Category Archives: anthology

Review: ‘By Heart – 101 poems to remember’, ed. Ted Hughes

This book’s theme is the memorisation of poems, and there are things I like and things I don’t like about both Ted Hughes’ introduction to the subject and the 101 poems that he has chosen.

First, the introduction. I like that it encourages people to learn poems by heart. But although the book’s title is ‘By Heart‘, Hughes instead teaches ‘by head’. His method is extremely cerebral, using the kind of image-association-chain taught by neuro-linguisitic program consultants to help you remember the names of business associates and clients. Hughes would have you construct a Cumberbatch-Sherlock Holmes ‘mind palace’. Taking Hopkins’ poem ‘Inversnaid’ as an example, Hughes explains that the opening lines
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
can be dealt with as follows:
For ‘peaty burn’ it might be enough simply to imagine, like a frame in a colour film, a dark torrential mountain stream coming down among boulders. But to make sure it is ‘burn’ and not ‘stream’ that you remember, it might be better to imagine the stream actually burning, sending up flames and smoke: a cascade of dark fire, scorching the banks. The next item, ‘brown horse’, now has to be connected to the burning stream. The most obvious short-cut is to put the horse in the torrent of fire, trying to scramble out – possibly with its mane in flames.
He then goes on to connect it to the horse causing an avalanche (rollrock highroad) which comes down on a lion (roaring down), and so on.

My difficulty with all this is that the images he is creating are simply not what the poem is about. When Hopkins writes ‘burn’ meaning stream, it’s not appropriate to set it on fire. Of course the poem summons up images, and they are useful for memorizing… but for godssake, why not think of it as a Scottish stream rather than setting it on fire? The burn is brown and in spate, and rocks are rolling down it and it makes a roaring noise – and that is the picture you can hold in your head as you recite Hopkins’ lovely rich words, without having to involve fires, animals and avalanches.

It seems to me that Hughes is in danger of losing the beauty of the actual poem by going through his ‘mind palace’ activities. He appears to be reducing the memorisation of poetry to a party trick, performed at the expense of the poem itself. If he didn’t love the poem for its actual imagery, what did he love it for? When he memorised a poem, did he check it off and then forget it? Wouldn’t all the peripheral imagery have gotten in the way when he tried to recite the poem a few decades later? Better and safer to my mind to stay with the essential images and the richness of the language, rather than setting fire to a stream because the poet uses the word ‘burn’.

And this leads in to my thoughts about the selection of the 101 poems to be learnt by heart. Auden, Blake, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Wordsworth and Yeats each get at least five poems, and Shakespeare over a dozen. The less-represented poets are a wider mix, from John Betjeman to Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lewis Carroll… The poems themselves are interesting, and many of them are perfect for memorising, so it is a worthwhile read.

But I don’t think it appropriate to waste five or six pages on the 130 or 170 lines of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ or Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. Perhaps Ted Hughes learnt those two along with Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, but the latter two are far more suitable than the former for a book that is meant to encourage others to achieve memorisation.

Again, most of the poems are good for learning by heart, but too many of them have none of the qualities that make it easy to learn poetry in English: rhyme, metre, alliteration, wordplay. William Empson’s translation of the Japanese poem ‘From the Small Bird to the Big’ is interesting, but inappropriate for this book. The same goes for Pound’s ‘The Return’ and Eliot’s ‘Marina’ – inappropriate because they are missing the music, the song-like qualities, that make memorisation easy. Easy, that is, if you are learning by heart, as the book’s title requires.

Review: ‘A Child’s Introduction to Poetry’ by Michael Driscoll

This book, “A Child’s Introduction to Poetry” by Michael Driscoll, illustrated by Meredith Hamilton, is the single best introduction to poetry that I have ever seen. It is part of a series of books aimed at 8 to 10-year-olds, and is divided into two parts: ‘The Rhymes and Their Reasons’, with two to four large pages on topics as diverse as Nonsense Rhymes, The Villanelle, Free Verse and Poems Peculiar; and ‘Poetry’s Greats’ with a couple of pages each on 21 poets such as Homer, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Belloc, Auden, Paz and Angelou. The book is richly illustrated on every page, and is packed with bits of biography, commentary, prosody, explanation and definition. Purely as a book, it is superb.

