that's always the case when you put together an anthology.

STAMBERG: I guess. But leafing through this, I see a whole lot of old friends, and I thought it would be fun to hear one from 1837. Here's the recording by poet Archibald McLeish of the first verse of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Concord Hymn.

(Soundbite of poetry reading)

Mr. ARCHIBALD MCLEISH (Poet): (Reading) “By the rude bridge that arched the flood; there flag to April's breeze unfurled; here once the embattled farmers stood; and fired the shot heard round the world.”

STAMBERG: David Lehman, I guess there was no question about including that?

Mr. LEHMAN: No question at all. It's a great poem in its own right, and it's also a great part of American history.

STAMBERG: Mm-hmm. Well, now how about introducing us to a new voice. I've chosen Bernadette Mayer. She was born in 1945 and she wrote this sonnet in 1985. It is on page 1,017. This is a hefty tome here. And I wonder, could you please read the first few lines of it. We are going to have to electronically enhance this.

Mr. LEHMAN: (Reading) "You jerk, you didn't call me up. I haven't seen you in so long. You probably have a (censored) tan; and besides that, instead of making love tonight you're drinking your parents to the airport. I'm through with you bourgeois boys."

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Why did you have to include that?

Mr. LEHMAN: I like Bernadette Mayer's sonnets very much. She does something new with the sonnet form. She reconciles the most venerable poetic form with the American idiom as it is currently spoken and with attitudes that are current to our time.

STAMBERG: Well, I would call that a love poem for the 20th century. But Mr. Lehman, you have arranged this Oxford book of American Poetry chronologically, and back in 1678, Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem called To My Dear and Loving husband. And, to me, this is 17th century love poem. And here is actor Alyssa Milano reading it.

(Soundbite of poetry reading)

Ms. ALYSSA MILANO (Actress): (Reading) "To my dear and loving husband. Compare with me, ye woman, if you can. I pride thy love more than whole minds of gold or all of 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 let so persevere that when we live no more, we may live ever.”

STAMBERG: Oh, Lovely. To My Dear and Loving Husband, by Anne Bradstreet.

Mr. LEHMAN: It's a wonderful poem that one imagines a bride reading at the wedding service.

STAMBERG: Here's a new appearance in your version, Bob Dylan.

(Soundbite of song “Desolation Row”)

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Musician): (Singing) They're selling postcards of the hanging. They're painting their passports brown. The beauty parlor is filled with sailors. The circus is in town.

STAMBERG: That's Dylan's song, Desolation Row, but it's a lyric. So how can you put in here and not have Stephen Sondheim or Cole Porter?

Mr. LEHMAN: You now hit upon an area of great concern to me, because I'm second to nobody in my love of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin…

STAMBERG: Sure. Sure. Right.

Mr. LEHMAN: …and all the great lyricists. And I feel that what they wrote really fits into another category. It seems to me that very aggressive claims have been put forth for Bob Dylan as a poet by very serious literary critics, and I think that his works from the mid-'60s survives well on the page.

In my head note, I point out that one of the stanzas in Desolation Row makes a sort of cunning reference to TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, and how Archibald McLeish commented on that. So it would seem to me that would be a very good poem to use.

And I would leave it to the reader to decide how does this stack up next to other poets born around the same time around the same time that Bob Dylan was born.

STAMBERG: Good. There are pages and pages of Walt Whitman in here. It seems to me, there's more Whitman than any other single poet.

Mr. LEHMAN: Of course, there's more Whitman than anyone else, because he is our great first poet. Whitman and Emily Dickinson are our spiritual grandparents as poets.

STAMBERG: Could you just sort of arbitrarily pick something and read it to us?

Mr. LEHMAN: I'd love to. I'd like to pick a short poem by Walt Whitman that he wrote during the civil war. This poem by Whitman is called Reconciliation. It dates to 1865. Reconciliation. (Reading) "Word over all, beautiful as the sky! Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost, that the hands of the sister's Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soiled world; For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead. I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin--I draw near, bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin."

STAMBERG: Walt Whitman. The poem is Reconciliation. David Lehman read it to us. He is a poet. He chose and edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Music)

MONTAGNE: Selections from the next wave of classic American poetry, as curated by The Academy of American Poets, can be found at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm John Ydstie.

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