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Less Genteel, More Modern

THE OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN VERSE, Chosen and with an Introduction by F. O. Matthiessen, Oxford University Press, 1188 pp., $5.


Popular anthologies, like women's fashions, quickly get out of date. Publishers have always been pleasantly aware of this fact, and the high perentage of Little Treasuries and selected Masterpieces on any book club's list attents to the Inerative impermanence of most literary "collections."

This translient nature of the anthology in also of value to the literary critic and historian. Each now selection represents a reassessment of the old material, and each re-focuses and brings up to date what the editor considers to be the works of lasting worth in the field he is covering.

The latest anthology of American poetry is especially valuable in this respect, for it constitutes a reexamination of the body of American verse by one of the best informed and most sensitive literary critics of the modern period, the late Professor F. O. Matthiessen. In addition to the important value judgements which he had made by the more inclusion or omission of the poems themselves, Matthiessen has also reappraise the state of poetry in this country at mid-century in a lengthy and brilliant introduction.

In his introduction Matthiession--who taught the course on American poetry at Harvard before his death last spring--lays down the six "ground rules" by which he was guided in making his selections. These are: (1) fewere poets, with more space for each; (2) nothing included on merely historical grounds; (3) nothing that the anthologist himself does not like; (4) not too many sonets; (5) poems, when possible, of some length; and (6) no excerpts.

Proceeding on these rules, the editor includes the whole of such diverse long poems as Whitman's rembling, programmatic "Song of Myself," Whittior's New England winter idyll, "Snowbound," and Wallace Stevens' difficult piece, "The Comedian as the Lotter C."

Almost two-thirds of the anthology is devoted to poets who lived into or wholly within the twentieth century, and many of the old standbys of the Genteel Tradition are given much less space than they have been accustomed to in the past. ("I have tried to wring the neck of the kind of rhetoric that overflowed into poetry from the oratory of the day, and that was fulsome even there. Holmes, Whittier, and Lowell were the worst offenders . . .")

Matthiessen believed that "in the broadest sense, most of our later poets can be described as descendants of Whitman or as descendants of Poe," and consequently he accords large sections of his book to these two "pivotal figures."

From them he moves into a complete consideration of the twentieth century poetic "renaissance," through Amy Lowell and the Imagists, the free-moving Chicago group, the isolated and tragic figures of Hart Crane and Robinson Jeffers, to the culmination of our modern verse in the opposed figures of Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. In the contradictory excellencies both in form and content of these two poets, Matthiessen characteristically finds an analogy to the confused age in which they write:

"We may not have had an American style in poetry as the French, for example, measure such things. . . .But we have produced by now a body of poetry of absorbing quality. If this poetry reveals violent contrasts and unresolved conflicts, it corresponds thereby to American life.

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