Bi-Monthly Review: The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry

The Bi-Monthly Review is a twice monthly feature of whatever I happen to be reading. Highly informal. Opinions are my own. Try to enjoy.


This past summer, I purchased The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry with the goal of reading it cover to cover. I wanted to become exposed to poets I wouldn’t read otherwise, and I wanted to build a framework to improve my understanding of 20th century american poetry as a whole. (More on my initial goals here: ).

It’s been 5 months since I grabbed that book off the shelf at Schuler’s Books and committed to lugging it around with me. This past weekend I closed the back cover and sighed deeply. I was done.

You know the feeling; satisfied that you committed to reading each and every page, yet sad that the journey is over. It’s like coming home from vacation: There’s no better feeling than sleeping in your own bed after a long time away… but a piece of you wishes you’re still adventuring.

This anthology, edited by Rita Dove, presents the poems in chronological order. This is a choice, among many others as you’d guess, that the editor struggled with. Dove uses her introduction space to properly frame her work and describe her reasoning for many of the choices she made regarding the book’s organization and content. Take her reasoning for adopting chronological order as opposed to grouping poems by various movements (ie. Beats), for example:

…I have resigned myself to the conventional chronological sorting in the hopes that this will be seen not as an attempt to corral pots into historical arenas but rather as a nod to the ineluctable influence of the quotidian–the cultural signatures of the century as well as the significance of being an American poet evolving under those signatures” (xxxi).

I personally found chronological order to be quite fitting for my purposes as a reader, and enjoy that each poet represented here is given the freedom to stand on his/her own. Another benefit here, is that viewing these poems chronologically allows for a smooth progression from past to present. An obvious statement, I realize, but as a reader with a somewhat limited understanding of specific events in American history (especially specific dates!), I appreciate that I can see the content become more contemporary, and see the poets “change with the times”, as you might say. What’s even more special here is that although I can recognize these changes, there is a common theme running across the work. We are only on page 20 when we read Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and get to relate with the speaker’s need to be alone. His desire to pause an take in the timeless evening, and silent snowfall. But these feelings are still evident near the end in Tess Gallagher’s “Under Stars”:

“…Again I walk into the wet grass
toward the starry voices. Again, I
am the found one, intimate, returned
by all I touch on the way.”

I was also pleased with the various cultural backgrounds represented here: Native American, African American, Asian American… Poems spanned racism, sexism, a love of nature, loneliness, boredom, suicide, elation, the mundane and the extraordinary. What was mildly disappointing, although highly expected (almost necessary for a collection of this kind) was the lack of diversity in academic background. These poets are by and large academics, hailing from Sarah Lawrence College, University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Yale and other elite schools. The grand majority of poets here have earned prestigious awards and titles, and published numerous poetry collections. Again, I admit that I can hardly be surprised by this, but it would’ve been nice for a somewhat larger representation of poets from unique academic backgrounds.

Conversely, the mini-biographies that prefaced each poet’s section could have been composed differently. These short paragraphs mentioned place of birth and death (when applicable), academic background, and a list of published works and awards. I would have preferred a small background on each poet’s lifestyle or cultural background. But I admit, these are things I could easily research on my own.

Overall, this anthology was highly enjoyable and has provided many poets a place on my reading list. While I don’t foresee myself reading this in it’s entirety again, I will certainly be revisiting the numerous dog-eared pages and highlighted passages… and no doubt, I’m gonna miss lugging this book around. Good thing I’ve already found my next anthology!

Until next time.


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