But wait! There’s more! The original edition came with a CD of all the poems, and the Revised and Updated edition comes with downloadable audio and a poster. These audio aspects are not as brilliant as the book, for two reasons: first, the poems are read “professionally” which unfortunately means without the joy, excitement, teasing, energy or naturalness that I listened for. They are clear, flat and boring, with unnecessarily exaggerated pauses between lines. I listened to the first three poems, and quit. Secondly, the CD version (which is what I have) may have been obsoleted, but the major item of comment in the Amazon reviews is that there are no explanations for downloading the audio, and that it was difficult for reviewers to figure out how to do it.

Ignore the audio, then. If you already have an interest in poetry you will probably do a better job than the unfortunate “professionals” in reading aloud from the book, and your child will have a richer experience anyway from your personal involvement and introduction. The book will soon enough be one for the child to dip into and skip back and forth in, moving from biographies to poems to illustrations to factoids as the mood takes them.

In terms of the variety of poetry–forms, moods, eras, nationalities–I have never seen anything so rich and satisfying for a good young reader as this Introduction. I wish all English-speaking children everywhere could have a copy.

Review: ‘The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse’, ed. Philip Larkin

This anthology edited by Philip Larkin (which, despite its title, only goes up to the early 1970s) is the most comprehensive, diverse and inspiring collection of formal and semi-formal poetry that I have ever come across. It has, naturally, some free verse… but even that is entertaining in this selection.

The book has no one born before 1840 (Blunt and Hardy), no Matthew Arnold, no Gerard Manley Hopkins (died 1889), so there are almost no Thee’s and Thou’s… except from Robert Bridges.

It has no one born after 1946 (Brian Patten); poets of today are not in this book.

Larkin chose to exclude writers not “born in these islands (or resident here for an appreciable time)”, which lets him include Kipling and Eliot as well as any Scots, Welsh or Irish that he chooses, but cuts out E.E. Cummings, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost… And Larkin makes no explanation or apology for including Derek Walcott who, born in St. Lucia, lived his life between the Caribbean and the US.

So the anthology is not as complete as could be hoped; but, with 584 poems by 207 poets in 625 pages, it is enormously wide-ranging and full of not just the best of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, but also unexpected treasures by authors barely known today. Here is T.E. Hulme’s ‘The Embankment’, subtitled ‘(The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night)’:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

And in completely contrasting mood, here is ‘An Epitaph’ by Colin Ellis:

He worshipped at the altar of Romance
(Tried to seduce a woman half his age)
And dared to stake his fortune on a chance
(Gambled away his children’s heritage).

He valued only what the world held cheap
(Refused to work, from laziness and pride):
Dreams were his refuge and he welcomed sleep
(He failed at business, took to drink and died).

All types of (“English”) 20th century verse are in the anthology. It is the most wonderful, wonderful read.

Review: ‘Extreme Formal Poems – Contemporary Poets’, ed. Beth Houston

Beth Houston has compiled an excellent anthology of formal verse (i.e. poems that use traditional structures of exact rhyme and tightly controlled meter; typically in familiar forms like the sonnet, villanelle, ballade, etc, but sometimes in a nonce form, a form specially created by the poet for that particular poem, and then rigorously maintained for all its stanzas). What is unusual in this day and age is these are all contemporary poets, for the most part American, though with half-a-dozen who at least started out in the UK. (In the interests of disclosure: two of my poems are in this book, and I am one of the non-Americans.)

The poems range in a variety of moods through a whole host of modern topics. With examples from first stanzas only, we have a flippant take on nature:

The female fly is nearly chaste.
She hasn’t any time to waste;
Her life’s a span of weeks, not months,
And so she copulates just once.

