This rueful passage from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, published nearly a century ago, could apply quite well to another spongy genre: poetry anthologies. And yet, like novels, poetry anthologies persist. They’re reviewed scarcely at all (novels do well by comparison), and they go out of date immediately. One beleaguered editor, Geof Hewitt, lamented in a 1970s anthology:
It is doubtful that any anthology […] can adequately represent what is happening […] I have the lurking fear that somewhere in the group of more than 4000 poems from which I made these selections, work that might change the world was neglected. […] I hope this book will demonstrate that poetry of merit is being written faster than we can ever read it.
Yet I’ve always been grateful for poetry anthologies in all their ephemeral profusion. A poetry anthology is less like a Horatian monumentum aere perennius than it is like a time capsule. So be it. If we can accept that anthologies are human, fallible, time-bound, contingent enterprises, perhaps first broached over drinks at a conference or an artist’s colony, or in an impulsive email thread during lockdown; if we can expect and even welcome the idiosyncrasies, the omissions and inclusions and all the jagged serendipities that almost any poetry anthology will offer, then maybe we’ll be open to the considerable pleasures and surprises of the genre.
To page through such an anthology is like entering a crowded room in which a party is in full swing. Everyone has a reason for being there; many of the guests know one another, and before the crowd thins out, more of them will have met. Presumably one or two hosts have been in charge of the guest list, but the occasion takes on a life of its own. Or maybe browsing in an anthology is like gazing at a display of something colorful and appealing (marzipan? fruit?) and being able to sample things at will without any obligation to buy. Perhaps one memorable taste will entice you further into the labyrinth, since (to try out another trope) good anthologies often do have a labyrinthine quality. You enter, perhaps absentmindedly, perhaps with insouciance or bravado, and gradually venture further inward, trying to determine the rationale of the layout.
Of course poetry anthologies, more merciful than labyrinths, offer escape routes on every page. And unlike labyrinths, they feature tables of contents which often set forth the rationale of the poems’ arrangement. These rationales are varied. Poems may be arranged chronologically by their authors’ dates, or by the dates of the poems’ publication. They can be arranged alphabetically (as in Ted Hughes’s The Rattle Bag) by the poets’ surname. And, perhaps most frequent these days, they can be arranged thematically.
Tree Lines, a newly published anthology into which I’m currently dipping with great pleasure, trying to savor each poem without gulping, is a theme-based anthology (all poems about or featuring trees) whose contents are subdivided into thematic sections: “Where You are Planted”; “One Tree”; “Calendar”; and “Writing and telling.” Such categories often overlap, but it’s pleasant to find oneself in the midst of a grove of blossoming cherry or apple trees, where the poems seem to rhyme with each other.
Another noteworthy recent anthology, Gigantic Cinema, is devoted to weather. The organizing principle here appears to take us through one long and variegated day, moving from dawn through rain and snow and wind and tornado, starlight, and moonlight and eclipse — and also through millennia of poetry from all parts of the globe. To ascertain the author, you have to turn to the back of the book, so a certain amount of pleasurable guesswork is involved. The decision to separate the poems from the poets isn’t new. In the preface to his 1916 The Spirit of Man, Robert Bridges explained that
the reader is invited to bathe rather than to fish in these waters: that is to say, the several pieces are to be read in context, and it is for this reason that no titles or names of authors are inserted in the text, because they would distract the attention and lead away the thought and even overrule consideration.
Just so: Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan, the editors of Gigantic Cinema, have replaced titles with numbers. Many of the pieces they include are excerpts, often from prose sources like journals or letters, so titles would in any case be problematic. Oswald and Keegan cast a wide net, but their book feels generous and expansive rather than too long; the subject is much bigger than we are. Reading Gigantic Cinema a few entries at a time, leapfrogging from John Davidson to Homer to Hawthorne to Baudelaire to James Fenton, to name a very few, I never wanted the book to end.
Tree Lines is edited on very different principles. All the contributors are, to the best of my knowledge, living American poets. Most of the trees celebrated here, whether remembered, mourned, or simply observed, are rooted in American soil. If Gigantic Cinema is a kind of global almanac, Tree Lines feels more national — and yet again, the subject is much bigger than one state or region. Both these books were surely occasioned by the climate crisis; both are also full of praise and gratitude. Both introduced me to poems and/or poets I hadn’t known before.
Theme-based poetry anthologies run the risk of becoming repetitious; 100 poems based on the Grimms’ fairy tales will tend to give us more takes on Little Red Riding Hood than we really want. But lately I’ve been finding that theme-based anthologies are among my favorites. The poet with their eye on the weather, or on a tree, or on the pandemic, is concerned with something bigger than themselves that also affects them personally, even intimately. Accordingly, a collection of poems about trees or weather or COVID may have a choral quality, drawing strength from a multiplicity of voices. At the same time, the range of poems all inspired by trees or a season or a virus showcases the individuality of poetic styles and voices. Juxtapose any two poems from Tree Lines, for example, and you have a ready-made lesson in the different ways poems deploy their elements, the variety of how a single what can be approached. Opening Tree Lines or Gigantic Cinema lets me hear a swelling chorus of voices at the same time as it allows close attention to single poems, provided those poems merit that attention.
