Anthologies and the Changing Locations
for American Experimental Poetry
Hank Lazer

An examination of anthologies of experimental US poetry of the past twenty years must inextricably be connected to changes in technology. As Manuel Brito argued in a recent talk (“Antologías a Finales del Siglo XX: Vanguardia Y Economía,” at La Laguna University, May 5, 2006), the anthology itself as a print-bound item is being supplanted by electronic versions of textual assembly. Such an argument, however, should not be construed as negating completely the importance or influence of print-bound anthologies, particularly as an institutional means of canon creation or as an institutionally mediated mechanism for deciding what poetry students at all levels will encounter.

But the truth is that readers of contemporary poetry are, in rapidly increasing numbers, making use of the internet as a key means for discovering what is available. Ten years ago, one might have pointed to the Electronic Poetry Center (, a website developed by Loss Glazier and Charles Bernstein, and maintained at SUNY-Buffalo) as a forward-looking oddity in its new capacity to present extensive authors’ web pages with significant print information (such as samples of poetry, critical articles, interviews, and reviews), links to other sites, as well as the beginnings of audio files (including samples from poetry readings). Today, such sites have proliferated and have become superb resources, particularly for a multimedia exploration of experimental poetry. Sites such as PennSound (, UbuWeb (, and HOW2 ( – a site for contemporary innovative writing practices by women) have extraordinarily rich, ever-changing resources. The most recent (July 21, 2006) e-announcement that I received regarding new material at PennSound, for example, includes sound files of Ezra Pound in Spoleto 1967 reading from the Cantos, Allen Ginsberg at the San Francisco Poetry Center (October 25, 1956) reading Howl and other poems, and Robert Creeley, Susan Howe, and Charles Bernstein reading at SUNY-Buffalo (March 31, 1995). When you go to the PennSound site, you’ll discover an amazing collection of audio and video materials, including a recently posted recording of Robert Duncan at the Berkeley Poetry Conference (1967). It is difficult to overstate how exciting a development we are experiencing today in web-access to poetry resources. As recently as fifteen years ago, manuscript, audio, and video files were available only on site and were in the carefully controlled possession of libraries, restricted special collections, and archive specialists. Today, anyone at a computer terminal (anywhere in the world) can engage (usually without charge, without paying airfare, and without special permission) a stunning range of materials essential to an understanding of modern and contemporary poetry.

I would argue that in many respects, such sites have superceded the function of the anthology. Whereas the anthology is bound by (economic) publishing considerations – such as length, cost, affordability – the websites I have noted are virtually limitless in their capacity to assemble information. (I would, though, point out that a utopian sense of the internet – as free and open to everyone; as capable of including everything – ignores a crucial economic dimension: bandwidth, and the cost to users of paying for a rapid enough and broad enough connection to access the memory-intensive materials such as video files, podcasts, and audio files.)

To get a sense of how rapidly the internet is affecting current modes of literacy and how and where poetry is being encountered and (perhaps) read, I would like to cite some figures presented by Craig Morgan Teicher in “Poetry Off the Books,” a recent essay in Publishers Weekly (April 10, 2006). Poetry Daily, a website that reprints poems from journal and new books, averages 40,000 to 50,000 daily visits (and offers visitors/readers a direct link to to purchase the book from which the poem of the day was selected). Over the past twenty-five years, typically, press runs for books of poetry in US have been less than 1,000 copies (and print-on-demand approaches to publishing in the past few years makes the initial press run considerably less than that, often 300 copies or fewer). Ron Silliman launched a blog in 2002 – a website where he can post opinions about new books of poetry and where readers of the blog can interact with Silliman. To date, he has had over 616,000 visitors to his blog. Silliman has published over twenty books of poetry; no book of his has ever sold 4,000 copies. Octopus Magazine was founded by two young poets in 2003 as an online journal. Historically, it has been quite costly to run a print journal – costs of paper, printing, layout, and mailing costs. The editors of Octopus Magazine estimate the cost to run the journal to be approximately $100 per year. To date, they have published approximately 200 poets, and their site averages 200-250 visits per day. (By contrast, there are very few print poetry journals in the US with a circulation of 500.)

An optimistic interpretation of these developments would suggest that poetry is alive and well in the US. I have written elsewhere about the radically decentralized and fragmented nature of contemporary American poetry, and I think that the information about the effects of the internet only add to that story. But the internet figures also point to something more radical than the continued decentralization of literary/poetry production in the US – a trend that continues the mid-twentieth-century history and radically democratic activity of the world of small and independent presses. The internet activity points toward a more fundamental change in literacy itself – a shifting of literacy from a book or codex culture to a digital or multimedia culture. Literacy itself, as a visually based phenomenon, is migrating to a multimedia location where sound, image, motion, and color become more critical, and where the screen becomes the page’s replacement. One provocative suggestion, cited by Daniel Pink in his recent book, A Whole New Mind (2005), is that video “games are the literature of the twenty-first century” (195).

