Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Psychology of Anthologies

While out of work ill and, quite literally, voiceless last week I decided to spend some time with my much neglected collection of poetry books.  Poetry requires time for consumption and digestion.  Not just physical clock time but mental 'head-space' time.  You can't read a poem while a part of your brain is thinking about what to cook for dinner or that you haven't been to the gym in three days.  You have to be focused.  If tweets are fast food designed for people on-the-go, poetry is foie gras and caviar; food to be savoured, relished and remembered.

It can be exceedingly difficult to find the time for it in the modern world with so many apps, websites and devices devoted to disrupting our thoughts and grabbing our focus as often as possible.  To get all that poetry has to offer you need to get away from the beeping gadgets, put up the 'do not disturb' sign and give it the respect it deserves.  Poetry is the one style of writing I don't fancy reading on my Kindle - it belongs on the printed page or to be spoken aloud by the human voice.  In short, it is sacred.

And so being bed-bound like a modern day Beth from Little Women (if it weren't for antibiotics I think I would have perished young as well - thank God for modern medicine!) I gathered my books around me to nourish my soul.  It struck me as interesting that I was much more drawn (as I usually am) to my mixed poetry anthologies than to a book by an individual poet.  I have collections by e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Brendan Kennelly, Wendy Cope and many more whom I love but when I'm in the mood for poetry I tend to go back to the anthology where I read the poem that drew me to that poet originally rather than pick a book solely comprising their work.

Why is that? Are poems more appealing set among contrasting works?  Are anthologies better because an editor has gone to the trouble of picking the best poems and excluding the chaff?  Perhaps there are people out there who much prefer reading poems in their original collections 'as the poet's designed them' and scoff at anthologies.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!

I can only speak for myself and for me anthologies win almost every time so I thought I might give a brief introduction to a few of the poetry anthologies that have given me huge enjoyment in my life:

1) Staying Alive - real poems for unreal times. (2002) Edited by Neil Astley, published by Bloodaxe Books (Poetry With an Edge).

Neil Astley is a prolific anthologiser (I may have just invented that word) having put together a multitude of collections for Bloodaxe Books.  This book is one of a trilogy with companion pieces Being Alive (2004) and Being Human (2011) and is divided up under headings like 'Body and Soul', 'Roads and Journeys', 'Disappearing Acts' and, my favourite; 'Me, the Earth, the Universe'.

The blurb:
''Staying Alive' is an international anthology of 500 life-affirming poems fired by belief in the human and the spiritual at a time when much in the world feels unreal, inhuman and hollow. These are poems of great personal force connecting our aspirations with our humanity, helping us stay alive to the world and stay true to ourselves.'

2) 100 Poems by 100 poets - An Anthology. (1991) Selected by Harold Pinter, Geoffrey Godbert, Anthony Astbury, published by Grove Press.

The blurb:
'To pass the time on a long train ride from London to Cornwall, playwright Harold Pinter and his two companions, Geoffrey Godbert and Anthony Astbury, set up a challenge:  Choose a hundred poems by a hundred poets – living poets excluded – to represent the finest poetry ever written in English.  The three agreed to organize this collection unconventionally, alphabetically by author rather than chronologically.  The resulting anthology is challenging, eclectic, very personal, and great fun.  With its surprising juxtapositions and gargantuan range of voice and style, 100 Poems by 100 Poets brings old favorites into a new light and less well-known poems out of the shadows.'

The sticker from Charlie Byrne's bookshop on the back of this book is in punts so it's been in my possession at least ten years now.   I love it because they chose to include my favourite Shakespeare Sonnet (No. 29) which proves I have the same taste as Pinter.  Win.

3) Lifelines - New and Collected. (2006) Compiled by Dónal O'Connor, Caroline Shaw and Stephanie Veitch, intrduced and edited by Niall MacMonagle. published by Town House, Dublin.

The blurb:
It is twenty-one years since the pupils of Wesley College Dublin first published their pamphlets, Lifelines - Letters from Famous People about their Favourite Poem, to help with famine relief in Ethiopia.  Their stunningly simple idea resulted in three volumes of best-selling poetry anthologies.
Under the direction of their English teacher, Niall MacMonagle, the pupils of Wesley College now publish their final Lifelines. It is a hugely entertaining, eclectic collection, comprising entries from the famous of 2006 and selected responses from previous editions.

My favourite collection - without question.  The fact that each poem has been selected as somebody's 'favourite' means that every one is gripping in some way.  The inclusion of the letters explaining the choice is also a stroke of genius as it offers a helpful introduction to a previously unknown poem or can offer insights into a familiar one the reader may not have considered before.  I have been dipping in and out of Lifelines for a few years now and continue to find hidden gems guarded by the blurry blue bunny (!)

Does anyone out there have an anthology they treasure and would like to share? Please let me know if so! I can offer more suggestions if people have all of these and want more ideas but I'd love to hear your ideas first.

Ms. E. Dobbyn.

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