Anthologies 2

Anthologies 2

Decades ago, when I had more time at my disposal, I would spend hours in that most dispiriting section of second-hand bookshops: the poetry shelves. How much loving care had been lavished on collections that remained just worthy items, neither really good nor really bad, but simply a monument to others’ hopes, expressions and ambitions. Readers of the last blog will know that I’m looking at ‘Verse of Our Day: An Anthology of Modern American and British Poetry’ edited by Margery Gordon and Marie B. King, and published by D. Appleton and Co. in 1931. And one of the reasons now is as it was decades ago, to see if there exist important poets that have remained overlooked, perhaps not making our literary histories because of unfashionable style or subject matter. So what’s the verdict: are there unsung heroes in the anthology under consideration?

Not really. The better poems are by the better known names – Rupert Brooke, Walter de la Mare, Austin Dobson, James Elroy Flecker, Thomas Hardy, Andrew Lang, Amy Lowell, John Masefield, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wilfred Owen, Carl Sandburg, and Francis Thompson. There are also indifferent pieces by G.K. Chesterton, Babette Deutsch, Robert Frost, Alice Meynell, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Untermeyer, and run-of-the-mill efforts by others who have not lasted well, though popular in their day:  Alfred Noyes, W.E. Henley, Thomas Jones, Sarah Teasdale and Lizette Woodworth Reese. W.B. Yeats and A.E. Housman are unaccountably missing, perhaps through copyright difficulties.

Remember that this is a choice anthology made when poetry was popular. As the Introduction puts it:

‘Of making anthologies there is no end. Scarcely a bookshop in the country fails now to contain its ‘Poetry Department’, with clerks genuinely enthusiastic about the volumes they sell, and with a real knowledge of the verse of yesterday and today.’

How times have changed! Today, even university English departments would be hard pressed to find such knowledgeable souls. Contemporary poets are not popular and make little effort to be so, for all their reviewing of each other’s work in the literary press and dutiful summaries that appear in the better-quality newspapers. Why is this?

The clue is to be found in the Introduction too, which goes on with:

‘Like religion – though poetry is of course a religion – the work of men with imagination is an ascent; and even as, when we pray, we never lose our contact with the earth, but rather get upon our knees as a symbol of our definite place here, so when we are under the spell of poetry we are at once lifted up and made more human. For that poetry is greatest which touches upon the things of this world; upon all the essential weaknesses of mankind; upon all the loveliness of nature, but more particularly all the loveliness and unloveliness of human nature. . .’

I don’t think this view is wrong, though it’s very far from what contemporary poets are attempting. But it’s also a short step to believing that beautiful poetry is about beautiful matters, and that there is a ‘poetic view of the world’ that poets express through their work, i.e. they filter what poetry should be through their imaginations and then clothe what they find in beautiful language. In fact poetry in some languages can come close to doing this. Here is the first half of Rabindranath Tagore’s On this cool late autumnal night (translated by Reba Som. Essential Tagore Edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty. Belnap Press, 2011, p. 360)

In the dewy night sky the starry lamps
Remain hidden by the cloak of autumn
Words spreads from door to door
“Light the lamps, kindle them in their own glow
Decorate the earth in this radiance”
The garden of flowers is now empty
the doyel and koyel sing no more
The bulrushes weep into the riverbanks.

Bengali is a beautiful language, and by its very nature produces intricate sound harmonies that are missing from English. Poetry, moreover, as Robert Frost quipped, is what tends to get lost in translation. But most of us wouldn’t be too happy, I feel, with so many poeticisms (shown in italics below), or with our affections so clearly worked on (shown in bold type).

In the dewy night sky the starry lamps
Remain hidden by the cloak of autumn
Words spreads from door to door
“Light the lamps, kindle them in their own glow
Decorate the earth in this radiance”
The garden of flowers is now empty
the doyel and koyel sing no more
The bulrushes weep into the riverbanks.

But if we see them as rather dog-eared objects dragged from the props cupboard, we are probably misreading the piece through our own modern and rather limited perspectives. Poets in non-European languages did rework the old themes and the old phrases, expecting their readers to recognize the great achievements of the past in new arrangements. In fact there are poems by Du Fu in which every word or phrase is an echo of some other poet, when our recognition of that feature is an essential part of enjoying the pieces.

To some extent it’s doubtless a question of degree, and of taste. Aristotle thought that diction should be some appropriate mixture of the old and new, the elevated and the commonplace. Rabindranath Tagore’s work is still revered in India and Pakistan, moreover, so that either miracles of Bengali verse simply don’t transfer well, or there is (or was) a very different tradition of poetry in operation. What that may very well be I shall try to explain in the next post, which looks at an anthology bridging traditional and modern verse.

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