A Modest Book Proposal: The Norton Anthology of Prime Time Poetry

It seems to me that Norton has put out three anthologies featuring various types of poetry that aim at difficulty, following up on the work of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and other modernists who championed difficulty in poetry. In previous posts I basically positioned the two-volume _Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_ as their right wing book, their _Postmodern American Poetry_ as their left wing book, and their new _American Hybrid_ as their decidedly left-leaning bipartisan effort. What I’d like to propose is a comprehensive anthology of the third party poetries that are left out. The poets I have in mind flow from what Richard Gray refers to as “Whitman and American Populism: Sandburg, Lindsay, Masters.” I would add Don Marquis as another forbearer of the kind of poetry I have in mind, also proletariat poets such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Fearing, and Charles Bukowski. Looking to French masters, I would say that the poets I want to champion take their cues more from Jacques Prevert than from Stephen Mallarme. I thought about calling this proposed book The Norton Anthology of Populist Poetry or The Norton Anthology of People’s Poetry, but those terms have political implications that I’m not interested in pursuing here. I also thought about The Norton Anthology of Accessible Poetry, but the cover would have to have a wheelchair ramp on it, and that would look stupid.

Remember when there were only three TV networks and all the shows with mass appeal came on at 7pm, 8pm, 9pm? That was called prime time. Does TV Guide still refer to that time slot as prime time? I don’t know. I think there are several strands of contemporary poetry that could fall under the umbrella term of prime time poetry, poems that are “written in the language actually used by men” (Wordsworth), poems that attempt to clearly address the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people, rather than disdaining poetry’s potential audience and being happy to write for a pocket audience, poems that are written for the whole family (David Kirby, for one, says he writes with an intelligent sixth-grader in mind).

What follows is a very rough table of contents. Michael Theune has pointed out that Stephen Burt and Ron Silliman don’t always like the poets that they champion. This has made me feel like I have permission to propose an anthology that includes some poets that I don’t necessarily enjoy. (I’m not saying which.) Why would I do that? The best explanation I know of is a statement of Forest Gander’s that actually appears in _American Hybrid_: “Like species, poems are not invented, but develop out of a kind of discourse, each poet tensed against another’s poetics, in conversations, like casts of wormtrails in sandstone.” The following are some types of poetic discourse communities that I would like to link together and champion as prime time poetries.

Stand Up: Charles Harper Webb, Ron Koertge, Lisa Glatt, Gerald Locklin, Denise Duhamel (who shows in Michael Theune’s _Structure and Surprise_ how she has written poems using the structure of a standup comedy routine, Edward Field (the term “Standup” comes from his book _Stand Up Friend With Me_, prose by Webb, who has edited two fine anthologies devoted to this type of poetry

Ultratalk: David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, Mark Halliday, Jason Bredle, Nin Andrews, Thomas Lux, Stephen Dunn, Robert Wrigley, Kim Addonizio, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, Bob Hicok, Lawrence Raab, David Clewell, Martha Silano, essays by Kirby/Hamby, Halliday, and David Graham

Expansive Poets: Molly Peacock, Marilyn Nelson, Greg Williamson, A.E. Stallings, Kelly Cherry, Catherine Trufariello, Chelsea Rathburn, Timothy Steele, excerpts from Kevin Walzer’s prose book _The Ghost of Tradition_, Dana Gioia’s essay “Notes on the New Formalism,” and Mark Jarman’s essay “Robinson, Frost, and Jeffers and the New Narrative Poetry”

Slam Poetry: Taylor Mali, Saul Williams, Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, Karyna McGlynn, Robert Bonair-Agard, Grace Bruenderman, Marc Smith, Buddy Wakefield, Jack McCarthy’s essay “Note From The Poetry Underground,” and Susan B.A. Somers-Willet’s essay “Can Slam Poetry Matter?”

Performance Poetry (poets who regularly read their work aloud at places like Seattle’s Red Sky Poetry Theatre, Portland’s Cafe Lena’s, San Francisco’s Cafe Babar, and New York’s Bowery Poetry Club): Hal Sirowitz, Bob Holman, Leanne Grable, Marion Kimes, Alan Kaufman, A.D. Winans, Antler, Chocolate Waters, June King

Laureates (just the ones who have taken seriously their roles as representatives of the poetry community): US Laureates Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky, a few state laureates (Jack Myers, David Bottoms, Kevin Stein, Greg Pape, Fleda Brown); San Francisco Poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti (his “Populist Manifesto”), former Seattle Populist Poet Bart Baxter

Singer/Songwriters: Leonard Cohen (he's already in one Norton Anthology), Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Regina Spektor, Eminem, Coner Oberost

Cowboy Poetry: J.V. Brummels, Red Shuttleworth, Lisa Lewis, Jennifer Malesich, Paul Zarzyski, and Rod Miller’s essay “A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, Or Who’s the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?”