– Max Gutmann, The Fly

a rueful look at the military:

You’ve made us proud–the prosperous and free.
It doesn’t matter that a GED
was all the education you could get,
or that you signed up on a drunken bet.

– Barbara Loots, Thank You For Your Service

lighthearted memories:

In sloppy FM waves nostalgia rolls:
I wanna hold! You are the sunshine of!
Each oldie on the golden dial extols
Your soul, your body’s curves, your rockin’ love.

– Chris O’Carroll, Classic Hits

Villon-reflecting reflections on time and mortality:

Where are the flushed and frantic teens,
The hormones’ fevered ebbs and flows?

(Fire buckets, water, verbal screens.)
The girls–good grief!–that parents chose
And others–how the mind’s eye glows!
Who floated inches off the floor?

(Flout censor’s ruling–fish-net hose.)
With dodo, great auk, dinosaur.
– Jerome Betts, Ballade of Inevitable Extinction

pastoral descriptions of nature:

On moorland, on meadow, from dark sky I’m falling,
through peat, into pavement, I’m seeping, I’m sinking.
Above me the crows and the curlews are calling,
and of me the hares and the horses are drinking.

– Tim Taylor, Water of Holme

witty observations flavored with wordplay and interior rhymes:

I’m far from young enough to know it all.
With age my inner sage has paled and died.
My dimmer, dumber cerebellum’s fall
Leaves ever-clever youth aloof and snide.

– Susan Jarvis Bryant, I’m Far From Young Enough

But what you don’t get from the openings to the poems is that most of them pack a punch at the end. There will be a twist to the story, or a summation that recasts everything in a different light, or a straight-out contradiction of what the reader was being led to expect. The poems may be extremely formal. They are also extremely good.

The only regret I have is that some of the very best contemporary formal poets are missing: both the publicity-prominent (e.g. A.E. Stallings, Amit Majmudar, Gerry Cambridge, Wendy Cope) and the more reclusive (Pino Coluccio, Rose Kelleher, Marcus Bales). But happily there are still 37 excellent and prize-winning poets in Beth Houston’s well-selected anthology. So the good news is that a great many superb formalists are writing today, and–believe it or not–this looks like a Golden Age for formal verse. And ‘Extreme Formal Poems‘ is a very good manifestation of it.

Review: ‘101 Sonnets’ edited by Don Paterson

This has to rank as one of the all-time great poetry anthologies. Yes, it contains only sonnets. Yes, several of them are dense in structure or in language (several are in Scots, with words and phrases translated in footnotes). Yes, there is only one sonnet per poet. It is very rich material, and took me a couple of weeks for a first read because there is a lot of absorb. And it has a fabulous Introduction by the British editor Don Paterson – a well-respected poet who avoided including any sonnet of his own.

The sonnets are not put into any formal grouping, but rather flow conversationally from one to the next, the themes often shifting through unexpected juxtaposition. So the first nine run through an amazing sequence of idealised love, woman as muse, kissing, sensual religiosity, obscenity, and charm. It starts with Robert Frost’s
She is as in a field a silken tent
and progresses to Robert Graves’ woman/muse
This they know well: the Goddess yet abides.
Though each new lovely woman whom She rides

to Jo Shapcott’s ‘Muse’
When I kiss you in all the folding places
to Alexander Montgomerie’s
So swete a kis yistrene fra thee I reft
to Wilfred Owen’s
Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed

John Donne’s
Batter my heart, three-personed God
William Alabaster’s ‘Upon the Crucifix’
Feed greedy eyes and from hence never rove,
Suck hungry soul of this eternal store,
Issue my heart from thy two-leaved door,
And let my lips from kissing not remove.

