Jean Valentine, Federico García Lorca, Adam Zagajewski, Vinícius de Moraes, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Po Chü-i, Mahmoud Darwish, C. K. Williams, Derek Walcott, John Clare, Frank Bidart, Tomas Tranströmer, T. S. Eliot, Karen Solie, Marianne Moore, Eleanor Chai, Paul Celan, and Valzhyna Mort—that’s just a random listing of some of the writers, many hailing from outside the United States, whose riches are gathered in the new FSG Poetry Anthology. The book represents an essential core sample of recent work in the art, a sampling—constituted by a particular house—that draws its power from the Eliotic strand of modernism, and that stands between New York and the world. (For comparison, you might say that New Directions took on the Poundian strand, but that would probably make for a too-easy binary; the contemporary poetry publishing ecosystem is rich and diverse beyond the measure of those two poets’ imaginations. “America I am unnameable,” writes Shane McCrae in one of the book’s numbers.) And in the history of poetry, a century is yesterday, and a century is roughly what this book covers, despite occasional backward looks at informing tributaries in the nineteenth century like John Clare and Charles Baudelaire, among others. So if this anthology is an important document of recent poetry, it’s also a kind of chronicle of a publishing house, told poem by poem.
The book, in fact, is organized decade by decade—but not by when the poem was written but when it was first published by FSG. So, for example, there are new translations of work from earlier eras, like Joshua Weiner’s Nelly Sachs or Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf, both of which appear in the section of the book called “The 2020s.” Or there’s a poem like Elizabeth Bishop’s “Vague Poem (Vaguely love poem),” brought to light by FSG only in the 2000s, and so appears in that section, though the poet died in 1979, and her work appears also in sections of this anthology called “Beginnings: 1950s-1970s” and “The 1980s and 1990s.” At the same time, the poems show an artful arrangement, and the linkages are organic, both surprising and inevitable, such as the way a James Wright poem is followed by a Hermann Hesse poem translated by James Wright. In their smart and vivid introduction, Jonathan Galassi and Robyn Creswell steer us away from drawing too many conclusions about any sort of “FSG school” of poetry. To do so would likely reduce the sprawling diversity of the collection, from the Whitmanic lines of C. K. Williams to the enraged currency of Roya Marsh to the outrageous impishness of Frederick Seidel. But certain patterns and elements in common do, they acknowledge, begin to emerge. FSG poems tend to have a certain finish. Not always, but often—again the difference can be understood as Eliot versus Pound, the crafted polish of Eliot (“Let us go then, you and I”) versus the slightly torn or jagged or abrasive feel to Pound’s poems (“what water has mellowed your whistles?”). Or compare a line from John Koethe, who has several poems in the book—“truest thoughts are always second thoughts”—with the cliché that gets associated with the Beat writers “first thought best thought.” No Beat poets are included, and FSG also (to Galassi and Creswell’s regret) missed out on the first wave of the New York School, though Schuyler and Ashbery eventually ended up on the FSG list. In part that’s because while many houses at mid-century ran from rhyme, FSG didn’t run quite as far away. Many of the poets here delight, to this day, in playing with rhyme and off-rhyme, not to mention various gestures at the ghosts of meter.
Ghosts indeed fill these pages, and about them is the ghost of a particular moment, mid-century, when a particular editor, Bob Giroux—fired from Harcourt, Brace and Company, an already venerable publishing house whose list included writers like Virginia Woolf and Robert Penn Warren—joined a middling Farrar, Straus & Cudahy in 1955, and in a series of bold strokes, such as bringing Eliot on to edit the poetry list, made verse the heart of the company’s list. And what a list it was to become. Giroux’s circle of friends included Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Jean Stafford, and others whose fingerprints, if not poems, are in these pages. These poets and the poets they liked are, in the early pages, well represented, as is the East Coast, where many of them were, as is their mixture of classical learning and openness to odd new stretchings of rhyme and meter. In any case, from this small circle a widening pantheon would emerge, a widening that spans the country and the globe, and many styles, and which is recorded in this book.
Another ghost we glimpse is the ghost of a culture: FSG was born during a moment in New York publishing when it raised eyebrows if a house didn’t have some sort of poetry list. For New York publishers today—at least the ones with household names—those days are gone, the bottom line having squeezed serious poetry acquisitions out of most corporate budgets. In its insistence that verse be central to its list, FSG is arguably the last one standing, drawing here on the depth of its roots, showing how it’s done, and, if this anthology is any indication, looking toward another seventy-five years of necessary poetry.
JESSE NATHAN: How did the book come about? What does a gathering of poetry like this mean? And how does the book address itself to the problem, as it were, of the “anthology”? I ask with a sidelong glance at the note in your introduction that Roger Straus didn’t think highly of the anthology form.
JONATHAN GALASSI: The idea was to mark FSG’s seventy-fifth anniversary by taking a look at the unbroken chain that has resulted from the company’s enduring conviction that poetry is the partner of prose in literary creation. That goes back to Robert Giroux, who arrived at FSG in 1955 with a number of great poets in his bag, and the way was set for good.
Robyn and I met many times, both in person and by Zoom, over the past two years as we rummaged through FSG’s library. We made rediscoveries. And we had enjoyable battles. Each has his preferences, even among the work of poets we both revere. But I think you put your finger on something in your quotation from Koethe, which is in itself an ironic correction, as it were, of the romantic notion of immediacy. The poets of FSG all write, really, about a fallen world, about belatedness. They’re post-romantic, modernist, and post-modernist. They spread out in many directions and sometimes seem not to have much to do with each other, but they’re all masters of the second thought—they’re thinkers, ponderers, grievers, obsessive post-lapsarian rememberers. They’re all—we’re all—trying to make sense of a lost world.
ROBYN CRESWELL: I think all really interesting anthologies take seriously the problem of trying to square a certain circle, which is how to give a definitive form to something—in this case, a literary tradition—that is still ongoing, still forming and reforming. The tradition of FSG’s poetry is very much alive, and the new poets constantly give us new ways of reading and understanding the older poets. We wanted our anthology to reflect that sense of an ever-changing body of work, in which past and present are dynamically related. Pound was a very intelligent anthologist—maybe a better anthologist than poet! I think his best was the Active Anthology, published by Faber & Faber in 1933. Pound isn’t the modernist muse of FSG—that’s Eliot, I guess—but we did want our anthology to be active in the same fashion.