I have a copy of the original Grove Press The New
American Poetry. The reason I mention
this is the word 'anthology'. And how even now, even today, when I hold this
book and open it and browse its pages I fall in love all over again with
poetry, with the adrenalin rush of holding in my hands poetry that calls out
to me to wake up and be alive, and wanting to write poetry that will in turn
generate another adrenalin rush somewhere else. I have no idea how to explain
the feeling but it's a marvellous feeling. I know it involves romance and
possibility and dream and myth; I know it also involves recognition, voices
I understand and don't understand talking to me, and a refusal to be bored.
It also has something to do, I know, with the fact that the book doesn't assume
anything about me at all, and the book's poems don't make any assumptions
about me either, beyond the fact that if I'm reading them then I am,
presumably, a reader of poetry and therefore interested. And, with that
given, the poems are there, and that's it. They'd be there anyway.
It's that word 'anthology' that started me thinking about this. Oh, and this
thing I'm supposed to be writing about being alive. I mean, Being
Alive, the new anthology from Bloodaxe,
the sequel to Staying Alive.
Staying Alive, published in
2002, apparently sold thousands of copies and, if we are to believe Bloodaxe
publicity, 'introduced thousands of new readers to modern poetry, offering an
international gathering of poems of great personal force, poems with
emotional power, intellectual edge and playful wit. It brought many readers
back to poetry, people who hadn't read poetry for years because it hadn't
held their interest.' Among the anthology's readers you can count Mia Farrow
and Meryl Streep. Meryl, she tells us (in her own words; it's not a script!),
runs home to the book to argue with it, find solace in it, and locate herself
in the world again. It's a beautiful image, I think, and not one I am going
I have no idea if the book did what Mr. Bloodaxe says it did. The only people
I know who even know of it are people who know poetry anyway, but I have no
way of checking if non-poetry readers were suddenly somehow grasped in a
mysterious way by the reviews they didn't read or the word of mouth from
people they didn't know and flocked to the local bookshop they no longer have
to buy their first poetry book for years, if not for ever. I hope they
didn't, because if people have to be introduced to modern poetry (and, of
course, they don't) then they deserved much better than Staying
Alive was offering. They deserved much
better than the several hundred somewhat flaccid and mind-numbing poems Neil
Astley told them were 'exceptional'. Of course, there were some good things
in it, and some poetry staples, but in the main it was solidly dull fare.
Perhaps one cause of my disquiet was the premise that poetry is good for you.
No, let me re-phrase that, because it might be a slightly unfair
interpretation. I quote, rather, from Astley's 'Introduction':
turn to poetry only at unreal times, whether for consolation in grief or
affirmation in love.'
Actually, this is probably true, now I come to think of it. Four weddings and
a cremation. But poetry isn't that for me, and never has been. Poetry isn't
'for' anything, as far as I know, notwithstanding that 'many people' think
it is. That's okay. I am not many people. But if I try and imagine myself
turning to poems to sustain me in grief or justify me in love - um, no, I
can't imagine that.
New poetry readers also deserved better than the commentary Astley provided
to accompany the poems, a commentary that reminded me strongly of the tones
my old English teacher used to adopt when he told us what poetry was. Never
mind how great swathes and styles and methods of modern poetry were ignored
by it - you kind of expect anthologies to be exercises in exclusion, I think.
But you might expect them to be a bit more open and honest about it. Does
Neil Astley know how much power he wields?
Astley has, to give him his due, mastered the tone of the teacher who knows
best. His Introduction to Staying
Alive makes so many statements claiming
to be facts within its opening paragraphs he ought to be ashamed of himself.
For instance, '... most of us could only name one or two modern poems which
have moved us profoundly and unforgettably.' I suspect the truth is that
whoever the hell this 'us' is, and I assume Astley means the world of
non-poetry readers who are now reading his book, then most of 'us' couldn't
name any poems that have done
this, except perhaps that what was it? that poem in Four Weddings again, that was okay, wasn't it? Astley's assumed
identification with ordinary non-poetry reading people is sickly enough. But
we are immediately expected to accept as fact that certain poems he names
have 'unnerving power'. My English teacher used to tell us that certain
things were great, and certain things were not great. He neglected to tell
us we could make up our own minds.
'Most people [Are these the same people as 'many people'? I just wondered.]
think contemporary poetry is either boring and irrelevant or pretentious and
superficial.' That's another Astley fact. I would suggest that 'most people'
have no clue what contemporary poetry might be, but if 'most people' read his
selection of poems they might well think what he thinks they already think.
(If nothing else, I can match his daft generalisation with one of my own.)