Paul Pincus said...

terrific weblog.

found you via the storialist.

cheers, -paul

Martha Silano said...


Tabitha Dial said...

I want this anthology and would buy a few copies to share with family.

Nice conspiring.

Steve said...

This would be a good idea: consider proposing it to, e.g., Soft Skull-- but keep in mind that anthologies of 20th and 21st c work always involve vast amounts of paperwork, and nontrivial sums, for permissions.

I like all the poets I champion, though not always to the same degree: sometimes I mention in passing poets who illustrate a trend that interests me... but I don't praise poets I don't like. I hope Silliman doesn't either-- though he does seem to take an interest in the Progress of the Art, in Poetry rather than Poems... so maybe he does. As for me-- as Marianne Moore says-- "where there is personal liking we go."

Tom C. Hunley said...

Martha, love that enthusiasm. Of course your work is prime time.

Paul and Tabitha, thanks for the kind words.

Thanks for commenting, Steve. I published in one of Soft Skull's anthologies, but probably won't propose this to them or anyone right now for the reasons you state. I'm just commenting on what I see as missing from Norton's list.

I hope I didn't misrepresent you. I was paraphrasing Michael Theune's reading of a passage in "What I Miss in What I like" (if I'm remembering right -- it's not in front of me).

Chris Bays said...

Good selection, Tom! My only gripe: if you include cowboy poets, why not tanka and haiku poets? Haiku has gone through major transitions over the years, especially in this country. Journals, such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, The Heron's Nest, and Acorn reveal a diverse and interesting selection of modern and traditional haiku. They are worth checking out.

a.c.b. said...

i would totally buy that anthology :-) and recommend it to others. my shelf sports the "romantic poets" anthology (leftover from school) as well as BBc's "poetry please!" which was a well-meant gift from a friend. i wish, however, that there were books that give a taste of more variety - like, coming from a non-english speaking background and culture, when i was studying in utah and carson's "autobiography of red" was on the syllabus, i had never heard of her, and the book really blew me away. i learned very quickly that there is so much out there that i would thoroughly enjoy or thoroughly enjoy disliking that now i am trying to find ways to try it all out, if you will. i like it when poetry shows her teeth. if you find someone who will take on your anthology, maybe they would also be willing to take on board an anthology along the lines of "poetry bites"? lol. no, i am serious. interesting post.

VizPo-Central said...

Sorry, Tom, but I'm afraid I have to tab you a Wilshberian. That's someone who is blissfully unaware of any poetry outside Wilshberia, which is that part of the contemporary poetry continuum running from what Wilshbury does to what Ashbery does. With, lately, seepage from the language poets, who have been acadominant for well over a decade now and are now becoming mainstream. You claim to want "a comprehensive anthology of the third party poetries that are left out," but never mention sound, visual or mathematical poetry, to name just a few of the poetries truly left out by mainstream anthologists, magazine editors, critics, grants-bestowers. Your anthology would just be the sub-academic sibling of what you deem the Norton rightwing anthology. Not that none of the poets you want in it are decent poets. But your anthology would not be introducing anyone to anything not already all over the place.

--Bob Grumman

Tom C. Hunley said...


I have no idea who Wishbury is, but I am aware of the poetry you mention. My idea is for an anthology of various schools of populist poetry, poets who try to reach beyond the various coteries who are already devoted to the art. There's sound poetry, visual poetry, and post-Oulipo mathematical poetry in both American Hybrid and the Hoover Postmodern anthology already. I don't have the books in front of me, but I think John Giorno and Charles Bernstein are represented in one or both with sound poetry, Haryette Mullen and Harry Mathews are there with mathematical poetry, and there's definitely some visual poetry (and I do mention Denise Duhamel, author of the Johari Window sequence -- poems written on velo and then placed on window blinds -- in my proposal).

Tom C. Hunley said...

A note from one of the contributors:

Dear Tom, I came across your suggestion for a hypothetical anthology online but couldn't figure out how to post a comment. I just want to say that of course I'm pleased to be mentioned. Two other poets who might be included are R.H.W. Dillard (expansive) and Fred Chappell (expansive/laureate [North Carolina]).

Many thanks,
Kelly Cherry

Martin Mason said...

If you remember, Tom, I once created a faux-anthology with a wheelchair ramp on the cover. I'd "love" to see Norton put out a book with that on it.