A glorious pic’n’mix from Shirley Bell


    I said last year that I would write about useful and exciting anthologies, but I did not keep my promise I’m afraid. So better late than never, here goes.

    There is an obvious joy in reading a single poet’s work. You enter into their world, hear their voice, really experience what they are trying to convey. You can have a kind of conversation, with the oh, the oh really, the oh fabulous,  perhaps the oh no. On the other hand, there is a world of poetry out there in a shifting and confusing mass of voices, identities, nationalities; you can also enter the past and experience the thrill of recognising a voice that resonates with you now.

    I keep anthologies at my bedside. They are perfect for dipping into and I am often awake for longer than I expected. So here are my current favourites.

    I have always loved anthologies since I first met The Rattle Bag, (Faber and Faber 1982), 498 pagesmany years ago. Edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes I still enjoy it now. It is a treasure trove of poetry in alphabetical order, so you can look in the contents for your favourites, but there is a great pleasure in just diving in. It ignores any timeline, and as you dip in you can find all sorts of poems you may never otherwise read. And there are strange juxtapositions: Stevie Smith’s Bog Face sits between poetry by Wordsworth and Tennyson, Philip Larkin rubs shoulders with E.E. Cummings, Ian Crichton Smith and Shakespeare. Anon appears regularly.

    The Zoo of the New,  edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson, (Particular Books/Penguin 2017), 473 pages, states on the flap that it stretches from Sappho to Denise Riley. The editors have deliberately ruled out any poet under the age of 60, for size constraints and also because the relative merits of the more contemporary poets are not always so easy to judge. They were influenced, they admit, by The Rattle Bag,  but also concerned that it only had 10 women poets out of 130. They have achieved, as they say, “one in four and a half”, still relatively poor and reflecting the “pale and male” historical bias. A contemporary anthology would be a much more representative affair, with many more women and people of colour included.

    However, this is still a rich and chunky book. Again it is in alphabetical, not chronological, order. So you find Robert Frost alongside Robert Dryden, Sir Edward Dyer next to Sylvia Plath, whose Morning Song inspired the title.  Once more this is an excellent book for dipping into and coming out with random surprises; it is a way of discovering the previously unknown.

    The Map and the Clock, edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, (Faber and Faber 2016), 709 pages. This massive book runs in chronological order with sections beginning with poems from 600 – 1300 and ending with 2000 forwards,  and starts with Caedmon’s Hymn from the Anglo Saxon while finishing with Us from Zaffar Kunial. It is another rich trove and it does give a strong sense of poetic movements and the developments over time.

    For an academic literary-historical approach there are Norton anthologies. These are huge bricks of books, printed on very thin paper (think bibles).

    The Norton Anthology of Poetry, latest edition 2005, 2181 pages. It gives big chunks of each poet’s work and as it is compiled in the USA, you get a different slant. It includes 1828 poems by 334 poets. Again it runs in chronological order and starts (also) with Caedmon’s Hymn and finishes with Greg Williamson.

    I also have The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, 2003, split into 2 huge books. Volume 1, Modern Poetry, 1000 pages,  runs from Walt Whitman to Keith  Douglas and has a massive Poetics section at the end which includes writings by poets themselves.  Volume 2, Contemporary Poetry, 1195  pages, runs from Charles Olson to Derek Walcott. This volume covers the generation of poets who published their first books after the  Second World War and includes 1596 poems by 195 poets. Again it includes Poetics.

    Then for latest poetry read The Forward Book of Poetry (see http://www.forwardartsfoundation.org for information),  which is an annual round-up of the best collection, best first collection,  best single poem and highly commended poems– 2018 has been published. You get a mix of poets who have been writing for ages, and some you might not have heard of.

    And finally, join the Poetry Book Society. https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/ You get a selected book each quarter, plus lots of other discounted recommendations and a newsletter. It is a great way to stay abreast of the poetry world.

    And a PS: My books are coming with me to the Tamar Valley this week,  where I am planning a reading, writing, and painting holiday in a cottage overlooking a meander in the River Tamar. So I hope to be inspired!




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