Kreymborg as a Competing Anthologist

In his discussion on the various intentions and functions of poetry anthologies, Robert McDowell argues of Kreymborg’s An Anthology of American Poetry: Lyric America, 1630-1930 (1930), “Alfred Kreymborg’s Anthology of American Poetry (and before that his Others anthologies…) first brought together the work of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and other leading Modernist poets. Kreymborg intended to establish the credibility and authority of a new generation and represent the open-minded, dynamic energy of American verse” (McDowell 594). Though McDowell’s article focuses mainly on contemporary poetry anthologies, he approvingly cites Kreymborg’s claim that the confident critic needs an “essential detachment” when acting as anthologist (McDowell 596). And while McDowell does not explicitly claim that Kreymborg was the ideal anthologist, he ends his article with a description of necessary qualifications of an anthologist that could be easily applied to Kreymborg; he suggests that anthologists “must buck the current habit of elevating personalities above the work itself…[and] if they are also to be poets, it would be better if they had already established a legitimate track record in editing” (McDowell 608). Having worked as an editor on Musical Advance, The Glebe, Others, and Broom, Kreymborg had the necessary “track record in editing,” and the “essential detachment” that he attributed to his catholicity of judgment ensured that he elevated the work above the personalities.

In claiming that Kreymborg’s anthology was the first to bring together the work of Stevens, Williams, and Eliot, McDowell overlooks two anthologies that include the three poets’ work and predate Kreymborg’s Lyric America: Harriet Monroe’s The New Poetry: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Verse in English—which was published first in 1917, then revised in 1923 and expanded in 1932—and Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry: A Critical Anthology, which went through five editions from 1919-1932. In 1915, Pound published an The Catholic Anthology, 1914-1915, which brought together work from W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Kreymborg, Edgar Lee Masters, Monroe, Maxwell Bodenheim, Carl Sandburg, and Williams. Yet Kreymborg’s Others, an Anthology of the New Verse (1916) was the first anthology to represent a number of important figures, including Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Mina Loy.
The experimental nature of Pound and Kreymborg’s anthologies elicited varying responses. In the October 1916 edition of The Quarterly Review, Arthur Waugh reviews the Catholic Anthology in order to level an attack on the ‘new’ poetry, rather than the anthology itself: “If the fruits of emancipation are to be recognised in the un-metrical, incoherent banalities of these literary ‘Cubists,’ the state of Poetry is indeed threatened with anarchy” (Grant 69). Similarly, a reviewer of Kreymborg’s Others Anthology in The Springfield Republican in June of 1916 comments on the ‘new verse’ rather than the anthology, claiming, “at present much of the new verse presents unrhythmic jangle to the ear of the untrained reader and kaleidoscopic convulsions of nothingness to his mind.” Yet the Others Anthology did meet with some positive reception. In a review in The Nation in January of 1917, O.W. Firkis writes, “A book the purchase of which I should unhesitatingly recommend to every librarian who includes among his purposes the enlivenment or the enlightenment of posterity. I doubt if a more notable curiosity enriches the museum of literature.” Firkis’ enthusiasm for the Others Anthology is usefully compared his review of Monroe’s The New Poetry. In “Publishing the New Poetry: Harriet Monroe’s Anthology,” Craig Abbott explains, “O.W. Firkins noted a discrepancy between Monroe’s definition of the new poetry in her introduction and the inclusion of poets ‘like Percy MacKaye and Sara Teasdale and Alice Meynell, whose affiliations with the new poetry are either dubious or indistinct.’” A comparison between the two anthologies—as well as the reviews of both—shows that Kreymborg’s Others Anthology was committed to specifically representing experimental ‘new’ verse, whereas Monroe’s was more inclusive, and thus less coherent. Aside from the editor’s own editorial decisions, the demands of their publishers probably played a significant role. Kreymborg’s anthology was published by Alfred A. Knopf, a young company founded a year earlier (1915) that was probably more willing to take risks than Monroe’s more commercial publisher, MacMillan. As Abbott recognizes, “Monroe had said that she wanted the anthology to be representative of the new poetry, meaning new in kind. But [Edward] Marsh [of MacMillan] had been thinking about new in time, saying that the anthology should contain ‘the best of all schools so that it fairly represents every poetic effort of the day’” (Abbott 92).

Aside from the highly experimental Others Anthology, Kreymborg’s An Anthology of American Poetry: Lyric America provided a more conservative argument by being the first to place emphasis on experimental Modernist poets within a narrative of American poetry extending back to the colonial era. Conceived as a supplement to his Our Singing Strength: A History of American Poetry (1929, 1934), Kreymborg’s anthology is meant to be, as he claims in his Preface, “an effort to view American poetry en masse and to bring enough of that view into a gamut embryonic of the whole movement” (Kreymborg xxxviii). Despite Kreymborg’s inclusion of significant early American poets like Anne Bradstreet and William Cullen Bryant, his anthology also presents important emerging writers whose reputations had not yet been established and who had not appeared in either Monroe or Untermeyer’s anthologies. Among the significant differences between Monroe and Kreymborg’s anthologies is Monroe’s omission of the Harlem Renaissance poets. As Conrad Aiken points out in a review of Monroe’s anthology in The Dial in 1917, her anthology is “neither old nor new, good nor bad, selective nor comprehensive” (Aiken 390). Aiken’s principle criticism is that although the anthology proposes to be comprehensive, as it “aims to embrace all that is typical of the period chosen,” it omits many important English poets. And while Aiken’s review predates the Harlem Renaissance poets, his argument against the claims to her anthology’s comprehensiveness may be applied to Monroe’s later, revised editions because of her omission of the Harlem Renaissance poets. Whereas Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen all appear in Lyric America, none of them appear in Monroe’s The New Poetry (1932).

