California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present
Dana Gioia, Chryss Yost and Jack Hicks, editors
The Tenderness House
Poet’s Corner Press
Words Like Knives, Like Feathers
Poetry is alive and well in California, as a new anthology from Heyday Books that attempts to trace the history of California poetry in English from the Gold Rush on makes clear. Now head of the National Endowment for the Arts, renowned formalist Dana Gioia heads up a well-versed trio of editors in gathering together the poetic heritage of the Golden State—and, for the most part, they’ve done an outrageously good job.
Of course, with any anthology, one of the big complaints is always “How did they justify including him?” This one is no different. Gioia spends a great deal of time in his very helpful introduction explaining how the editors decided just who qualified as a “California poet.” That’s a tough job under any circumstances, and I have very few disagreements, but one is absolutely huge. Why on earth would anyone want to include Gelett Burgess, of “I never saw a purple cow” fame, in a collection of serious poetry? This from an anthology that excludes Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich and Quincy Troupe on the grounds that they didn’t meet the California residency requirement.
Any anthology is a process of excluding some perfectly good poets and including others who are perhaps not quite as good but who better express the intent of the anthology. Doggerel and children’s poems may deserve anthologies of their own, but the stated intent of this collection is to provide a glimpse of California’s literary heritage. On most counts, it does that very well. The best-known and most influential of California’s voices are included: Robinson Jeffers, Yvor Winters, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Levine and Gary Snyder, just to name a few.
There are also some neglected gems. I was delighted to discover “Noon on Alameda Street,” a delightful poem by Hildegarde Flanner that is a perfect stuck-in-traffic-again expression of the California zeitgeist. And that’s how a really great anthology works: It always has at least one poem so good, you wonder how you ever lived without it.
Perhaps the most useful thing about this anthology is the inclusion of biographies of each of the included poets. All too often, a poetry anthology provides no context for the work. This well-chosen biographical information, though it sometimes seems to take more space than the poems themselves, also provides a way to place the poem in the world, and in California.
The lifeblood of poetry has always been the small press, and the Sacramento area is lucky enough to have a boatload of these little gems. One of the most prolific is the Stockton-based Poet’s Corner Press, run by David Humphreys and a group of his fellow poets. The latest book from Poet’s Corner is The Tenderness House by Dianna Henning.
Henning has a very elegiac quality to her writing: death, crows, grief and longing. That probably could be said of most poetry, but in this case, there’s also a very subtle sense of self-ironizing awareness. For example, in “Jump-Off Joe Creek,” which examines the story behind the oddly named Oregon stream, Henning takes an inward turn: “but finally, / like Joe on the bridge, you must select / one life and hold it like flint underneath your tongue, / something made in the shape of an arrow.”
New on the local scene is Rattlesnake Press, and JoAnn Anglin’s Words Like Knives, Like Feathers is the second in its chapbook series. Kathy Kieth, the series’ publisher, is following in a long tradition of well-made chapbooks worthy of their status as limited editions. Anglin has a restrained touch in her poems, as she shows in “Sinkhole”: “You never know when the ground will start to yawn,” she writes, or when things will “fall / over what they loved, what they thought bore them up.”