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John Wilson, Editor
Stranger in a Strange Land
Our most influential critics are anthologists. Out of a chaos of texts they create order: something called "Victorian poetry" or "African American literature." (And then there is that superanthology we call the Bible.) Yes, many of the breed are ponderous, predictable textbook brutes, conceived in committees and already obsolescent even as they are being printed. But the best anthologies--Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes's Rattle Bag, Czeslaw Milosz's A Book of Luminous Things (see p. 14 of this issue)--are personal choices, at once richly idiosyncratic and immediately persuasive: they make us see in a new way.
Add to that select company David Impastato's Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry (Oxford University Press, 369 pp.; $25, hardcover). Impastato is a brave man. On the one hand, he is challenging the poetry establishment, where the reigning orthodoxy is well represented by Helen Vendler's flat assertion, in the Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, that nowadays any poetry that counts assumes the absence of transcendence. To that crowd, Impastato's subtitle is an impertinence or a joke.
And the Christian community? You have a general readership that never pays attention to poetry, except for the wrong reasons. The editors of the Christian Century, bless them, include poems in every issue. No one seems to notice. But early this year (March 19-26) they made a big mistake. They published a poem, "Pilate Speaks," by Maria Garriott, without a consumer notice: "WARNING! This poem contains irony." For the response, see the issue of July 2-9. The Christian literati, meanwhile, are many of them uncomfortable with anything labeled "Christian." They don't want to be seen as the literary equivalent of "contemporary Christian music." That seems to leave a market of at least 500 or a thousand for this anthology. But Impastato must be charming as well as brave, because his book is issued by Oxford University Press, no ...