HomeEnglish LanguageEnglish LiteratureOn the enduring influence of the poetry anthology

On the enduring influence of the poetry anthology

As collective nouns go, “a serious outbreak of poets”, devised by the Daily Mail in 1915 and quoted by Clare Bucknell in The Treasuries: Poetry anthologies and the making of British culture, must be among the least affectionate. The jibe was provoked by the wartime emergence of “some 2,225 men and women [in Britain]” who hoped to document or neutralize events or to turn them to some other kind of poetic use – often in the form of contributions to anthologies. The Second World War witnessed a milder irruption and the pattern has continued in times of communal strain or international crisis, which is to say almost all times.

Bucknell makes clear that, under such circumstances, an anthology – here meaning a book of poems by a crowd of authors, gathered with intent, rather than a commonplace book – is envisioned by its editor(s) as useful. Anthologies are vehicles of alteration, or of altercation, even when their prefaces are girded with disclaimers, anticipating accusations of elitism or ignorance, along the lines of “this is, of course, a personal selection”. Whether the verse in question is good or not often seems to be beside the point. Some poets and editors have entirely taken against the idea, apparently for this reason: in a letter to the TLS (November 24, 1921), T. S. Eliot wrote that “the work of any poet who has already published a book of verse is likely to be more damaged than aided by anthologies”. Laura Riding and Robert Graves went so far as to produce A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928), which made clear how much, in Bucknell’s words, they “deplored what they saw as the poisoning of early twentieth-century poetry by a wave of commercial, ‘trade’ anthologies”.

Bucknell begins not with Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), the original anthology of poems in English, though she names it in her introduction, but with the first instalment in the Poems on Affairs of State series (1697–1707), by which means Dryden, the Duke of Buckingham et al hoped to give the public glimpses of the courts of James II, William III and Queen Anne. These anthologies served as “a key means by which British men, women and children were introduced to the culture of their nation”. Few have since proved strictly influential on the course of history; but few is better than none. One successor to Poems on Affairs of State supported concrete change. The Foundling Hospital for Wit series was launched in 1743 by an anonymous editor identified by Bucknell as the Welsh diplomat and satirist Charles Hanbury Williams. One sequence of poems adopted into the Hospital, “attacking the despised turncoat politician William Pulteney … did more damage to Pulteney in a matter of months … than the outspoken opposition newspaper The Craftsman had ever managed to do to [Robert Walpole] in two decades”. The wound was to Pulteney’s character in the public eye; that the weapon was versified must have given it greater memorability and speed of distribution. This may have contributed to the fact that when Pulteney (then the Earl of Bath) eventually attempted to form a government in 1746, he failed, and was unable to gain a political foothold for the remainder of his life.

The influence of other books considered here is harder to distil. Thomas Percy’s Reliques (1765), a swatch of antique, often supernatural ballads rescued from an inglenook and reproduced with help from Samuel Johnson and William Shenstone, presented a case for considering cultural trivia and marginalia as salient historic artefacts, and made familiar the supernatural darkness so it could be enjoyed by readers through Enlightened eyes. The “Beauties” (cheap books garnering the loveliest, or best-to-memorize, bits of a poet’s or of poets’ work) enjoyed considerable popularity in the later eighteenth century, and benefited from and contributed to the “rapid democratization” of literacy and what Richard Altick called the “emergence of the reading public as a social problem”. Letting the middle and working classes at the works of Milton and Shakespeare was, according to Thomas Moore, “like letting the mob in to vote”.

Thence poetry became a way to help that mob to tolerate or else transcend its lot – in F. D. Maurice’s view, a tool towards “the development of a selfhood capable of bearing with dignity the monotonous nature of machine labour”. In 1861 Francis Turner Palgrave hoped that readers of his Golden Treasury would derive such “beneficial human and spiritual effects” from poems whose “chief selection criteria was simple excellence”. (Some might ask: is excellence simple? Palgrave’s shy vaticinations, in his introduction, of the names he thought would probably survive into posterity are worthy of note: he mentions Tennyson, William Cullen Bryant, John Clare and James Russell Lowell. In updated editions of the Treasury from 1939, 1954 and 1994, edited by Laurence Binyon, C. Day Lewis and John Press respectively, the first three are well represented, leaving only Lowell missing in action.)

Palgrave might have known better than to think of self-improvement as a notion with no effect externally. Years before he started on the book he inadvertently created inordinate expectations for a cohort of working-class men at Kneller Hall, a teacher training college in Twickenham: many of the young men ended up “teaching” in workhouses, where their “high ideals” merely made the reality of their employment more lowering. But he could not have known that British autodidacts and/or social climbers would procure 10,000 copies of his Treasury in just six months. More than 140,000 copies were in circulation by the time he died. What readers took from it was, Bucknell writes, not “a spiritual escape from worldly aspiration … [but] itself a source of aspiration, part of a systematic process of self-culture”. The spangled titles of anthologies of this period – The Book of Gems, 1836; The Casquet of Gems, 1874 – metaphorically suggest the species of enrichment on offer.

