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This item is taken from PN Review 266, Volume 48 Number 6, July - August 2022.

‘We no longer need the Norton anthologies,’ a lecturer friend remarked to me recently. ‘My generation [he is forty-nine] may be the last to have been brought up on the great print anthologies.’ My generation (I am seventy-five) was reared on Louis Untermeyer, on Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, and on the handsome blue hardback Oxford anthologies with their distinctive gold blocking. They soon shed their dust jackets and took up their regimental postures on the main bookshelf, where they remain and are frequently consulted.

I find it hard to imagine a life in poetry not rooted in some way in the big anthologies – chronologically ordered, perhaps, in thrall to some notion of canon, and of course designed to be rebelled against when the time is right. The time is only right when a wide range of poems has been taken to heart, connected, disconnected. And the canonical anthology shelf is not finite: new anthologies arrive and enrich it, in particular those predicated on recovering and establishing previously un- or under-regarded writing, books like Kayo Chingonyi’s 2022 More Fiya: A New Collection of Black British Poetry or The Penguin Book of Indian Poets which extend the canon. There is a separate shelf for other forms of anthology, introductory of new writers, thematic, factional…

When you and your contemporaries shared an anthology, you shared pleasure, knowledge, points of specific reference, occasions for dialogue and disagreement. As evolving theories altered our acts of reading a poem we had come to know by heart became a pretext, illuminating and illuminated by contexts we overlooked when we read it first; we valued our anthologies differently.

Salespeople for the educational anthology publishers contact poetry lecturers, my friend told me, at the beginning of a new academic year offering discount deals for bulk purchases, trying to prolong the commercial lives of books which, he says, have been decisively superseded not by a new print product but by the resources of the internet. ‘You can find all the poems online,’ he said. Which is true, with a few caveats: there is no guarantee of the text’s accuracy, especially of layout, and students need someone to provide a contents list. When you find a text on the internet, you cannot asterisk, write in the margins, add in post-it notes. You cannot thumb the foredge and hear the book purr. And you miss authoritative annotation, introductions and bibliographies.

If you share an anthology with your contemporaries, you learn early on that poetry reading is, even at a primary level, collaborative. You take things from their readings and you contribute to them. Collaboration is basic to the art itself. A poem collaborates with previous writing and can expect attentive readers to hear that collaboration. Semantic change can enhance or impoverish it. Sometimes a poem isn’t aware of its connections. Anachronism has a part to play – a poem can come to know much more than its poet did.

In Dryden’s ‘Secular Masque’ Momus can sound quite like Auden. Dryden marks the turn of a millennium whose start was marked by his death:

All, all, of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.

Graham Greene wrests this stanza from its context and presents it as a stand-alone lyric. In Dryden Momus addresses each line to a separate ‘reader’ – the second to Diana, the third to Mars, the fourth to Aphrodite. Janus speaks the fifth and sixth. Dryden then draws all six lines together for the Chorus to recite. Greene is interested in the chorus, not what precedes it. The language remains Dryden’s, but the extracted poem does not. Such writing thrives in an anthology and the wider contexts and collaborations it proposes.

Is it the case, as one of our younger readers put it recently, that poetry is at last outgrowing those notions of collaboration which continue to respect a canon or modernisms and their ideologically tainted legacies? Originality of another sort is possible, is it not; is indeed what creativity should nowadays be about?

These arguments bring Jack Kerouac to mind. The centenary of his birth has not been widely celebrated so far this year, any more than Philip Larkin’s or Donald Davie’s have. Think what we might learn if the three were drawn together, with Larkin on the east, Kerouac on the west, and Davie like Janus facing in both directions, sounding severe, of course, but allowing himself to be swayed on the one hand by the work, on the other by the theory.

Kerouac collaborated with William Burroughs on the novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, the title drawn from an hysterical news report of a fire at a zoo in which the unhappy hippos were indeed boiled in their tanks – as if rehearsing for a surreal moment in later Burroughs. Kerouac, especially in what I almost called his formative years, but he kept forming and re-forming… Kerouac imagined a writing that readers would throw away as soon as they had read it, a writing which as language laid no claim on readers, did not try to snare them in a memorable skein of words. It delivered its meaning and then memory – with a diminished role – let it go. Meaning is for him real, and separable from the ways it is articulated, from its style. If too deeply invested in style, meaning becomes restricting, partial – political. Just as an anthology can do.

Yet I revert gratefully to the ‘Letter to the Teacher’ in the 1938 edition of Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry: ‘This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering.’ The editors rethought and adjusted their anthology, adding critical material, instructions to teacher and reader, in the 1950 edition. Kerouac at school may have been nursed, and perhaps even weaned, on the book. As reader and editor I am still – though ironically – in its thrall, and that of the other anthologies which have opened poetry out for me. I have committed several anthologies myself, less as a gate keeper than a gate maker.

This item is taken from PN Review 266, Volume 48 Number 6, July - August 2022.

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