In the past twenty years, there really has not been an anthology of experimental poetry that has had anything like the galvanizing and generative effect as Donald Allen’s New American Poetry (1960). There have been some ambitious attempts, with the most noteworthy being Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree (1986), Douglas Messerli’s From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990 (1994), and Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry (1994, noteworthy for being part of the array anthologies published by W. W. Norton, one of the most influential textbook anthology publishers). Many of the finest anthologies have been created to gather together not a symposium of the whole, nor a complete survey of the most important contemporary American poetry, and not even a full gathering of contemporary experimental poetry. Instead, some of the best anthologies of the past 10 years have been more specialized and partial in nature: Mary Margaret Sloan’s Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (women experimental writers, 1998), Bill Lavender’s Another South: Experimental Writing in the South (2003), Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans (2006, experimental writing by African American poets, roughly from the 1940s to the mid-1970s), and Andrew Schelling’s The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry (2005).

It would be a mistake, though, to draw too rigid a line between poetry anthologies and poetics anthologies, as the intimacy and synergy of poetry and poetics, particularly through language poetry and, if there is such a thing, in a post-language poetry culture, are obvious. Thus three noteworthy poetics anthologies are the Talisman No. 23-26: The World in Time and Space (a history of contemporary American poetry, edited by Edward Foster and Joseph Donahue, 700 pages, 2002), A Poetics of Criticism (edited by Juliana Spahr, Mark Wallace, Kristin Prevallet, and Pam Rehm, 1994), and Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s (edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks; this latter collection marks the first significant opportunity to test out the poetics and claims of a post-language generation of experimental poets).

The most important anthology work, though, has really been energized and shaped by one poet: Jerome Rothenberg. A major poet, translator, magazine editor, and essayist in his own right, Rothenberg collaborated with a number of poet-editors to produce a range of anthologies that quite simply re-define what a poetry anthology might be and what the proper range of such anthologies ought to be.

Rothenberg’s anthology work began with Technicians of the Sacred (1968), followed by Shaking the Pumpkin (poetries of the North American Indians, 1972), America a Prophecy (with George Quasha, North American poetry from pre-Columbian times to the present, 1973), Revolution of the Word (American experimental poetry between the world wars, 1974), A Big Jewish Book (1977), Symposium of the Whole (with Diane Rothenberg, selected writings on ethnopoetics, 1983), Poems for the Millennium (two volumes, with Pierre Joris, global anthology of modernist and post-modernist experimental poetry, 1995 and 1998), and A Book of the Book (with Steve Clay, examining the poetics and ethnopoetics of the book, 2000). As he notes in a recent panel discussion, Rothenberg realized with his very first anthology that “an anthology didn’t have to be a conservatizing instrument but could be used as a vehicle for transformation” (p. 5, manuscript of Sibila interview). In that same interview, Rothenberg thinks of his anthologies as “a manifesto for whatever poetry was still to come” and a reconfiguration of “the poetic past from the point of view of the present” (5). In other words, a Rothenberg anthology constitutes a well-researched, well-thought out provocation, but one that does not pretend to be final or totally authoritative. A Rothenberg anthology is, in a maximal sense, a large poem and a fundamentally heuristic activity. As Rilke’s famous poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” ends with the startling line, “You must change your life,” a sustained experience with a Rothenberg anthology is likely to leave the poet/reader with a changed mind, particularly about what might be the most exciting and generative resources for experimental poetry now.