During the First World War anthology editors took a new approach, one understandably more in line with common feeling, but which may surprise the modern reader of that period’s anointed names. First, of that “outbreak of poets”, most, at least in the beginning, were civilians, who putatively had a calm, objective understanding. The “soldier poet” was a posthumous design of Rupert Brooke’s. What’s more, when anthologists started collecting soldier poets, many of their chosen poems mixed “Elizabethan fever” (in Bucknell’s phrase), in the form of references to “Armada weather”, British “fleets” and “Old Drake … beating his drum”, with “marketable sentiment” (in the words of Riding and Graves). Glory was the order of the day. The poet-critic J. C. Squire remarked that this writing was neutered by abstraction, was a plagiarist of history instead of a depiction of the true and happening Now. Yet “the general need … for reassurance that the hundreds of thousands of deaths had been worth it” prevailed.

Something Bucknell doesn’t mention, as the chronological-thematic format of The Treasuries requires her to shuttle on, is how anthologies of First World War work changed over the years (perhaps because in wartime books, like other media, were spun or censored). The contents of anthologies produced between 1914 and 1919 bear scant resemblance to retrospective, post-1960 anthologies: by the 1930s poets such as Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and David Jones had marched to the fore, supplanting that more patriotic writing, apart from the higher-octane work of Brooke and Hardy, and they have stayed there. Similarly, non-combatants such as Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (whose “Battle” is a meticulous, pessimistic imagining of soldiery) and Alfred Noyes (whose poems written just before the war, such as the visceral “The Wine-Press”, and just after, such as the anti-sybaritic “The Victory Ball”, were pacifist, although he was employed to publish reams of patriotic verse while it was on) have somewhat dropped from view.

These changes say a lot about how readers’ wishes changed. With them went those of editors. In the 1930s editors and poet-revolutionaries “looking for a way out of The Waste Land” initiated a sequence of schisms and political revisionings that stretched all the way to the 1970s: the magazines New Verse, New Writing and New Masses were chased down by anthologies titled New Signatures (1932), New Country (1933) and, after the Second World War, New Lines (1956), New Lines II (1963) and The New Poetry (1962; revised edition 1966). Times changed, repeatedly. None of the News stayed news. Maturing poets such as W. H. Auden, who had once been at the forefront of this generation, which believed in the necessity of taking sides, later put out quasi-palinodes retracting that opinion. Far from buttressing the anti-fascist cause or expediting the demise of capitalism (see Michael Roberts’s introduction to New Country), “poetry makes nothing happen”; and, as Auden wrote in his preface to Poems of Freedom (1938), “reading this anthology will teach nobody how to run a state or raise a revolution”. To say this loudly in the form of another anthology, to “take a stand against the tyranny of ideals” as Robert Conquest did with his New Lines, was hardly popular; much better to assert that poets must react to things, albeit in a way that’s not nodding and toothless. Hence Al Alvarez’s commendation or monition, in his prescient preface to his The New Poetry, of a “New Seriousness”.

The TLS emerges as an edgy co-narrator in these later chapters, annotating their developments, either “approvingly” or “disapprovingly”, with delirious frequency. In the TLS of July 14, 1961, John Willett predicted the rise of performance poetry with optimism, declaring his hope that “a truly first-class poem” might come out of it. Contenders for that title exist (Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America”; John Cooper Clarke’s “Beasley Street”; more recently, Neil Hilborn’s “OCD”), but no real contenders appear in The Mersey Sound (1967), “the bestselling anthology of all time”, of which the TLS spoke only sniffily at the time of publication. Why stop now? This chapter is, in anecdotal content, quite compelling – filled with Ginsbergian “happenings”, of play-acting nuclear fallout and fallouts – but it is also this book’s narrowest and least ambitious. This may be because performance poetry is a US import; the proper birthplace of The Mersey Sound is not the Cavern Club in Liverpool, but City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in the 1950s. (Performance would grow up among the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York in the 1970s, and in the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago, where “slam poetry” was born, in the late 1980s). As such, the chapter’s pull is not so much a trend in British publishing as a friable grouping of three individuals – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten – who made a fuss and the beginnings of careers out of the cultural spiritus mundi and a single hit anthology.