Craig Raine’s ‘Arsehole’
I dreamed your body was an instrument
and this was the worn mouthpiece
to which my breathing lips were bent.

to Robert Herrick
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness

The 101 Sonnets provide a wild ride. The next in the book are Poe’s ‘An Enigma’, Wordsworth’s
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

(incidentally the first sonnet I learnt by heart, one that helped shape my life) and J.K. Stephens’ parody critique of Wordsworth
Two voices are there: one is of the deep (…)
And one is of the old half-witted sheep (…)
And, Wordsworth, both are thine
.

And so on through all aspects of life and death, English landscapes, Irish history, real parents, imaginary children, mythology, poetry, the seasons, the close observation of small everyday items… Wendy Cope paired with Edmund Spenser, Gwendolyn Brooks with John Milton… A very rich and rewarding collection.

And the 17-page Introduction is the single best essay on poetry that I’ve ever read. Naturally it is focused on the sonnet, covering its definition, its history, its structure; but in so doing it talks about wider issues such as the nature of iambic pentameter, and in a couple of places it goes into the nature of poetry itself: it mentions one of the advantages of the sonnet being that it is small enough
to be easily memorised, which is the whole point of the poem–that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains. We should never forget that of all the art forms, only the poem can be carried around in the brain perfectly intact. The poem is no more or less than a little machine for remembering itself: every device or trope, whether rhyme or metre, metaphor or anaphora, or any one of the thousand others, can be said to have a mnemonic function in addtion to its structural or musical one. Poetry is therefore primarily a commemorative act–one of committing worthwhile events and thoughts and stories to memory.

Later Paterson states
Poetic arguments appear to cohere simply because they rhyme. Rhyme always unifies sense, and can make sense out of nonsense; it can trick a logic from the shadows where one would not have otherwise existed. This is one of the great poetic mysteries.

All in all a brilliant book, and highly rereadable.

Review: ‘Short and Sweet – 101 very short poems’

One of a series of short poetry collections that Faber produced in the 1990s, this one features a good introduction by the anthologist (and poet well-known in the UK) Simon Armitage, discussing and justifying the short poem:
“The short poem, at its best, brings about an almost instantaneous surge of both understanding and sensation unavailable elsewhere; its effect should not be underestimated and its design not confused with convenience.”

Of course I love them, they are my children.
This is my daughter and this my son.
And this is my life I give them to please them.
It has never been used. Keep it safe. Pass it on.

– The Mother, by Anne Stevenson

Armitage defines the short poem as no more than 13 lines, thereby ruling out the sonnet as something more than short. Other people define it in other ways: the Shot Glass Journal publishes anything up to 16 lines under its “Brevity is the soul of wit” motto, while another of my favourite collections of verse defines the short poem as ‘Eight Lines or Less’. There is no agreed definition of “short poem”. And as Armitage shows, in 13 lines you can still cover a lot of ground.

She lay a long time as he found her,
Half on her side, askew, her cheek pressed to the floor.
He sat at the table there and watched,
His mind sometimes all over the place,
And then asking over and over
If she were dead: ‘Are you dead, Poll, are you dead?’

For these hours, each one dressed in its figure
On the mantelpiece, love sits with him.
Habit, mutuality, sweetheartedness,
Drop through his body,
And he is not able now to touch her–
A bar of daylight, no more than
Across a table, flows between them.

– As He Found Her, by Jeffrey Wainwright

Some of the poems in the collection were new to me, including both the above. Some of the poems are extremely well-known but always a joy to read: Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is Just to Say’. And others hover half-known:

Where is the grave of Sir Arthur O’Kellyn?
Where may the grave of that good man be?
By the side of a spring, on the breast of Helvellyn,
Under the twigs of a young birch tree!
The oak that in summer was sweet to hear,
And rustled its leaves in the fall of the year,
And whistled and roared in the winter alone,
Is gone, — and the birch in its stead is grown. —
The Knight’s bones are dust,
And his good sword is rust; —
His soul is with the saints, I trust.

