I'm fascinated by old poetry anthologies. It's both interesting and deeply humbling to read something that purports to be a collection of classics from its time and discover how much literary 'taste' has changed over the years, and how differently we (or at least I) view things today from the way we did, say, 50 years ago.
Take this collection called the Pocket Book of Modern Verse edited by Oscar Williams and first published in 1954, that I bought a while ago and am in the process of leafing through again. It claims to be an anthology of the best 'modern' poems published in the 100 years from 1855 - 1954, starting from Whitman and going all the way up to Ted Hughes. The reason I bought it, the reason I'm re-reading it, is because it offers a view of the development of poetry from the 1850s to the 1950s that is in many ways strikingly different from the one I typically carry around in my head. If I were to put together an anthology of poetry from that period, it would look very, very different.
Not that there wouldn't be some overlap. Some things simply cannot be argued with - Whitman's Song of Myself, Hopkins' sonnets, Crane's Brooklyn Bridge, cummings's somewhere I have never travelled - all these would find a place in practically any anthology of the period, as they do here. And to give Williams' credit, he does a fine job, in my opinion, of picking poems by Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden. Most of the usual favourites are there, plus a few poems that are less well known, but equally deserving.
It's when you get beyond the obvious, that Williams selections grow startling. The anthology includes exactly one William Carlos Williams poem - this thing called The Yachts - but we have long sections devoted to Vachel Lindsay, W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and James Joyce. Even Herman Melville gets more space than W.C.Williams. More, in a book supposedly dedicated to 'modern' poetry, we have long selections from Thomas Hardy, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter de la Mare and A.E. Housman.
As we get closer to the editor's contemporaries matters only get more baffling. First, one is now treated to a bunch of names that I, at any rate, have never heard of. I mean seriously, has anyone ever read any of the following: Gene Derwood, Julian Symons, F.T. Prince, Joseph Bennett, Dustan Thompson or Frederick Mortimer Clapp? Okay, so some of them have only one or two poems included, but even so the book puts them on equal footing with Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Frank O'Hara and William Empson. Allen Tate doesn't just get Ode to the Confederate Dead, he gets a section as long as Ezra Pound's all too himself. Edith Sitwell doesn't just get Still falls the Rain, she gets half a dozen poems. And you finally discover that Richard Eberhardt did, in fact, write something other than the Groundhog and the Fury of the Aerial Bombardment. Oh, and there's the 10 page long section of Oscar Williams' own poems, about which the less said the better.
Understand, I'm not saying that these poets don't deserve to be there (though, actually, in the case of both Oscar Williams and Edith Sitwell, I am saying that - their poems are, frankly, unreadable). I certainly don't claim to be an expert on early 20th century poetry, and am in no real position to judge (even assuming objective judgement were possible) the relative merits of different poets from that era. I just think it's interesting that so many of the poets that Oscar Williams clearly saw as being seminal to his time have faded into relative obscurity in a mere 50 years, while others, whom he ignores completely (Langston Hughes isn't included, for instance), continue to delight us. So much for verse being immortal.
And it isn't just the selection of poets that seems strange. It's also the poems that Williams chooses to include. Take Yeats. We get some of the usual anthology pieces - The Second Coming, When you are Old and Grey, Sailing to Byzantium, Lake Isles of Innisfree. But no Leda and the Swan, no Byzantium, no Among School Children, no Easter, 1916. Instead we get A Bronze Head, John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore, The Three Bushes and Politics. The Wallace Stevens selection includes The Idea of Order at Key West and Sunday Morning, but it also includes The Woman That Had More Babies Than That, The President Ordains the Bee to Be and On an Old Horn. Again, I'm not saying these are bad poems (I'm not sure Wallace Stevens wrote a bad poem in his life) but it's surprising to me that they are the poems anyone would pick as being the 'best' / most representative of their respective poet's work.
Of course, one could argue that this is just Williams' bias and he has a right to his opinion, etc. etc. I'm not disputing that. But I think it's more generally true that anthologies, especially old anthologies, always surprise me with what they decide to include and what they choose to leave out. And that, for me, is a big part of what makes them worth reading.
Now if I can only find a selection of Gene Derwood's verse in my library.