Most recently the personal medicine chest has replaced the community-focused or factional line. Some popular verbal decoctions are Staying Alive: Real poems for unreal times (2002), The Poetry Pharmacy (2017) and The Emergency Poet (2015). (This last book’s editor, Deborah Alma, as Bucknell is too kind to say, used to drive around Shropshire and the adjacent dales and vales in a “vintage” decommissioned ambulance, dispensing poetry, like a supremely disappointing ice-cream man.) This chapter is illuminating. Bucknell notes that poetry alone cannot be therapy, though it creates the right conditions for a dialogue; and she addresses the necessity of a person-by-person approach to prescribing it, since all of us will generate dissimilar “internal texts” when reading, based on what our fears are. A proper therapist may be a crucial middleman: anthologists can only guess at readers’ needs, so are always offering a supposition – or an imposition. One size can’t fit all. Bucknell also considers the general sway of self-help books (since Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help, 1859; first brought up in her Palgrave chapter), though her scope does not allow her to explore how poetry is not the only art form to receive the “swallow twice daily with water” treatment – see also Symphonies for the Soul (2021) or How Art Can Make You Happy (2017).

Aside from such remedial offerings, whose contents are literally a prescription as well as a description of the sickened world in which they were compiled, anthologies that attempt to be prescriptive almost always end up being more descriptive of the circumstances of their composition. The only part of culture that they inevitably will affect directly – though not always in the way their editors would choose – is poetic culture. Which is, as Alvarez also wrote in The New Poetry, incessantly leashed and unleashed by “a series of feedback loops”. For its substantiation of this truth, as well as its wealth of detail, breadth of reference and clear-eyed overview of editors’ intentions, trends and periods, The Treasuries should be essential reading for emerging critics, and especially for those who have designs on poetry’s utility or purpose. Poet-critics in particular have often sought for captious confirmations of their pet hypotheses, instead of taking firm humility from the unstable past. The history of the anthology is a good place to find that.

If “the poet’s first business is mentioning things” (Louis MacNeice), her second business is, per Alvarez, responding to things – often things that came before her, or that occupy the status quo and now seem moribund. Sometimes responses are more sympathetic. Alexander Pope owned a copy of A New Collection of Poems Relating to State Affairs (1705) as a teenager, and “enjoyed annotating [it] by filling in blanked-out names and guessing at the authors of anonymous poems”. Percy Bysshe Shelley owned a copy of Matthew Lewis’s two-volume anthology of “macabre ballads”, Tales of Wonder (1801), and “inscribed [it] with little marginal drawings of ghosts and monsters”; and while Wordsworth, Bucknell notes, had “mixed feelings” about the supernatural aspect of many anthologies in his time, he “believed that both British and German poetry had been ‘absolutely redeemed’ by Percy’s Reliques”. Among the impecunious John Keats’s “most beloved possessions” was an edition of The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, produced by John Bell at the time of the “Beauties”; John Clare, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt “doted on” Charles Cooke’s sixpenny editions of the poets as schoolboys and young men.

But poets have also pushed off from anthologies’ contents. T. S. Eliot taught from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury at a series of university extension classes in 1918, but later turned on it, considering it, Bucknell says, “a hangover of Victorian literary culture”; he was perhaps influenced in this by Ezra Pound’s view of Palgrave as “that doddard” and “that stinking sugar teat”. During the First World War a copy of William Galloway Kyle’s anthology Soldier Poets (1916), in which a sentimental poem by Sydney Oswald called “Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori” appeared, made its way to Owen at the front (though it is often thought that Owen took the poetry of Jessie Pope – which broke out in the Daily Mail, naturally – as his foil). The rest of the twentieth century, as noted, was a medley of backlashing, backbiting and backtracking. The twenty-first has seen attempts to soothe or balm the social and psychological wounds highlighted in The New Poetry; a new reaction must already be preparing itself to emerge.

The first anthology I annotated, as a novice poet, was Emergency Kit: Poems for strange times (1996) – much in keeping with the theme medicinal. The first I owned is differently exemplary. My grandfather’s broken-backed, Biro-inscribed copy of The Pocket Book of Verse (1940) sailed with him on HMS Northern Dawn during the Second World War. One of its inside leaves shows the eagle-borne missive “Books are weapons in the war of ideas”; its contents notably exclude the works of Owen, Sassoon et al. My grandfather had learnt by heart some poems from it (“Kubla Khan”, for instance) when he passed it on to me.

Introducing that wartime selection, M. Edmund Speare writes that “Poetry is more than a great pleasure. It should also be an outlet for our unspoken thoughts and our varied moods”. That claim well describes the anthology as a wider genre, which has as many moods as zeit has geists, and whose divergent forms always exist in synchronicity, each waiting for its moment to again regain the field. Concluding her superb first book, Clare Bucknell observes that “anthologies are … tools for projecting and imagining, laying down the outlines of an ideal culture”, whether they succeed in conjuring one or not. To anthologists, certainly. To readers and poets, they are cultural heirlooms, or the anchors of moments against which to lean or to strain. (When I visited my grandfather on his deathbed, I recited “Kubla Khan”.) Anthologies – like poets – sometimes do their finest work by accident.

Camille Ralphs is Poetry Editor at the TLS and writes a column about anthologies, “Averse Miscellany”, for Poetry London

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Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
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