– The Knight’s Tomb, by Coleridge

Starting off with the 13-liners, the poems get shorter and shorter as you read on, but without losing their punch–perhaps, as the introduction suggests, condensing their power.
Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;
Romantic fish swam in nets, coming to the hand;
What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?

– Three Movements, by Yeats

… all the way down to the final poem with no text at all, but only its title:
– On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him, by Don Paterson.

Most but not all of the 101 poems are formal; most are originally in English, though there are a few translations: Paz, Sappho, Apollinaire, Salamun and – most surprising in its elegant translation from the Polish – this one, ‘Bodybuilders’ Contest’:
From scalp to sole, all muscles in slow motion,
The ocean of his torso drips with lotion.
The king of all is he who preens and wrestles
with sinews twisted into monstrous pretzels.

Onstage, he grapples with a grizzly bear
the deadlier for not really being there.
Three unseen panthers are in turn laid low,
each with one smoothly choreographed blow.

He grunts while showing his poses and paces.
His back alone has twenty different faces.
The mammoth fist he raises as he wins
is tribute to the force of vitamins.

– Bodybuilders’ Contest, by Wislawa Szymborska.

Altogether an excellent and well-rounded collection.

Review: “Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950”

Modern Verse in English

I’m reading ‘Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950‘, ed. David Cecil and Allen Tate, published in 1958. It provides a good look at a large number of poets from that time period–some have lasted, some haven’t. It is an extensive and useful volume, but it raises some concerns:

1. Lord David Cecil‘s introduction (to the English poems) includes “though during the twenties there was a fashion for free and rhymeless verse, it has passed. Most young poets today write in strictly regular forms.” This was published in 1958, remember. Not really prescient, unfortunately, so you question his insight. He regrets omitting “the work of writers who have made their reputation since 1950, for example, Miss Audrey Beecham, Mr. Philip Larkin and Mr. Thom Gunn.” Well, two out of three’s not bad.

2. The ‘1900-1950′ seems a bit misleading, given that the poets include Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins who both died in the 1880s. True, Hopkins’ poetry wasn’t published until the 1930s–but would we consider an unknown Shakespeare poem 21st century if it was only discovered and published today? And as for Dickinson, three Series of her poems were published in the 1890s.

3. Although a couple of poets born in Ireland and South Africa, and Kipling, are included, the volume contains nothing by Canadians (Bliss Carman, Robert Service and F.R. Scott would fit the time line), Australians, West Indians, etc; and nothing by any people of colour such as Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks (one of my absolute favourites). Any of these would be far more worthy of inclusion than, for example, Donald Davidson whose chief merit for the editor of the American poems, Allen Tate, must have been their shared support for racial segregation. The volume would be better titled ‘Modern White English and American Verse, from Emily Dickinson to Richard Wilbur‘. Still not perfectly accurate, but so it goes.

It is a useful book. But it is less complete than its title suggests, and it is tainted.

Launch: Potcake Chapbook 7, ‘Murder ! – poems of killings past and present’

07 Murder!

Potcake Chapbook 7: ‘Murder!’

Murder needs no formality of gats,
violin cases or fedora hats
or any other long-outdated memes.
Murder is merely social discord that’s
taken to interpersonal extremes.

Murder. Here we present victims ranging from the unidentifiably unknown to the rich and powerful, and from the time of the Emperor Constantine to the present day. It appears to be something with which we humans are permanently infected. 

The poems–all formal, of course!–are as usual in a variety of forms. This chapbook contains sonnets, a double dactyl, quatrains, rubaiyat, parody and nonce forms. They were authored by Potcake newcomers A.M. Juster, Marilyn L. Taylor, LindaAnn LoSchiavo and Frank Hubeny, and old-timers Chris O’Carroll, Marcus Bales, Vera Ignatowitsch, Noam D. Plum, Michael R. Burch and myself. And powerfully illustrated, as always, by Alban Low.

