When Josh and I started putting together what would become The Arcadia Project, the poetry world was in the throes of yet another anthology controversy—the one over David St. John and Cole Swensen’s American Hybrid. What struck me most forcefully about reactions to that anthology (as to Legitimate Dangers a few years before) was how few of its detractors actually engaged with the work collected between its covers. In both cases, such engagement as there was dealt overwhelmingly with prefaces, introductions—the apparatus, the texts meant to guide the reader through the editors’ conception of the whole. Josh and I wanted to avoid that. We wanted to keep the focus on the poetry, since The Arcadia Project arose, as a project, from work we loved, work we felt shared some common themes and approaches, work we hoped would be enlarged by proximity to other such work.
We therefore decided to minimize our anthology’s apparatus. Josh in his scholar-poet role had written a wonderful, lengthy introduction, “A Long Foreground: Exploring the Postmodern Pastoral,” investigating the pastoral tradition and laying out the grounds (ha) for its intersection with the postmodern, variously defined. Subsequently, we decided to shift that introduction to the Arcadia Project website and replace it, in the print anthology, with a briefer introduction to the work we had selected and the ideas behind the book. Josh was responsible for this second introduction as well. My job at that point in our process was the arrangement of the book, poem by poem and within the four titled sections. This arrangement was meant to be anything but haphazard, as were the section titles. The apparatus of the book, then, was not so much limited as it was subtle, invitational—to encourage readers to make their own ways into new territory. This was a conscious decision on our part.
I must admit I wasn’t prepared for some of the critical reaction to the perceived lack of apparatus. Patrick James Dunagan at HTLM Giant was the most vocal, stating flatly that “The lack of having any such editorial presentation of the framework behind the book’s conception within the book itself feels a disservice to readers” and that “As presented, there’s little tying together of these texts. They are left as isolated cries in a wilderness of language.” Leaving aside yet another landscape-based pun (that “wilderness,” with its Biblical undertone), my first reaction to Dunagan’s critique was to wonder just what he thought a reader’s role should be. We had supposed—I had imagined—that anyone interested in the sort of work we were presenting would relish the chance to move through such a wordscape on the wordscape’s own terms, plus or minus the semi-invisible hand of an editor arranging the work in a certain way. …Which, ironically, is what Dunagan went on to do in his review: work his way through the texts presented, making connections between pieces and approaches, identifying themes. I’m sorry he found this to be such an affronting chore! We had rather hoped it would be a pleasure.
An anthology is, on some level, always both guided tour and haunted house: we erred (if we erred) on the side of the haunting, that Dickinsonian house. Josh, do you want to speak a little more to this question of apparatus, of ghost versus guide?
An anthology, as Johnson’s Dictionary reminds us, is a gathering of flowers. We wanted the reader’s attention to be directed toward the flowers and not at the tools of the somewhat begrimed gardeners who had arranged them. I for one also felt that in the twenty-first century the boundaries of a book, particularly a book such as this one, were not limited to what was between its covers. That’s why we reserved my longer introduction for the website, along with sundry other materials meant to be useful to teachers, as well as to readers hankering after context.
Most poetry anthologies are either provisional creatures—snapshots of a significant moment in the history of the form, interventions in an ongoing dialogue—or institutions (see Modern Poetry, Norton Anthology of). It seemed clear to us that we were interested in producing an anthology of the first sort. The book’s divisions (into New Transcendentalisms, Textual Ecologies, Local Powers, and Necro/Pastoral) are not intended to either take credit for or inaugurate new movements; they offer a provisional map of the incredibly diverse and varied terrain produced by the poems themselves. This map is, emphatically, not the territory. The territory is in motion. The poems produce the anthology, and not vice-versa.
The anthology’s arrangement is expressive of an ethos closely attuned to my sense of poetry itself as the literary form that, more than any other, asks that the reader risk something in the act of reading itself. Confronted by semantic indeterminacy, by the disorientations of parataxis (or, to borrow a neologism from contributor Brian Laidlaw, terrataxis), by intense imagery, and by asymmetrical rhythms, the reader is called upon to expand her sense of Negative Capability (it’s worth quoting the definition from Keats’s letter one more time: “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”). The development of this capacity, in which humility mingles with curiosity, with interest, and with care, has a more than aesthetic significance. It shifts the emphasis in reading from knowing what to knowing how: how to read without understanding everything in advance, how to risk involvement in the poem. This is an ecological capacity.
