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Editor of “Oxford Book of American Poetry” Discusses the Anthology

May 9, 2006 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: When Walt Whitman wrote his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in 1856, he spoke directly to his readers, both in his time and in ours.

DAVID LEHMAN, Editor, “Oxford Book of American Poetry”: “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence. Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.”

JEFFREY BROWN: For David Lehman, the editor of the newly-revised “Oxford Book of American Poetry,” Whitman shows both the timelessness and the freshness of American poetry.

DAVID LEHMAN: “Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Lehman, himself a poet and teacher, says his revision, the first in 30 years, was a chance to update and look anew at the American canon; to see a line from Anne Bradstreet in the 17th century to Emily Dickinson in the 19th, Langston Hughes in the 20th, and Jorie Graham, born in 1950, the cut-off date for this volume, writing in our own time; to see new or little known names like Angelina Weld Grimke besides the famous ones like TS Eliot, even to shake up the mix by including lyrics from Bessie Smith and Bob Dylan.

The motives behind the anthology

JEFFREY BROWN: I talked with David Lehman in New York recently.

What did you want to accomplish here? What's the goal in putting together this collection?

DAVID LEHMAN: I think you want to fix a canon or establish a canon of: What are the works that we want to perpetuate for this generation and for our children?

And I am always guided by the aim of wanting to bring poetry to the people. I think our poetry is a great cultural glory, and there sometimes is a disconnect between the creation of poetry and the consumption thereof.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing it looks like you did is you're just more expansive than your predecessors. You have more poets and more poems.

DAVID LEHMAN: Richard Ellman in 1976 had 78 poets and a very good volume called "The New Oxford Book of American Verse." We have 210, and that reflects, I think, a decision to widen the canon, and to operate not on a star system exclusively, but to represent the whole gamut of American poetry.

And, also, there have been so many figures who have come back or been revived who were neglected or unknown for a long time.

What makes a poem great?

JEFFREY BROWN: One example of a person you brought in is Jean Toomer.

DAVID LEHMAN: Jean Toomer is a really interesting case. He's a black poet who at certain points was said to have passed as white, but his great book was "Cane" in 1923. And I think his poems are outstanding, like "Reapers" or "Georgia Dusk" or "Beehive."

"Black reapers, with the sound of steel on stones, are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones in their hip pockets as a thing that's done and start their silent swinging one by one. Black horses drive a mower through the weeds and there a field rat, startled, squealing, bleeds, his belly close to ground. I see the blade, blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

JEFFREY BROWN: So help us understand what makes a poem great.

DAVID LEHMAN: What makes a poem great is its eloquence; its passion; its thought; its generosity of spirit; its shapeliness; its form, whether it has one; the artistry with which it may reveal some things and conceal other things.

But as with so many other things in life, it's a great deal easier to recognize a great poem than it is to explain greatness or what makes a poem great.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean you can enjoy it before you understand it or before you understand why?

DAVID LEHMAN: Yes, exactly. In fact, "The Snow Man" is this fantastic poem of Wallace Stevens, and you can interpret it endlessly. It's a great sort of brainteaser, but it also has a magnificent music.

"One must have a mind of winter to regard the frost and the boughs of the pine trees crusted with snow and have been cold a long time to behold the junipers shagged with ice, the spruces rough in the distant glitter of the January sun, and not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind in the sound of a few leaves, which is the sound of the land, full of the same wind that is blowing in the same bare place, for the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, behold nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

I think people are made nervous by poetry. They feel that they don't understand it; it's in another language. They have anxiety. And if you could shed that anxiety and just have the experience of the poetry, you would be in a better position, instead of worrying analytically about what it means.

Shorter poems

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, you can have fun, shorter poems. One of the ones I love is the two-liner by A.R. Ammons.

DAVID LEHMAN: Oh, "Their Sex Life."

JEFFREY BROWN: "Their Sex Life."

DAVID LEHMAN: "One failure on top of another."

It's great. I mean, you can explain that failure has a double meaning and that there's a really smart stroke in putting the word "top" in the bottom. "One failure on top of another."

And that the title has three words, the first line has three words, and the second line has three words. So there's real symmetry. But you don't really have to explain very much about this poem. It's funny, and it's sad, both.

The importance of a canon of poetry

JEFFREY BROWN: What's the point, though, of even having a canon?

DAVID LEHMAN: Well, we have the responsibility to perpetuate our own greatest cultural products, be they music, art, poetry, sculpture. And you want to present, in a way that will appeal to people, the greatest achievements that you have.

I think you would be as an American the poorer if you did not read Whitman's "Song of Myself" and come to terms with it. I think these are poems that will enrich your life, and they will enrich your life for as long as you live. And once you possess these poems, you will never lose them, and they will come back to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Lehman, thanks for talking to us.

DAVID LEHMAN: It's my pleasure.