On First Looking into Carruth's Anthology

Some off-the-cuff reactions...

Have to admit I've never seriously perused The Voice That Is Great Within Us. Came out in 1970, the year I went to college. Already by then I considered myself a bonafide poet, having written many poems (starting around 1965) & having read TWO (two!) NY School anthologies, as well as that fine collection, A Gift of Watermelon Pickle (9th grade).

I'm sure I picked this up & glanced through it more than once. It was the kind of thing that scared me off.

Still in print... but the physical book says something about the state of poetry in the USA. Only $8., from Bantam Books - yet the blurred typeface, the sloppy production, is close to unreadable. You get what you pay for.

Might be interesting to compare Carruth's anthology to American Hybrid. & before compiling a new Voice That Is Great, we might want to linger here a while...

Strengths - clarity, simplicity, elegance. These poems are made things, distinct utterances. A clean austerity. Today we seem to have displaced this discursive independence. Poems are always pointing somewhere else - toward something personal, political, topical, moral (& most often, half-educated academic pseudo-aesthetical). Clever, officious, detached (or all three), they elbow you in the ribs. The fence between art & 24/7 news cycle etc. has been torn down. This makes contemporary poems both more knowing & less solid, somehow. (I'm GENERALIZING.)

Weaknesses - goes back to the same thing. Carruth has an instinct for the well-made poem, long after the demise of "New Criticism". Many of his selections seem to snap neatly shut, with a smug pursing of lips. I'm sure they (the poets) didn't think so : they were comparing themselves to those really neat snuff-boxes (think Frost, Hecht, Wilbur), whose Hippocrene perfection they had avoided (by way of free verse & a touch of Hemingway).

Missing : Richard Hugo, Edwin Honig, John Tagliabue... many more, certainly. Michael Harper (& these are just my personal acquaintances). But that's how it is with anthologies.

I don't mean to emphasize (supposed) weaknesses. Very glad that Joseph pointed this way. & I'm just starting to read it. (With the same old trepidation. Our greatest strength is ignorance.)

p.s. someone recently - a non-poet, but a poetry reader - sent a comment to one of the posts at the Harriet blog (I've looked for it, but haven't been able to find it). He said that in contemporary poetry he sees a lot of technical sophistication, learned in MFA programs - but not a lot of gravitas : that seriousness (of purpose) which we find compelling. There is some of that, however, all through the Carruth anthology : like certain paintings from the 30s & 40s. Clarity, simplicity - terse & direct presentation. Ordinary speech, forged & hammered into elegance.


Joseph Hutchison said...

I couldn't find the "gravitas" comment either, though I remember seeing it. From another quarter, Owen Barfield's Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, comes this observation about minor poets:

"The minor poet is appreciator rather than creator. He imitates, because he must have his idiom established, acknowledged, labelled in his own consciousness as 'poetic' before he can feel that he is writing poetry....

"A poetic meaning is? already in the words and mannerism which the minor poet is instinctively drawn to use and imitate. Whether it is there as a legacy from the ancient poetic meaning in all language, or whether it is there because it has been put there by some original poet in the past, the fact remains that it is there. It is to do some my work for me, thinks he (though not, of course, in so many words); let me fit my own emotional experience as neatly as I can into the established poetic moulds, and the result will give me something, will comfort me, intoxicate me.

"The great poet, on the contrary, is himself the giver. He is giving out all the time—wisdom to other men, meaning to language. This he does by externalizing as fully as is possible in words his own first-hand experience beyond them."

Leaving aside the male bias of Barfield's phrasings (he was writing, after all, in the late 1920s), I think he clearly has it right. The danger of writing programs is that they promote "established poetic modes" and so are calibrated to produce minor writers. I think, though, that they can't hurt, and can sometimes very much help, major writers discover their truest, most individual strengths.

Whether publishers are capable of recognizing such strengths I'm not sure. There's an uncomfortable truth in Kathleen Raine's statement regarding William Blake: "Against the really new the
passive resistance of every society is mustered." Chances are that writing programs have not changed that fact.

I bring all this up in relation to Carruth's anthology because it explains its (supposed ) weaknesses. No human being can write or edit outside his or her historical moment, and I think it would be unfair to judge Carruth by how often he "got it wrong." (By whose standards?) What matters—to me, at least—is that his anthology is an excellent representation of what a fine poetic mind saw as the state of 20th century American poetry in that moment. While I have no problem with expanding Carruth's list, I think that anyone who set out to somehow "correct" or "complete" it would be destined for disappointment on every side.

Mairi said...

It might interest you to know - in case you've misplaced your copy - that Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle is available on alibris for as little as $1.99, plus shipping. I looked it up because the title is so great and was almost tempted to hand over my credit card number. I don't remember my Grade 9 curriculum but I know for certain it didn't include anything as radical as ee cummings.

Henry Gould said...

Mairi, the edition we used (40 nigh on yrs ago!) was a hardback, with a moss-green cover. The poems were presented with illustrations - photos, I think. The organization was (if I remember right!) thematic. ee cummings' "In Just- Spring" helped push me definitely toward writing poetry.

Henry Gould said...

My phrase above, about "smug pursing of lips", is way too harsh. I guess I was (over)reacting to the flood of so many brief lyric poems of similar length.

Chris Bays said...

What paintings were you referring to from the 1930s and 40s when you mentioned "clarity, simplicity --terse and direct"?

Henry Gould said...

In fact I was remembering an article from the NY Times of April 2, about a retrospective of Charles Burchfield's midwestern paintings (from the 20s, actually).

Here's the link (you may have to sign onto the NYT site) :


Chris Bays said...

Thanks Henry. The bleak winter landscape by Burchfield is a good example of what we are tring to evolve and define here: simplicity and boldness, tension and imagination -- coupled to the mantle of our surroundings, our earth.