For the price of a fancy greeting card you can, through the wonders of PayPal, get this 16-page chapbook online for £2.60 + £1.20 P&P to a UK or European address, or £2.60 + £2.20 P&P to a Worldwide address.

Or you might prefer to browse themes and poets here, and photos and bios here, and choose between poems on travel, or love affairs, or the working life… or relatives, or modern life, or poems to amuse and amaze. Life, after all, is more than just Murder!

Review: “The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry, 1915-1955”

Chatto Modern Poetry

1915 to 1955 provides quite a range of poetry! From Hardy, Housman, Kipling, Yeats, through two world wars, to Dylan Thomas and twenty poets younger than him. Editors C. Day Lewis and John Lehmann confined themselves to (loosely defined) British poets, and to those aged at least 30 by their final selection. Among the 260 poems are many standards–Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’, Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, Eliot’s ‘East Coker’, Auden’s ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head’, Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’–but the real joy is in discovering good work by less well known poets. I give a few excerpts as examples: pastoral, autobiographical, of mortality, a war poem, wistfulness:

Andrew Young, ‘Wiltshire Downs’

The cuckoo’s double note
Loosened like bubbles from a drowning throat
Floats through the air
In mockery of pipit, land and stare.

And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.

Laurie Lee, ‘First Love’

Then it was she put up her hair,
inscribed her eyes with a look of grief,
while her limbs grew as curious as coral branches,
her breast full of secrets.

But the boy, confused in his day’s desire,
was searching for herons, his fingers bathed
in the green of walnuts, or watching at night
the Great Bear spin from the maypole star.

Alun Lewis, ‘Water Music’

Cold is the lake water
And dark as history.
Hurry not and fear not
This oldest mystery.

This strange voice singing,
This slow deep drag of the lake,
The yearning, yearning, this ending
Of the heart and its ache.

Keith Douglas, ‘How to Kill’

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

Sidney Keyes, ‘The Gardener’

Do you resemble the silent pale-eyed angels
That follow children? Is your face a flower?
The lovers and the beggars leave the park–
And still you will not come. The gates are closing.
O it is terrible to dream of angels.

As a collection the poetry is overwhelmingly formal, rural and male. It is titled ‘The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry’, but it predates the formless chaos of what we now call “modern poetry”, the unstructured confessional outpourings of the past half century. The anthology isn’t perfect, but very rewarding for lovers of traditional poetry. (Not hard to find. Used hardcovers are available from $0.99 on Amazon.)

Poem: “Hurricane Irma”

Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma forecast

With islands as appetisers before the main course
Irma prepares to swallow Florida whole
With a sword-swallower’s brash control,
The fellatrix without remorse.

The circular saw of Irma prepares to slice the length of Florida…
But trim the east coast? Trim the west? Or just go forth
And cut a clean line up the center, south to north,
Right through the Magic Kingdom like some sarcastic orator?

And here comes Hurricane Jose,
Pursuing Irma like a barracuda,
A dog lifting a leg on poor Barbuda
To piss where the bigger dog pissed yesterday.

Meanwhile off Africa there forms a new farrago
As God prepares another bowling ball along the hurricane alley…
Can He slide one between Cuba and the Bahamas with this sally
And curve it in to take out Mar a Lago?

With the new hurricane season just kicking off, it seems like a good time to reflect on the hopes and fears we live with all the time: the fears of things going really wrong, the hopes that they will mostly go wrong for the people we dislike. Humans, what can I say…

This poem was first published in The Hypertexts, the massive anthology of poetry–predominantly contemporary, English-language and formal–assembled by Michael R. Burch. It’s an honour to have my own page in the company of some 300 contemporary poets from Wallace Stevens to A.E. Stallings… and others from Lorca to Blake and right back to Sappho.

“Hurricane Irma” happens to meet the preferences of The Hypertexts in several ways: casually formal, flippant about religion, and with a loathing for Donald Trump. A perfect storm, as it were, for inclusion in the anthology.