Rothenberg’s magnum opus may well turn out to be the two volume Millennium anthology. The collection, which took twelve years to complete, is 1600 pages in length and fulfills a lifelong desire by Rothenberg to gather a global perspective on experimentalism that might reorient us all toward the range of human language activity. As he notes in his introduction to volume one, “The form of the work we have assembled is that of a synthesizing and global anthology of twentieth-century modernism with an emphasis on those international and national movements that have tried to change the direction of poetry and art as a necessary condition for changing the ways in which we think and act as human beings” (p. 2). In his introduction to the second volume, Rothenberg emphasizes the open-ended nature of the gathered writing: “It would be foolish then – even more so than with our first volume – to view what follows as an attempt to set up a new canon of contemporaries. Rather, as before, we would have the anthology serve a more useful function, as a mapping of the possibilities – some among many – that have continued to open up for us – here and now, at the century’s turning. It is the richness of those openings that may define this time” (p. 13). As he notes in an interview with Robert Archambeau for Samizdat, “We willingly accepted the subtitle The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry as a kind of riposte to Oxford- and Harvard-sponsored compendia (among others) that perpetuated a tediously canonical poetry & poetics of which we (a larger we than just the two of us) no longer chose to be a part. We supplied commentaries – sometimes as mini-manifestos – in much the way I had done in the earlier assemblages (themselves a send-up on academic practices)” (manuscript, pages 10-11). Rothenberg’s provocative and playful assemblages create something quite unusual: his anthologies are actually fun to read.

From his first anthology in 1968 to his most recent, Rothenberg has deliberately put side by side contemporary and old experimentalisms, allowing us to read and hear these activities in dialog with each other, the earlier enactments informing and contextualizing contemporary language activity in surprising ways. In a recent interview with Rodrigo García Lopes, Rothenberg notes that “in the pre-face to Technicians of the Sacred … I set out a number of parallels between … primal & contemporary poetical procedures. What stands out most clearly is the relation of traditional oral poetry to the modern reinvention of poetry – both sung & spoken – as a vocal & performative art. The new American poetry of several decades ago – fueled by the energies of Olson & Ginsberg & others – emphasized the role of voice & breath as the physical/bodily basis for composition & for poetry as a liberating/spiritual act” (manuscript, p. 10).

While Rothenberg’s anthologies are playful, heuristic, and celebratory of the range of human language experimentation, a primary motivation for the making of the anthologies is the conservative, myopic, narrow, wrong-headed nature of the overwhelming majority of poetry anthologies, particularly those most in use in the American classroom. Thus, in the interview with Rodrigo García Lopes, Rothenberg summarizes necessity and desires involved in constructing Poems for the Millennium:

Both Pierre & I had been living with a sense that what we valued most in the poetry of our time – what we shared with many others – had been almost systematically omitted from, or marginalized in, the anthologies & literary histories then current. This was true not only for the immediate present but for the near past – in shorthand terms, not only for post-modernism but for the modernism that cam before it. The great movements from the early twentieth century, for example. While we cherished the work of individual, even solitary, poets, we wanted to bring the larger movements back into the picture: Dada & Surrealism, Futurism, African & Caribbean Negritude, & the work of the North American Objectivists. These we felt were missing elsewhere, & with their absence, there was also missing a sense of poets engaged with their own self-definition as artists & as the makers of their own poetics. The mix of poetry & poetics was something we worked to bring out – & the sense of poetry being the center of a program, a proposition or a set of propositions working in the public sphere. And writing in the United States – now, at the turning of the century & the millennium – we also thought it vital to insist (again) on the global dimensions of modern and post-modern poetry – following several decades of insistence on the centrality & hegemony of a presumed American moment. (manuscript, 7-8)

Thus Rothenberg’s most ambitiously comprehensive anthology, Poems for the Millennium, points toward a comprehensiveness that tracks large movements from a global perspective. But there really has been a driving idealism throughout the nearly forty years of Rothenberg’s anthologizing, at times taking the form (in a phrase borrowed from poet Robert Duncan) of a “symposium of the whole,” or a “dream of a total art – of a life made whole” (p. xii, Pre-Face to Symposium of the Whole), or the gathering and celebration of a poesis that would be “not the work (or play) of poets & artists only but of all functionally languaged people” (p. 2, manuscript, “The Poet as Native,” 1979). The result of such a truly democratic, self-critical approach to the making of anthologies is an inspiring collection of books and practices that make it equally possible for Rothenberg to establish for us (poets of the present) the pertinence of the poet/shaman María Sabina of the Mazatecan sierras of Mexico or the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and Le Livre, Instrument Spirituel.

