I could hardly let National Poetry Month come to a close without paying some kind of tribute to the main venue where most readers encounter poetry, now could I? Once, ages ago, that venue would have been the bard in the hall, the singer on the portico, but for most readers since Gutenberg, the main place where they encounter poetry is in books – and not just any books, but poetry anthologies. Poet jostling against poet, centuries eliding into centuries, styles and movements recklessly colliding with their polar opposites. Most readers out there first read poetry in just such heterogeneous company … it was only later, as a mature-feeling act of adulthood, that some of them began buying entire books of poetry written by only one person.
Since the poetry anthology is perfectly adapted to pedagogy, they proliferate in schools, and this forces us to specify our terms. In terms of sheer numbers in print and sheer numbers of eyeballs that have scanned its pages, by far the most important poetry anthology of all time is the Norton Anthology of Poetry, the various incarnations of which have been mainstays in schools for three or four generations. But there are two kinds of poetry anthologies: the itemized tour and the personal statement. The Norton Anthologies are very much the former – they have to be, if they’re going to work in classrooms. And while I don’t discount the viral vitality of all literature (you can get infected regardless of the vector), I’m concentrating today on the other kind of poetry anthology, the personal statement. These are usually no less scholarly, and in their hearts they’d certainly like to be as impartially inclusive … but they’re not boardroom-generated, so they end up being as much reflections of their creators as they are reflections of the state of the art when they’re made.
The ground-breakers in (more or less!) modern times were Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of Verse … and the main thing we notice about their original versions today is how narrow and parochial they seem, how limiting their personal statements are. We know there’s a bigger verse-world out there than all those syrupy pastorals, but you certainly can’t tell that from the neat and well-tended confines of the volumes themselves. I’ve got three very different – one can’t help but think “better” volumes in mind.
The first is one that might actually compete with the Norton Anthology for academic sales: Hayden Carruth’s hugely popular 1970 book The Voice That Is Great Within Us. There was a time when I could walk into the ramshackle apartment of any young poet and find a dog-eared copy of this book with its signature white cover. Carruth was a rotten poet himself, but with the overseeing of this particular volume, he hit a fascinating balance – like all the best ‘personal statement’ poetry anthologies, this one can be very pleasurably read from front to back like a novel, rather than picked and pecked through. Although I’ll peck for you now, since I’d like to share one poem I love from each of the three anthologies mentioned here. From Carruth’s book it’s got to be Countee Cullen’s quick ditty “Incident”:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
The most august of the three volumes I’m writing about today – indeed, quite possibly the most august poetry anthology in English – is Helen Gardner’s mighty successor to the Quiller-Couch Oxford Book of English Verse. I prefer the Gardner even to its own successor, since that later version seems to me to be an Oxford Book that’s finally more concerned with what it’s not leaving out than with what it’s including, if you follow the distinction. Any personal statement that even so much as acknowledges consensus is irredeemably craven, which is why I prefer the magisterial perfection of Gardner’s version. Here are all the greatest names of English poetry, to an absolutely remarkable degree unmixed with baser matter, and here, unapologetically, are all the greatest poems by those great names, one after another in an astounding, uplifting fusillade. I’ll again pick only one, well-known and well-loved by me: Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which starts like this:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
And that ends, wonderfully, like this:
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me –
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
And naturally, in any post like this, we must come at last to simple personal favorites, and I have one: the magnificent 1998 soup-to-nuts update of Mark Van Doren’s Anthology of World Poetry, this one edited by Katharine Washburn and John Major and full of 1300 pages of endless variety and wonder. Where the Gardner volume has one immortal standard after another, this volume is a steady stream of surprises, whole worlds of the unexpected on every page. It’s broken down roughly chronologically and sprawls across the whole of recorded human history – African chants, Elizabethan madrigals, Chinese miniatures, Beat imponderables. This is my single favorite poetry anthology, the book I would hand to somebody if they stood next to me in the Poetry section of the Brattle and asked me “What one book should I get?” In part this is due to the elastic range of the contents, because more than anything poetry should be about not letting our aesthetics calcify – but mainly due to the sheer beauty of so much of what’s in here. I could pick a dozen examples instantly, but I’ll stick to just one: a very loose adaptation of Horace by J. D. McClatchy, a poem called “Late Night Ode” that I’ve loved for long enough so that some of its terms are already outdated (CNN, beepers…):
It’s over, love. Look at me pushing fifty now,
Hair like grave-grass growing in both ears,
The piles and the boggy prostate, the crooked penis,
The sour taste of each day’s first lie,
And that recurrent dream of years ago pulling
A swaying bead-chain of moonlight,
Of slipping between the cool sheets of dark
along a body like my own, but blameless.
What good’s my cut-glass conversation now,
Now I’m so effortlessly vulgar and sad?
You get from life what you can shake from it?
for me, it’s g and t’s all day and CNN.
Try the blond boychick lawyer, entry level
At eighty grand, who pouts about the overtime,
Keeps Evian and a beeper in his locker at the gym,
And hash in tinfoil under the office fern.
There’s your hound from heaven, with buccaneer
Curls and perfumed war-paint on his nipples.
His answering machine always has room for one more
Slurred, embarrassed call from you-know-who.
Some nights I’ve laughed so hard the tears
won’t stop. Look at me now. Why now?
I long ago gave up pretending to believe
Anyone’s memory will give as good as it gets.
So why these stubborn tears? and why do I dream
Almost every night of holding you again,
Or at least of diving after you, my long-gone,
Through the bruised unbalanced waves.
I can’t recommend World Poetry eagerly enough – if you ever find a copy, snatch it up. And if you should have the option to spend a few warmly drunken nights exchanging favorite finds with a beautiful young poet, don’t hesitate to do that too. It definitely adds to the experience.