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Oxford Updates Its Collection of American Poems


April and National Poetry Month have ended, but that won't stop us from telling you about a new collection of poems.

Even a real poetry lover might find a 1,132-page anthology a bit daunting. But The Oxford Book of American Poetry is less for heavy lifting and more for browsing, in pursuit of old and new poetic pals.

This is Oxford's third edition of its compilation of American poetry; the last revision came out 30 years ago. Since then, poets have come and gone -- and it was editor David Lehman's task to pick who stayed and who didn't.

Lehman is aware of what a daunting and vulnerable position he has acquired.

"The editor must make difficult choices -- must even omit some poems he greatly admires -- simply because the amount of space is limited and the competition fierce," Lehman writes in his introduction, anticipating critics.

"The task is difficult almost beyond presumption if you hold the view, as I do, that it is possible to value and derive pleasure from poets who saw themselves as being irreconcilably opposed to and incompatible with each other."

Lehman here refers to the split between T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, poets who for later generations would represent a fissure in the world of American poetry between the camps of traditional intellectualism and alternative, colloquial style.

Still, Lehman offers a tip to his audience.

"The enjoyment of a great poem begins with the recognition of its fundamental strangeness," he writes. "Can you yield yourself to it the way Keats recommends yielding yourself to uncertainties and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact? If you can, the experience is yours to have. And the experience of greatness demands attention before analysis."

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