There is one other noteworthy anthology that is of Rothenberg-like proportions: Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery’s Imagining Language (1998). As with many of Rothenberg’s anthologies, Imagining Language is not confined to recent experimental writing, and thus it deliberately provides a broad historical context for the understanding of contemporary experimentalisms. In the Introduction to the anthology, Rasula and McCaffery describe their project: “As a record of successive and varied estrangements from the familiar relation to language as compliant medium, this anthology situates an array of linguistic explorations in a continuum of creative conjecture. Commencing with the twentieth-century avant-garde, Imagining Language goes on to document an expanded field of practice and theories spanning back across three millennia” (x). It is stimulating anthology, and it allows us to consider William Blake’s “multimedia prophecies” (x) side by side with the work of Bob Brown, Ronald Johnson, Madeline Gins, Armand Schwerner, and others. In each instance, the wide-ranging materials selected by Rasula and McCaffery create a valuable, flexible sense of the resources available (as example and inspiration) for contemporary experimentation. As they note in their Introduction, “An eventual site of reception of Imagining Language is the ‘interactive’ environment of multimedia communications systems. Hypertext and the World Wide Web are symptomatic of how literacy is being reconfigured” (xiii). Indeed, that forward-looking awareness – of how literacy itself is undergoing a radical reconfiguration today – is what makes my own essay on the anthology a summary of what has been gathered, but also a summation that recognized we are on the cusp of a very profound change in the nature of anthologies (and indeed of books and print).

Finally, I would like to call attention to a remarkable anthology, The Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley’s Poetry Walk, edited by Robert Hass and Jessica Fisher (2004), a work that supplements a public art project of 126 panels that have been installed in the sidewalks along Addison Street in downtown Berkeley. The resulting Berkeley Poetry Walk constitutes an extraordinary history of the poetry of the East Bay, beginning with songs of the Ohlone Indian tribe and concluding with examples of very recent poetry. Robert Hass has taken a particularly inclusive approach to the project, and the result is a truly remarkable public installation of the richness and variety of poetry in Berkeley—one that provokes, informs, and delights. Though experimental poetry is not the only variety represented, experimentation is crucial to the history of Berkeley’s poetry, beginning Gertrude Stein, followed by the extraordinary presence of Kenneth Rexroth (from the 1930s to the 1970s), to a group of extraordinary undergraduate students in the 1940s—Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser, to Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg, to the Language poets of the 1970s and 1980s – Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, and others. To put it quite simply, it is a great pleasure to see poetry accorded such public recognition. The installation is beautifully designed and displayed, and the resulting anthology, while highly informative, extends the sidewalk installation which is the more amazing text.

In light of anthology project such as The Addison Street Anthology which takes poetry beyond the page into the city and sidewalk where we live and circulate, the adventurous anthologies of Jerome Rothenberg, and the internet-driven sense that websites may constitute the new location for anthologies, what remains most distressing to me is that the major textbook anthologies of the present remain xenophobic and nearly totally resistant to the range of experimental writing of the last half century (as well as the obvious ways in which what constitutes poetry and the location of poetry have undergone radical questioning and re-definition). At a time when many more imaginative approaches to poetry are possible – even through well-established (older) experimentalisms such as the work for David Antin, John Cage, and Jackson Mac Low – the primary textbook publishers hide their editorial heads in the sand. It is about as funny as the old arguments over whether or not photography is really an art form to wonder whether Bob Dylan’s lyrics (or Robert Johnson’s) are really poetry, or whether or not Jenny Holzer’s verbal installations or Laurie Anderson’s multimedia performances or the sound-poems of Tracie Morris or the lyrics of Tupac might not enrich a student’s sense of where the US language arts have been going this past half century. Instead, the major textbook anthologist have, for the most part, opted for an ethnic, identity-based version of inclusiveness, which, ironically, has produced a very narrow version of what is possible today in poetry. At a time when many poets (Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein, Jerome Rothenberg, Erica Hunt, …) have produced astonishing collaborative work (principally with visual artists and photographers, but also with musicians), the main anthologies of the day have chosen an idiotically narrow version of the poetic to serve up to college students. Thank goodness that those who become interested in poetry soon figure out that the action and energy are elsewhere, and they quickly leave the confines of these anthologies, realizing them to be boringly nostalgic, retrospective museum-jails where the items on display reflect an unimaginative administration and forces of discipline that have utterly falsified the genre.

1) For several important earlier considerations of American poetry anthologies, with particular attention to experimental poetry, see my Opposing Poetries (1996, especially Volume One: pp. 37-46, 126-143); Alan Golding, From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (1995), and Jed Rasula, The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990 (1995).

2) See “The People’s Poetry.” (American Poetry in the 1990s and in the First Years of the 21st Century) Boston Review Vol. 29, No. 2 (April/May 2004): 47-51. (and online:

3) For a detailed consideration of Schelling’s anthology, see me essay “Reflections on The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, forthcoming shortly in both Revista Canarias and in Talisman.

4) Though Rothenberg emphasizes the provisional, open-ended nature of the anthology, he also does provide a superb summary of the key topics, issues, and movements of this massive two-volume anthology. See especially the list of topics on pages 11-12 of the Introduction to Volume Two.