Review by David Starkey
While no single publisher can, or should be, held responsible for bringing out all the important poetry in a country as diverse as ours, an argument could still be made that The FSG Poetry Anthology is a more than adequate introduction to American verse of the past seventy-five years. Editors Jonathan Galassi and Robyn Creswell make no specific claims along those lines, but, considering the prominence of the imprint, it is interesting to look at the anthology and see what it tells us about Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s poetic universe.
The editors tell us in the introduction that they “have aimed to single out poems that come alive as objects on their own, even as they rhyme—often at a slant—with other pieces in the anthology. There are greatest hits here, but more frequently we’ve tried to select work that is perhaps less familiar yet nevertheless characteristic.” Considering how many superb poets are included, that’s a wise strategy. Yes, there are contemporary classics like Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” and Robert Pinsky’s “Shirt.” Yet it makes sense to exclude, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s Intro to Lit staple “Mid-Term Break,” when you can include his “Postscript” instead. And how nice to see “North Haven” by Elizabeth Bishop rather than, say, “One Art,” and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Black Figs” rather than “Facing It.” Moreover, FSG’s championing of Italian poets—among them Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, Patrizia Cavalli and Valerio Magrelli—is definitely a strength of the house.
Of course, the moment a reader picks up an anthology made by someone else, quibbles with the selection process inevitably arise. To my mind, Heaney is far and away the greatest poet of the seventy-five years covered by the anthology, so it’s painful to see him represented by only four poems (not including an excerpt from his translation of Beowulf). I would also have loved to see more of the work of Louise Bogan, Yehuda Amichai, Carol Ann Duffy, Glyn Maxwell and Karen Solie, each of whom is represented by a single poem. The anthology was published in the fall of 2021, and though it’s admirable for the editors to think so much of their current crop of poets, it hardly seems fair to give the two years of the 2020s three more poems than are included in all of the selections for the 1950s through the 1970s.
Also, while the book is arranged chronologically, the “poems are designated by the date of their first publication on the FSG list, which occasionally makes for unexpected juxtapositions.” That it does: Charles Bernstein, Max Jacob, Christian Wiman anyone? Or, later, Louise Glück, Charles Baudelaire, and, again Christian Wiman? It’s an odd conceit, and I’m not entirely convinced that the arrangement shows us “how contemporary poets have harmonized, wittingly or not, with their precursors.” At best, these temporal ruptures feel like a bit of dubious whimsy.
Nevertheless, it is a treat to have so many good poems within the covers of a single volume. As I read through the book over the course of several evenings, I was reminded again and again of the truth of the editors’ statement that “poetry is fundamental to literary expression, that it is here the writer strikes their distinctive note most powerfully.”