The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove

The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove (listen to her NPR interview, where she talks about the anthology and provides advice for young poets) collects a few poems from some of the great poets at the the height of their craft between 1900 and 2000, and while Dove notes that some of the poets who were starting to emerge in the latter portion of the century may not be included, it is merely because the anthology had to have a cutoff point and those poets may have reached the height of their craft after 2000.

Moreover, her introduction goes on to demonstrate the various turns in social movements throughout the United States and how poets and their poetry fit in with those historic changes, ranging — of course — from the backlash following the U.S. Civil War and the beginnings of WWI to the antiwar protests, the emergence of the feminist movement, and the struggle for civil rights.  Each poet’s bio is included alongside samples of their work.

“. . . and I should have written it right then, before rereading, discovering, misplacing note; before tracking down copyright dates, crunching numbers — in short, before the politics of selection could interfere with my judgment.”  (Page XXIX)

“If I could, I’d make this introduction a fold-out book.  Open to the first page, and up would pop a forest: a triangle of birches labeled Robert Frost, a solitary Great Oak for Wallace Stevens, a patch of quirky sycamores tagged William Carlos Williams, and a Dutch Elm for Hart Crane, with a double lane of poplars for Elizabeth Bishop and a brilliant autumnal maple tree marked Langston Hughes bearing leaves called Harper, Clifton, Soto.”  (Page XXX)

The selection of poems for this collection must have been a tough task, and Rita Dove employed the best tools at her disposal.  She’s spoken frankly in the introduction of the politics behind the selection of poems, particularly regarding a budget that was unable to meet the rights fees for certain poems (i.e. Plath and Ginsberg, who are notably absent from the collection, but not the introduction).  While some can not forgive this decision (i.e. Helen Vendler, whose criticisms have been widely used in college classrooms, including some I’ve attended; please also view Rita Dove’s reply to Vendler’s criticism), some readers can accept the oversight given how widely known and published some of these absent poets are and were.  Dove has even discussed the problem of “rights” in an interview with The Writer’s Chronicle, in which she said that one of the worst offenders was HarperCollins, which owns the rights to Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg (December 2011, pg. 22).  “What I hated most about this unsettling affair was seeing other, less iconic poets held hostage by the very company they had trusted to promote them,” Dove lamented in the interview after discussing how one publishing hose offered poets the option to have their poems included in the anthology if they gave up their share in royalties even though the publishing house would not.

As with any “collection of great works,” the anthology is bound to have its detractors who are dissatisfied with the selections and who lament the absence of their own favorite poets and poems.  Dove says in the introduction, “The impulse driving them all, however, stemmed from the same revelation:  that every person contains a story that, if told well, would resonate within us no matter how strange or unfamiliar the circumstances, bound as we are by the instincts and yearnings of human existence.”  (Page XXXIII)  Readers will find that some of the poems speak more to them than others, but that also is expected in a collection of multiple poets with multiple styles.

Insect by Annie Finch (Page 540):

That hour-glass-backed,
heavy-headed will,

savage--dense to kill--

pulls back on backward-moving,
high legs still,

lowered through a deep, knees-reaching,
feathered down
green will,

carpeted as if with skill,

a focus-changing,

tracing, killing will.

There are old favorites from classics like E.E. Cummings to contemporaries like Yusef Komunyakaa. Readers will want to dip in and revisit their old poet friends, but also find the undiscovered gems from the past, present, and future. Ruth Stone, for instance, is a prolific poet, who may not be known by may readers, but her verse is so present and relatable; From “Scars” (page 178): “Sometimes I am on a train/going to a strange city,/and you are outside the window/explaining your suicide,/” Then there are Edgar Lee Masters at the beginning of the century that may be overlooked in favor of Robert Frost and other more well-known poets, despite his prolific career. From “Fiddler Jones” (page 2), “The earth keeps some vibration going/There in your heart, and that is you./And if the people find you can fiddle,/Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.” As the anthology progresses there is a distinct inclusion of more minority and female poets, like Reetika Vazirani and Terrance Hayes.

The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove is one perspective on American poetry over the last century, while it touches upon each of the social and poetical movements in the nation, it does skew the reality of the poetic realm a little bit by being unable to include certain icons and including newer poets who may or may not have proved their historical impact on the world of poetry to the satisfaction of everyone.  However, the inclusion of new voices is always a blessing when so much of poetry is consider classic and iconic from Frost’s New Hampshire woods to Ginsburg’s outspoken Howl.  Dove’s anthology is a collection to be dipped into time and again to visit old favorites and delve into the images and verse of new voices who have emerged in the latter part of the 20th century.

Poet Rita Dove

About the Editor:

Rita Dove, born in Ohio, served as Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995 and as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2004 to 2006. She has received numerous literary and academic honors, among them the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and, more recently, the 2003 Emily Couric Leadership Award, the 2001 Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award, the 1997 Sara Lee Frontrunner Award, the 1997 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, the 1996 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities and the 1996 National Humanities Medal.



This is the 3rd book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.



***For Today’s National Poetry Month Blog Tour post, hop over to Unabridged Chick***


  1. I have a few of these (anthologies) in my middle school library. I think I will start there for my foray into poetry! I have more of a chance of understanding it! Putting one of these books together is great an endeavor isn’t it?

    • I think she took about 3 years to compile the list of poems she wanted included and then putting it together and the rights issues left it more angst ridden than she expected. I can’t believe that there has been this much controversy over a poetry anthology. I’m intrigued by it and yet horrified.

  2. It must be extremely difficult to put together an anthology, so I always appreciate information about how the poems were selected. It’s sad that rights issues prevented some of the most popular poets from being excluded, but since they are well known, maybe their absence will allow more people to read the work of some lesser-known poets who replaced them. Just trying to take the optimistic road here, lol.

    • I really like that other less well-known poets were included, even though Plath and Ginsberg were not included. I think its the publisher who should be ashamed, especially for their behavior that kept more contemporary poets out of the anthology because of the hard line drawn by the company.

  3. I totally agree with Kathy that this might be a great way to introduce poetry to my reading. I also think it’s fascinating to see how the poems reflect what occurred in society at the time.

    • I hope that you check out the anthology. I think in years to come it will certainly make a mark on the literary cannon.

  4. I love anthologies! It’s so good to get a sampling from a number of writers. I regretted not seeing Rita Dove at the National Book Fest, but her presentation was so packed, as you probably recall! :–)

  5. I imagine this would be great for a novice poetry reader like me, since there are so many poets’ work to choose from.

    • I think this would be a great collection to start with so you can try out a number of different poets from the classics to the contemporaries.

  6. What a treat to see Rita Dove here and to read her thoughts. Reading the poem I definitely get the feeling of an “insect.” Thanks for celebrating the wonderful month of April, National Poetry Month.