An apparatus can operate as a bridge but it also separates the reader from the poems: it assigns them a location “over there.” We wanted, in short, to invite readers to get lost in these poems. To read them rather than observe them from a distance. These poems are in the wild.
And then there is silence, the point beyond which any anthology must necessarily refuse to go. Maybe it seems ironic to discuss poetic silence in the context of a 600-page anthology, but the context of silence is crucial for any anthology—whether acknowledged or not. One could argue it is silence that teaches us how to read, that outlines our reading.
“Why sing the evidence when / What suits it is silence?” asked the 20th-century French poet Pierre Emmanuel. The Lebanese poet Salah Stétié asserts that poetry “is at times this humiliated splendour, which I see turning on its heels, detached, walking away, indifferent to its announced revenge….” And elsewhere (with more precision): “Poetry is unbreathableness.” “To travel through the real is to take possession of the time of the imaginary, our two temporalities being indissociable overall in our creative activities,” Stétié maintains—and this is, among many other things, what anthologies accomplish. Medbh McGuckian: “As a word has only / an aroma of meaning, as the really faithful / memory is the part of a wound / that goes quiet.”
I wanted an anthology that honored “the part of the wound / that goes quiet,” even as it acknowledged poetry as essentially an act of “unbreathableness”—a language-clot. I was also thinking of the British ecopoet Peter Larkin’s ideas of scarcity, as a discourse rather than a quantity. As Larkin has written, “densities of place and texture are always apposed to questions of horizon and re-dedication.” I was more interested in those “densities of place and texture,” rather than any notional horizon or re-dedication.
In particular, what I was hoping for was that each poem in our anthology would serve as a diagnostic tool for the others. This is how economies of scarcity (again: not of lack or absence, but of trace and gesture) operate: the fluid interdependence of object and subject, as roles. To pick an almost random example, how does Jody Gladding’s “Bark Beetle” enable me to read—to “translate” (Gladding’s text postulates an act of translation)—the gnomic prose poems of Elizabeth Willis, or the very different philosophical reflections of Brent Cunningham’s Bird & Forest. And how and where do Cunningham’s reflections draw us back to, among other texts, Gladding’s “translations,” with their swipe at an almost but not quite absolute Otherness.
As for the anthology as a curatorial exercise: the curatorial office imbricates, on the ground, with the conservationist ethic, something I think both of us understood was no longer sufficient to account for “nature” (if it ever was). It would be nice to think that the Earth is a museum opened exclusively for our benefit—and likewise poetry, all the arts. But they are larger, older, and much more powerful than that. I like museums, as it happens: they are such magnificent falsifications of experience (rather like novels, in that respect). We do not live in them.
But we do learn from them and teach in them, and my experience teaching from the anthology has been very much from the position of the field guide rather than the gardener. The anarchic splendor of these poems—from Johannes Göransson’s festering “Nature Is Forbidden” to the delicate foreboding of Arthur Sze’s “The Gingko Light” to the messy tangle of Catherine Wagner’s verse play “Mercury Vectors: A Romance” to the wry humor of Jack Collom’s bird poems—is a barrier against mastery and an invitation to mystery.
The poems are wild, they are open (wild open), and just because I helped to choose them doesn’t mean that I can “place” them “where they belong.” As Jack Spicer wrote to Robin Blaser in 1957:
Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.
Things fit together. We knew that—it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is never to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.
Spicer’s admonition to Blaser, with its tongue-in-cheek final sentence (“This is the most important letter you have ever received”), seems addressed as well to any editor who seeks to create “resonances” and so to uncover constellations and force fields of a period, or region, or movement, otherwise invisible or obscured. When I use our anthology in the classroom my teaching method is almost entirely deictic. “Look at that,” I say. “Look at what that poem is doing. Look at the next one. Look at all these damn bird poems.” There are a lot of bird poems in this book, and I think of Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden,” which invites the speaker’s soul to “glide” into the boughs of the trees:
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves its plumes in the various light.
The view from on high is no less entangled and entangling than the view from below. The “longer flight” of the soul is something we cannot prepare for readers in advance. There is chance involved, the fortuitous alighting on a page. Better than chance: there is decision. There is choice. There is the involvement in the event of the poem, which alone is what creates its meaning.