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This article is taken from PN Review 130, Volume 26 Number 2, November - December 1999.

The Bonfire of the Anthologies Neil Powell

They shouldn't have done it, of course. Any attempt to anthologise the twentieth century in 1998, for publication in 1999, was likely to get things more or less wrong; yet which of us would have turned down the chance to have a go? All the same, the task brings with it three built-in constraints from which the anthologist of earlier periods is cheerfully exempt. Firstly, there is the barely mentionable question of whether this departing century, and especially the latter part of it, has actually been a good time for poetry. I suspect that some - though by no means all - critics in years to come will judge ours to have a sloppy, self-indulgent period, overprolific and under-disciplined, whose few fine poets are not on the whole those most widely known to contemporary readers; but this iconoclastic view, though it could be the starting-point for a strange and rather severe anthology, is not one which our editors (who are also the editors of Britain's two leading poetry journals) could begin to entertain without upsetting most of their friends, contributors and subscribers - even if they shared it, which plainly they don't.

Secondly, there is the inescapable fact that neither Peter Forbes nor Michael Schmidt has read enough to do this job properly. None of us has: nor could we have done, had we devoted every waking moment of our adult lives to the diligent perusal of twentieth-century poetry. And that is because the great mass of ...


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