Furthermore, although the subtitle of Monroe’s text seems to indicate an inclusiveness of a variety of twentieth century poets, some reviews interpreted the attempt at comprehensiveness as being merely incoherent. In a review of her anthology in Poetry in 1918, Kreymborg discusses Monroe’s attempts at inclusivity, writing,
Lyrist and imagist, sonneteer and vorticist, lover of Attica in modern guise and proclaimer of New England after the fashion of Homer, priest of form and neophyte of freedom, the ism and the anti-ism which is just as passionate as ism: each is permitted to argue his case. (Kreymborg 215)
Kreymborg’s points out that despite her attempts at inclusivity, Monroe leaves out Moore, Loy, and Donald Evans at the expense of including a number of “mouthing poetasters and rhetoricians of the stamp of Hamlin Garland, William Ellery Leonard, Percy Mackaye, James Oppenheim, Charles Hanson Towne and Louis Untermeyer” (Kreymborg 215). At the end of his review, however, Kreymborg claims that The New Poetry is an important volume, suggesting, “even the most derogatory critic has had to admit that The New Poetry affords an adequate retrospect of the renascence of American verse” (222).

In the revised 1932 edition of The New Poetry, Monroe includes many important experimental poets whose reputations were now beginning to establish, but she neglects the younger, emerging generation of Modernists. A brief list of the poets excluded from The New Poetry that Kreymborg anthologizes in Lyric America shows that Kreymborg was early to recognize (and anthologize) the talent of a number of figures who would later have more prominent literary careers: Archibald MacLeish, Malcolm Cowley, Babette Deutsch, Hart Crane, Stanley Kunitz, Dorothy Parker, and Evelyn Scott.

Similarly, a comparison between Kreymborg and Untermeyer’s anthologies reveals a number of important Modernist poets that appear only in Lyric America. In a 1932 review in American Literature that compares Kreymborg’s anthology to Untermeyer’s American Poetry from the Beginning to Whitman, Robert E. Spiller grants Untermeyer two pages and Kreymborg two paragraphs, ultimately saying of Kreymborg’s anthology, “The chief value of the collection lies in its representation of the left wing of Modernism” (Spiller 220). In the revised edition of Modern American
Poetry that appeared in 1932, however, Untermeyer also anthologizes the “left wing of Modernism,” including Archibald MacLeish, Malcolm Cowley, and Langston Hughes for the first time, as well as three poets to whom Kreymborg had paid early critical attention and had himself anthologized a year earlier: Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Phelps Putnam. Given Untermeyer’s conservative position, this inclusion seems uncharacteristic. In Troubadour, Kreymborg explains that because of Untermeyer’s early years as a very conservative critic, he was Kreymborg’s “arch antagonist” (Kreymborg 322). Expanding on why his relationship with Untermeyer was so tense, he writes in Our Singing Strength in 1934 that Untermeyer had “dashed off an article on the return of the ‘Vers Libertine’ and picked on the present author as the most flagrant of reactionaries” (Kreymborg 487). Kreymborg’s comments reflect Untermeyer’s distance from the ‘left wing’ of Modernism, and the inclusion of figures like MacLeish and Cowley in the fifth edition of Modern American Poetry suggests that Untermeyer may have included them as a reaction to their increasingly positive critical reception (for example, MacLeish won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry the next year). As Abbott argues, Untermeyer’s revisions between additions, “with his gift for phrasing and his ability to alter his taste to reflect tends, probably accounted in large part for his anthology’s success” (italics mine, Abbott 98).

Untermeyer’s anthologies, published by Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, were more commercially successful than Lyric America and The New Poetry, and as Abbott argues, “Modern American Poetry…came to dominate the textbook market” (Abbott 97). It is likely that the commercial concerns of Untermeyer’s anthology are in large part the reason for its success. In his Bygones, Untermeyer explains that his publisher instructed him to balance “the strange new poets I selected with a representation of the approved ‘standards,’” in effect creating a more marketable anthology for both schools and the general reader (Untermeyer 60).

Though Lyric America was not as commercially successful as Untermeyer’s anthology, it received mostly favorable reviews. In a negative review in New York Times, E.L. Walton writes, “Save for offering a rather larger prospectus than usual, more documentary evidence of an early Colonial poetry, a very inclusive list of those writing poetry in America today, this anthology has little reason for existence.” Yet other reviews praised Kreymborg’s discerning editorial ability despite the immense task of creating such a widely encompassing anthology. In the Saturday Review of Literature, William Rose Benet writes, “Mr. Kreymborg is to be congratulated on having strictly exercised a balanced personal judgment,” and Horace Gregory of the New York Evening Post claims, “his anthology is superior to any recent attempt to gather the entire range of American poetry into a single volume.”