I’m presupposing good editing here. Jennifer Barber, Jessica Greenbaum, and Fred Marchant have done a beautiful job with Tree Lines; the same can be said of Oswald and Keegan with Gigantic Cinema. Still, it’s always worth asking who edits poetry anthologies, and why. Sometimes the editors of poetry anthologies are well-known poets, sometimes obscure ones; sometimes they are not poets at all. I used to feel it was far from obvious why anyone would want to edit a poetry anthology, but I’ve come to feel that this task (call it a labor of love) is something many poetry lovers sooner or later feel an urge or impulse to do.
The British poet Hugo Williams turned to the word “anthology” for a collection he compiled at the age of 14, in the hope that “that technical-sounding word, like some weird branch of science, would bestow authority on what might otherwise have been just a notebook with poems copied into it.” For Laura Riding and Robert Graves, precisely such an amateur’s notebook is the only authentic kind of poetry anthology, a point exhaustively argued in their deliciously acidic A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928).
Anthologists’ motives vary wildly. They run the gamut from love for the art, nostalgia for one’s lost innocence as a reader, intense political indignation, a desire to bear witness, to take an aesthetic position, memorialize a moment or an event, and so on and on, to an opposite extreme: the need to publish so as not to perish. In terms of academic credentials, edited anthologies, like edited textbooks, count as scholarly publications. Indeed, like textbooks, though probably more rarely, anthologies can even become cash cows, purchased by generations of students. It’s not safe, though, to generalize about anthologists’ agendas except to venture the thought that such agendas have as much to offer the observer of literary trends, cultural currents, or human psychology as they do to lovers of poetry.
Literary trends, cultural currents, and human psychology have converged during the period of COVID-19 (I don’t dare say “during and after” or “during and since”) to change the shape of poetic gatherings and performances. Before the pandemic, it was my practice to extract some of the best lines of my students’ poetry and weave these, together with a few of my own lines, into a cento. At long poetry readings where a number of poets read, I often jotted down lines I liked, for future reference. In the past two years, I’ve noticed that the chat function in Zoom readings is full of repetitions of lines the listeners like. The chat becomes something more interesting than a cheering section; it’s an instantaneous repository of attention.
Something like this savoring of individual lines or passages was undertaken by the Welsh poet Carl Griffin in his book-length curated poem, Arrival at Elsewhere (2020). As early in the pandemic as March 2020, Griffin writes, he “decided to reach out to other poets, suggesting a book-length poem I would compose from whatever fragments or poems they have written during the Covid-19 period.” The remarkable result was “an experimental, collaborative poem that was organized, written and edited in around six months and does not claim to be the voice of the pandemic.” Rather than the voice, Arrival at Elsewhere is composed of a congeries of voices; it’s bigger than any one person’s experience. And yet each section of the poem feels intimate and authentic. As working with centos showed me a decade ago, pronouns undergo a sea change when pieces of poems are juxtaposed. Who is “I”? Who are “you”? Arrival isn’t exactly an anthology, yet something like this transformation of personal pronouns also occurs in anthologies: styles may remain individual, but voices meld.
Griffin describes an editorial process that sounds familiar to a low-tech writer like me: “When I cut out the best fragments and began to spread them out on my dining table, the table quickly filled, and I still had loads of fragments to make room for.” During the arduous process of selecting and arranging, Griffin writes, he was sustained by a piece of advice from one of his contributing poets: “In my experience, what starts to look utterly impossible to pull together suddenly finds a way through which seems, in retrospect, inevitable.” That outcome of that mysterious patterning (“a few patterns emerged that I could use as my starting point”), that pull toward design and arrangement, is described by Griffin’s editors at Against the Grain Poetry Press as a “collaboration of sorts, a creation of a road through all the work of poets who contributed to its making and a maker who sensitively crafted this winding path of a poem from all our tongues.”
Such an urgency to create a winding path (and remember the trope of anthology as labyrinth) — a through-line “which seems, in retrospect, inevitable,” can also be detected behind the decision-making which produces good anthologies. In thinking about Tree Lines and Gigantic Cinema, as well as about Arrival at Elsewhere, there’s a sense of what Wordsworth called “a tree of many, one.” Symbol? Synecdoche? The perennial phenomenon of language, universal and private at once. The gift of poetry.
Rachel Hadas’s most recent books are Love and Dread, Piece by Piece, and Pandemic Almanac.