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Thursday, 15 November 2007


Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing until the present day, the novel has steadily gained in popularity at the expense of poetry. This fact has resulted in the sad circumstance in which it is no longer profitable for publishers to maintain poetry lists. And yet there is a market for poetry, albeit at the "popular" end of the spectrum. It is much in demand for devotional and "spiritual" purposes, for example, and at weddings and funerals. Also at this time of the year, for remembrance purposes. Furthermore, many people seem nostalgic for the poetry they "did" at school. To meet these, and other, rather uncritical, niches in the market, publishers have been quick to turn to the anthology. Among those for whom the pleasures of poetry demand a more evaluative approach, these facts have given the anthology a bad name. The (small) poetry shelf in my local Waterstones is devoted almost entirely to copies from the BBC's "Nation's Favourites" series, and to themed anthologies in general. Between them they could put a mawkish gloss on any genuinely emotional public or family event. Tom Dick and Harry realise well enough that poetry can add feeling to the sentiments of public and private occasions in a way that prose perhaps cannot. It is the one opportunity to make a buck or two that poetry allows the publisher.

With my eclectic appetite for poetry I doubt I could afford (or shelve) enough single-author books to satisfy it. I therefore decided early on to indulge myself with a couple of anthologies, but no more than that. The main problem I found was not that the quality of the poems included was poor, but that it was very restricted. The emphasis was always on the short, lyrical, autobiographical (and well-known) verse. To have more than two such weighty tomes, I thought, would be to saddle myself with much unwanted repetition.

I suppose we go through various phases as our knowledge and love of poetry grows. School poetry was for me totally off-putting: "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent Unto Aix", "Lochinvar", "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and many more of that ilk. Maybe memory plays tricks, but I cannot recall much else except a couple of Shakespeare plays ("As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night") read round the class. I think my own studies began with "The Oxford Book of English Verse". So did many another's, I imagine. Since then I have from time to time relaxed my self-imposed limit enough to buy, or be given, just one more anthology in the hope that this one would add something worthwhile to my collection without burdening it with too much extra repetition. Almost always I was disappointed.

More recently, the situation has changed slightly - or I have grown luckier, shrewder, or more discerning in my choosing. It was the acquisition of "The Rattle Bag" and "The Firebox" that first alerted me to the possibility that a new day might have dawned while I was sleeping. "The Rattle Bag", edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughs, became a popular resource in schools and, for me, something of a treasury at home. Its pages still bulge with numerous markers, each one a link to earlier discovered pleasures. Sean O'Brien's "The Firebox" is devoted to the poetry of Britain and Ireland after 1945. If it did not cover the ground comprehensively (as it could not have done) it passed the first test in that it contained much that was not already on my shelves. But it went further, it contained much that I had not met before, including quite a bit that I should have, but hadn't. Soon after it came the Penguin "Scanning the Century", the century in question being the twentieth. I soon came to regard it and "The Firebox" as non-identical twins.

All of the above are still giving valuable service, but sometime ago I was fortunate enough to acquire a copy of "The Norton Anthology of Poetry", a magnificent tome containing 1,828 poems by 334 poets, including major works by important poets, such as "Little Gidding" by T.S.Eliot and lengthy sections from major long poems, for example, a complete stanza from Spencer's "Fairie Queene". As a work of reference, nothing that I have come across even runs it close. I find it invaluable. And then most recently, almost its antithesis, a slim, themed anthology - you could almost call it. Carol Ann Duffy invited her peers, established and still making their way, to choose a poem from the past and then respond to it with a poem of their own. Fifty replied. The replies are printed alongside the original texts. The result is fascinating, with Carol Rumens responding to Philip Larkin's "This be the Verse", Paul Muldoon responding to D.H. Lawrence's "Humming Bird" and Liz Lochhead responding to John Donne's "A Nocturnall Upon S Lucie's Day". Not the least fascinating part is to see who has chosen what (and who). The book is called "Answering Back". Alright, not strictly, an anthology as we know them, but what the heck! I had to tell someone about it! And while on the subject of themed anthologies, I feel bound to mention Andrew Motion's "First World War Poems". Here again, numerous works that I had not known alongside (of course) the old favourites and works by well-known poets that I had not thought of as war poets. It has actually caused me to revise my view of the war poets.

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