And he's absolutely dishonest when he says to his supposed audience of poetry
innocents that his book will show them 'the wide range of contemporary poetry
from the past three decades, much of which is closer to Shakespeare than to
Modernism in its address to concerns shared by the reader'. What is this
rubbish? Do the poets he calls Modernist not have the concerns of, who?
Ordinary people? Neil Astley can't be such an idiot, or think that the people
who read what he's written are idiots on the same scale.
There are other Astley facts that bother me. I need to mention a habit he has
which can best be described by quoting it:
poem, "The Road Not Take"', became America's
favourite poem because...'
favourite modern poet, Alden Nowlan...'
Oh, and I'll throw in:
modern poem like...'
There is more than one way of approaching the issue that bothers me here. One
approach requires that I accept the premise that these books are going to
reach new poetry reading audiences. If I accept this, then I may have to
accept also that these poetry new people will lap up the teaching tone Astley
adopts and try to share his tastes. In other words, they might believe him.
And they might wonder, when they read a particular poem they've been told is
great, and they don't think it's great, what's wrong with them! This doesn't
attract people to poetry; it puts them off. If, on the other hand, I grant
that these people will make up their own minds, might they be disappointed as
much as they are enthralled and excited? I wish, rather, they'd been given
the chance to make up their own minds about a wider range of poetry than Bloodaxe
If I reject the premise and see all this thick anthologising as some fine
marketing strategy, then the new reader becomes an irrelevance and one is
driven to the 'Further Reading' lists at the back of the book to see how many
more Bloodaxe books one needs to buy to enjoy even more thrilling poems etc.
Whatever. Marketing isn't exactly a sin, although marketing such
overwhelmingly dull poems on the back of phrases like 'poems that touch the
heart, stir the mind and fire the spirit' may well be. It's enormously unfair
to quote one poem out of several hundred to make a point, but the first poem
in the book after the Introduction that uses that phrase begins
This poem is
dangerous; it should not be left
reach of children, or even of adults
swallow it whole, with possibly
Oh well, only another 500 unnerving pages to go. Of
course, as with its precursor, Being Alive has some good poems in it but they tend to be the poems you can find
easily elsewhere. Eliot and Auden and Bishop and so on aren't exactly hidden
mysteries. But who exactly is Mary Oliver? Oh yes, she is 'one of America's
best-loved poets': it says that on the back of her book, one of two companion
volumes Bloodaxe has brought out to accompany Being Alive as the first in a 'World Poets' series. Oliver
writes very precise, actually quite acceptable poems that are about a
relationship with the world, and nature, and Go... They are exact and
observant, laced with a spiritual joy:
floating - a slim
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles
as though time didn't exist,
bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness
(from 'The Swan')
After a while, though, you kind of know what you are getting and going to
get. The closing lines of 'Look and See' rather sum it up: 'Oh Lord, how
shining and festive is your gift to us, if we only look, and see.' I agree
with the sentiment (apart from the 'Oh Lord' bit). But it's quite possible
that by the time I attended to these poems I was Bloodaxed out. I think I
could stand Mary Oliver's poetry in small doses.
The other poet in the series (a series of two, thus far) is Alden Nowlan, who
we already know now is Canada's most popular etc. I know I should know about
these people. I do now. He has won many prizes and awards, and has been dead
twenty years. He is more of your working class downtrodden survivor assailed
by hardship and disease man of the people rough at the edges life is a bastard
but I'm hanging in there straight talking poet: And I like him quite a lot:
I am a saint
with a broken wing
who shakes his fists like the wind.
of the sun,
an hurrah of grass.
cornflowers are not yet
aware they will die soon
from last night's
They are like
stabbed with a blade so thin
and did not interrupt
although it had
pierced her heart.
Since in this
place and season
they are the only flowers
that do not ask for money
I give you
Nothing else is beautiful
this hunchbacked October night
But back to Being Alive. Of
course, I haven't read every poem in either of these two door-stopping
anthologies. But I have spent several hours with these books and became
increasingly dispirited. And, perversely, weighed down by a heavy heart and
almost broken in spirit, I turned to poems to brighten me up. The poems I
like in other books! But the poems I like aren't there to cheer you up after
you've read some crappy poems!! That's silly.
I've lately become reconciled to the fact that lots of people like things,
including poems, that I don't like. This condition co-exists with its
opposite, that lots of people like what I like and don't like what I don't
like. And the edges of all these things are blurred, and the world is big
enough for all of us. And I try not to get too hot under the collar when the
thing we are focussing on in particular is poetry, and I come across things
about Poetry World I don't like much, or even loathe. In other words, I try
to be mellow. But, of course, it doesn't work very well because when I walk
in Waterstone's and into their Poetry section all I can see is this damn
book. Lately, I've been chatting over with a friend how we should maybe do an
anthology of our own, and put the world to rights.
© Martin Stannard, 2004