Conrad Aiken’s A Comprehensive Anthology of American Poetry, was originally published in 1929 and revised in 1944. It was published by the Modern Library, as its number. 101. It is a companion volume to Twentieth Century American Poetry, no. 127 in the Modern Library. On first glance looks a little too small for the whole of American. Suprisingly, but it consists of nearly 500 pages. And small type.
About anthologies, we usually ask what they cover and how big are they. In the Introduction Aiken makes the claim that this is the first anthology covering the totality of American Poetry. But What about Rufus Griswold’s Poets and Poetry of America (1842) and his Female Poets of America (1848). Perhaps Aiken was talking about contemporary anthologies. In any case, in the mid 19th century there was less to be comprehensive about. That said, Aiken’s anthology is, on some level (white America), interestingly appealing and sensible.
The anthology is Aiken makes a distinction between what he feels to be are the good poems in and of themselves and those included for historical reasons: “Should the Connecticut Wits-for example- be represented simply on the ground that they existed, and that they enjoyed for a time a kind of popularity. Or should he frankly admit to himself that their work was almost wholly without esthetic value, and ruthlessly exclude them.” But after all, this anthology is pretty much just an intelligent, perceptive man’s look at the canon of American Poetry.
Here and there, little pockets of (mostly male) poets, now unknown or ignored, poets. Following on after Helen Hunt Jackson we find: Edward Rowland Sill, John Townsend Trowbridge, George Henry Boker, John Vance Cheney, Stephen Collins Forster and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. A plethora of three named male poets. And again, following on after H. D. another group, Louis Untermeyer, John Hall Wheelock, Cale Young Rice. Near the end of the volume we come across two more: John Malcom Brinnin and Lloyd Frankenberg. I doubt that any modern anthology would have any of these poets
For the most part, the number of pages allotted to each reader seems balanced with the largest number being given to Poe, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Trumbull Strickney, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Pound and Eliot. Trumbull Strickney?
Aiken pays more attention to the long Poem than anthologists generally do (except for the two great ones, The Cantos and The Waste Land, each most likely rejected for different reasons). He does however begin with Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplation,” a long poem in 33 stanzas, 7 rhymed lines per stanza. He also includes Allen Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead” and 4 sections from Hart Crane’s The Bridge. Less famous long poems are also included: Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford,” and Archibald MacLeish’s “Einstein.”
Sensible and appealing.