Sunday, November 25, 2007

On Anthologies

Courtesy Don Share (via Equivocal), here's Randall Jarrell on anthologies:

"...the average reader knows poetry mainly from anthologies, just as he knows philosophy mainly from histories of philosophy or textbooks: the Complete Someone--hundreds or thousands of small-type, double-column pages of poetry, without one informing repentant sentence of ordinary prose--evokes from him a start of that savage and unreasoning timidity, the horror vacui, with which he stares at the lemmas and corollaries of Spinoza's Ethics. Those cultural entrepreneurs, the anthologists, have become figures of melancholy and deciding importance for the average reader of poetry, a man of great scope and little grasp, who still knows what he likes--in the anthologies."
Personally, I think anthologies are to poetry what radio is to music. They're a good way of checking out what's out there, and catching the new voice or two that you haven't heard before, but if they're all you read then you're not really interested in poetry.

Of course, there are anthologies and there are anthologies, and it's useful to distinguish between them. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three reasonably distinct types (though admittedly the line between them can get blurred): anthologies of 'new' poetry (Best American Poetry), anthologies of poetry from a particular region / language (The Book of Japanese Verse), and 'theme anthologies' (100 poems about horses) or anthologies that recycle the canon in cutesy ways (100 best-loved poems of all time). The last one of these I dislike as well, but the first two can be useful.

Where Jarrell's wrong, I think, is in his assumption that the anthology is a way of coping with massive volumes of poetry by a single author. For me personally (I probably read about three or four anthologies every year), the anthology is more a way of coping with the endless volume of new poetry that gets published every year, as well as the almost infinite wealth of poetry that exists in languages other than English. Obviously, the filter of an anthology means that this work loses much of its flavor, so that reading anthologies is an imperfect way of becoming acquainted with it, but it's better than not getting to know it at all, and probably better than whatever haphazard sampling of it I could manage on my own. Without Paterson and Simic's New British Poetry, for instance, it would probably have taken me a lot longer to discover Sean O'Brien and Gwyneth Lewis - not because I wouldn't have heard of them, but because the chance that I would have gone to the library and issued out their books without having read (and enjoyed) half a dozen of their poems first is incredibly low.

Not, of course, that anthologies are the only way of expanding your poetic horizons. Literary journals are another way of getting to know new work, but there's such a bewildering variety of those, that you've got almost the same problem there that you do with books themselves. Blogs and poetry websites are useful as well, and I can see the argument for them eventually substituting for the anthology role, but that doesn't mean anthologies aren't valuable in their own right.

In the meantime, the problem is not so much with anthologies per se, but with the potential decision of a reader to restrict himself / herself only to anthologies. If the only poetry you read is in anthologies, or if you stop your exploration of a particular set of poets with their anthologized work, you're missing out on a lot. But there's no reason why, as readers, we have to stop there. The fault, then, is not in our books - it lies with us.


Space Bar said...

anthologies are to poetry what radio is to music

Couldn't agree with you more.

But just for fun, looking at it from another angle, anthologies reveal the idiosyncrasies of an individual taste (when they're not trying hard to fit the poets in the anthology into some canon). So, if you've already read other poems by at least some of the poets featured, you can look at what the anthologist has chosen and go "hmmm," and wonder at her choice, disagree with it, extrapolate from it to what she might have done with the other poets' work you don't know so well or at all.

Here, however, all this is academic. one neither finds anthologies, nor entire books of poets; and they aren't there because the bookstores claim no one reads poetry (which is at least partially true) and it's all very catch 22.

equivocal said...

I agree partly with you; have some thoughts about this, and will write soon when time (as a concept and a livable entity) appears again.

But just one quick thing: if anthologies today (i think the classical anthologies had a different aim) are to poetry what radio is to music-- and I think in many ways you're right-- that's not necessarily a good thing.

Four words come associatively to mind: "easy listening" and "HOT 97!" Are you sure the music you cherish most is played on the radio?

And one anthology I like very much: Michael Schmidt's 20th Century English poetry for Harvill. That's my kind of radio station, more or less. I did say, after Marianne Moore, that there can be a place in it for the genuine.

More soon.

Falstaff said...

space bar: True, though I have to admit those idiosyncrasies are often what I use to test whether the anthology is any good. I'll flip through the contents, see what they have from poets I do know and buy / read the thing if I agree with those choices.

And yes, I feel your pain, or at least remember it. Actually, my one grouse with anthologies is that they (especially type 3 ones) end up crowding out 'real' poetry books. It's bad enough that every time I'm back in India and go to a bookstore there's like two small shelves of poetry tucked away somewhere - but it's worse when some half of that is 'Favorite Poems for Lovers' kind of crap.

equivocal: I have to admit that I personally never listen to radio. But that's mostly because I'm not really interested in contemporary music. Don't think I've read that anthology. Will find.

Cheshire Cat said...

There's also the "potpourri" kind of anthology, where the editor is disinterested in categories, and just picks the poems he likes. The best examples are the Heaney and Hughes anthologies: to me the most delightful books in existence. The Milosz ones are fun too...

Personally, I prefer anthologies to a book by a single writer, except in the case that there is a clear conception of the book itself - "Harmonium", or "Radi Os", for instance. Any writer is going to publish very little of value. Anthologists save us time.

Space Bar said...

gosh, this has slipped down some...not sure it makes any sense to say more but what the heck.

equivocal: i don't know if that was to me or to falstaff? radio is to early 20th c what the news ticker is to today's tv: something you take for granted and pay attention to once in a while. Not good news for poetry!


And I agree about the Harvill anthology.

Falstaff: About number 3, the weirdest anthology I've ever read is one called A Quark for Master MArk or some such thing. Poems about science, if you please. I don't know if that is worse, or the kind that offers you A Poem For Every Occasion. What do you think I would find in it if I went looking for a poem to console me when I had a flat tire miles from anywhere in the dark and remembered that I'd forgotten my tools at home and the spare was also a flat?

Cat: the schoolbag one?

Falstaff said...

cat: I don't know. I like collected poems. It's true that most writers are going to turn out little of value, but my opinion of what that little is often differs from the anthologists' opinion. Plus it's all relative isn't it - I'd rather be reading the collected Auden or Hughes than the latest BAP.

That said, agree about the grab-bag anthologies. Should have mentioned them. Good fun they are.

space bar: Stopping by woods on a snowy evening? Or perhaps this:

"If I closed my eyes for a minute
I would be lost, yet
I could gladly lie down and sleep forever
beside this road.
My brother nudges me.
Any minute now, something will happen."

- Raymond Carver, 'Drinking while Driving'

Cheshire Cat said...

Space Bar: That and the Rattle-Bag one both.

I think you mean "Three quarks for Muster Mark". It's a quote from "Finnegan's Wake", and that's where quarks get their name from, thanks to Murray Gell-the-Renaissance-Mann.

Space Bar said...

cat: ah...see - i never knew that. maybe i just read the title of the anthology all wrong.

that's the other thing about anthologies: the most interesting thing about them is frequently the introduction. and this one's intro completely sucked. it was all We're scientists - at least, one of us is - and we like poems, and see we like all these poems and hey! they talk about science a bit, at least these poet guys aren't that scared of quarks and shit, and what do you know, science aint that scary of poets can write about them, you know.

Cheshire Cat said...

Turns out, Space, that you're closer to the truth about the title than I. Don't know why they mangled the quote...

Space Bar said...

Cat: if i'm right, that's easy: they were aiming for the little creatures in half pants.