Christmas Books: Poetry Anthologies - Rhyme to the Music of Time English Bards ; Poetry Anthologies

By Schmidt, Michael | The Independent (London, England), December 9, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Christmas Books: Poetry Anthologies - Rhyme to the Music of Time English Bards ; Poetry Anthologies


Schmidt, Michael, The Independent (London, England)


In The New Penguin Book of English Verse (Allen Lane, pounds 20), editor Paul Keegan sets out to Make It New, and he succeeds. English poetry, even the most familiar, takes on quite a new aspect. In subtle ways, his anthology adjusts our reading and will change how anthologies are conceived in future. The generosity of its inclusions - especially of popular and Roman Catholic verse - dilates the canon. Discarding conventions, he serves poetic tradition. It is as though accreted varnish has been carefully removed and the picture has regained a compelling luminosity. Set against Christopher Ricks's 1999 Oxford Book, this Penguin, in weight and weightiness, tips the scales.

Once in charge of Penguin Classics and now of poetry at Faber, Paul Keegan is an editor who is also a scholar with genuine literary tact. He will have thought long and hard not only about his selection, but about the nature of the anthology. He has ordered the poems mainly by date of first publication. His book starts in the dark age of Anon and ends with his predecessor at Faber, Christopher Reid, adapting Ovid. Keegan is alive to precedent, the centrality of translation, to the complex reciprocity that is a tradition.

There are problems - Anon among them, whose poems cannot be dated - and inconsistencies. For example, Hopkins's poems appear at roughly their date of composition, over 30 years before they were published, while other posthumous publications come posthumously - George Herbert, for example.

Most anthologists, myself among them, declare that poems matter more than poets, then organise their books by author and follow a birth-date chronology so that their disclaimers ring hollow. Keegan means it. Eliot's seven poems come in to the volume first in 1917 ("Prufrock") between Charlotte Mew and Isaac Rosenberg; and last in 1942 ("Little Gidding"), between Louis MacNeice and Alun Lewis.

We lose the tidy sense of generations. But without footnotes or prose narrative, our sense of context is revised. We focus on poems and what poems tell us and one another, and how instructively a year can juxtapose revolution and reaction.

The editor "nothing affirmeth" except that the poem is a process and part of the larger process of tradition, Keegan's theme. He does not tie poems into factitious historicity, or bind them together to illustrate a critical thesis. He releases them into their own company and the living dynamic of reception. Their language is less an instrument than an element. We read not through language to confirm prescribed meaning, but in language for meaning.

Keegan's chronological strategy inevitably defines a geography. The poets he considers are mainly those whose work was first heard or read in Great Britain and Ireland. The Americans who find a place here are Eliot, Pound, Laura Riding (an important inclusion) and Sylvia Plath.

The anthology is not skewed towards the modern. The 20th century which Hardy's "Darkling Thrush" so sombrely welcomes begins on page 824, less than 200 pages before the end. Nor is it a reordering of familiar poems. There are chestnuts, but also a wealth of unexpected material, licensed perhaps by the word "verse" in his title: epitaphs, epigrams, poems by minor writers. He relishes closure, but not so much as to exclude Christopher Smart or David Jones. When he resorts to extracts from long poems, he tends to lyricise, doing violence when he takes a finger or toe off a statue.

The editor calls his procedure "anthology as chronicle". He preserves old orthography and punctuation because they are part of a context and may suggest pronunciation and rhythm. The glossing he provides is sparse but adequate. The story his book tells is touched by historical fact; the social world encroaches so that in the later - secular - years of the 20th century, we feel that history is displacing the energies that drove the poet to pastoral, epic, erotic squib, classical meditation.

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