Any university student in America who takes a literature course is likely to be assigned a Norton anthology — one of several collections of stories, poems and critical essays.
Jahan Ramazani, editor of the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, says that, as a teacher, he knows that a poem without its context can be difficult for students. In putting together the most recent edition of the anthology, he introduces readers to 195 poets with brief biographies and discussions of each poet’s influences and themes. That background allows readers to quickly move on to the enjoyment of the “sounds, rhythms and imaginative leaps” of the poems, he says.
The work of an editor
While gathering the best English-language poetry of the last 150 years or so, Ramazani kept one of his own teachers in mind, the late Richard Ellmann, who taught Ramazani at Oxford University in England and who had co-edited an earlier edition of the poetry collection. While updating the anthology, Ramazani says, he tried to preserve Ellmann’s elegant prose and “brilliance.”
Choosing poems to include was at times akin to “poetry wars,” according to Ramazani. Academic colleagues and poets offered strong opinions. “Many poets adhere to a specific aesthetic they want to promote, and they’ll say that all else is garbage,” he says.
The anthology includes well-established American, British and Irish poets like Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Yet Ramazani cut more than half of the poems from the earlier edition and added a huge number of works by newer, experimental writers and poets from many more places.
Volume 1 covers “modern” poems from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Reacting against an earlier era’s Romanticism, many of these poets wrote less-personal poems. Volume 2 comprises “contemporary” poems written after World War II, which are more personal. Ramazani contrasts T.S. Eliot’s modern poem “The Waste Land,” which mourns civilization, to Sylvia Plath’s contemporary poem “Daddy,” which mourns her overbearing father.
English-language poetry, and American poetry especially, has become more diverse and international. Ramazani includes poems by Native American, Latino, Asian American, African, Indian and Caribbean writers.
Despite contrasts, readers find bridges between various poems and poets. Ramazani says a Punjabi British poet, unfamiliar with the American/British canon, was delighted to discover Sanskrit words in “The Waste Land”: Shantih shantih shantih. At the same time, newer work by Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali showcases a formal style derived from the Urdu culture of Kashmir.
The section on U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo mentions the influence on her by Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek, whose poems also can be found in the book.
Ramazani notes that many of the contemporary poets “are interacting with our world, whether listening to hip hop or reading philosophy, they draw on high and low culture and mix them up in fascinating ways.”
He cites a poem by African American Amiri Baraka, “Monk’s World,” with its jagged, jazz-like syncopations stretching over the page and its rebellious use of punctuation (no opening quotation mark) —
— as being just as important as the beautifully sculpted, carefully rhymed stanzas of British Philip Larkin’s “Sad Steps” (these lines about looking at the moon),
Ramazani, who is of British and Iranian heritage, recalls visiting Iran as a child and hearing relatives finish each other’s quotations of Persian poets who had lived in the 13th century. Recognizing connections between early and late language seems to come naturally to him.