Rita Dove's introduction to the "The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry" is worth the price of the book all by itself. She gives a sensitive, engaging short course in a century of poetry. The collection, which spans 100 years of poetry, is broken into two parts: the monuments and those whose places in...

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‘The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry’

edited by Rita Dove

Penguin, 656 pp., $40

Most introductions, especially introductions to poetry collections, are written to be ignored. No one picks up an anthology looking forward to a terrific introduction: The whole point is the poems, after all, not the editor’s ruminations and explanations.

Don’t skip this one. Rita Dove’s introduction to “The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry” is worth the price of the book all by itself. She gives a sensitive, engaging short course in a century of poetry. She acknowledges her own preferences without claiming them as definitive, and she leads us to discoveries of our own.

“If I could,” our Pulitzer-winning docent writes, “I’d make this introduction a foldout 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.” Later, her survey seems less a landscape than a family reunion, with a lot of familiar faces and some new ones that show strong family resemblances — and that, perhaps, express some of the inevitable family antipathies.

Dove places the poets in their historical context. She shows that Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” so familiar from high-school literature class that we hardly notice it anymore, spoke to sensibilities shaped by the aftermath of the Civil War. Masters, she writes, evokes “the ghostly damage from the injuries this young country had inflicted on itself.” Only a decade or so later, but vastly distant in ethos, the Roaring ’20s “found expression in the brittle glare of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s flaring candle, E.E. Cummings’s syntactical break dances” — a bit of an anachronism in that metaphor, perhaps — and “the cacophony of urban life on Hart Crane’s Bridge.”

The collection that spans 100 years of poetry breaks into two parts. First are the monuments. Although Dove brushes away the dust, there aren’t many surprises. It would have been nice to find some Ogden Nash or Phyllis McGinley, but it’s no shock that light verse is largely omitted. However, Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath, both missing, are significant losses. (Dove candidly blames their absence on exorbitant fees demanded by their copyrights holders: “I could not spend roughly one fourth of the entire budget on a small fraction of the anthology.”)

Second are the poets whose places in the pantheon remain undecided. This is where an editor’s taste makes a real contribution. David Mason, born in 1954, is a new name to many readers, and although his stunning book-length poem “Ludlow” can hardly be included, his mediation on family history, “Spooning,” is rightly included. Sherman Alexie, born in 1966, of course belongs here as well, but which of his many, many fine poems? Dove settles on “What the Orphan Inherits” and “The Powwow at the End of the World,” and she could hardly have done better.

A.E. Stallings, born in 1968, writes rhymed, metrical poems that can seem out of place in the free-flow of late-century vers libre, but her poem “The Tantrum” is here, proving that the old discipline of form hasn’t lost its power to crystallize inchoate experience:

Struck with grief you were, though only four,

The day your mother cut her mermaid hair

And stood, a stranger, smiling at the door.

“The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry” is a huge, thoughtful collection, as well as a deeply felt one that will inspire thinking and feeling in generations of readers.