Poetry Anthologies

Poetry Anthologies

We often view past poetry through the spectacles of our current conceptions, and it’s therefore salutary – indeed enlightening – to see how previous generations saw matters. I’ve been reading some old anthologies purchased cheaply on line through Abebooks, and will spend the next few posts discussing what’s come to light.

Here, to start with, is ‘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. The anthology is divided into 19 sections, and to give the flavour of the work generally and without distortion I’ll reproduce the first stanza of the first poem in each of the first six sections.

1. Nature

Softly along the road of evening,
In a twilight rim with rose,
Wrinkled with age, and drenched with dew
Old Nod, the shepherd goes.

From: Nod by Walter de la Mare

2. The Year

Yellow walls in the yellow sunlight,
Glowing, vibrant beside the water,
A bit of desert beside the water,
Silent, empty in wind and sunshine,
Open windows and sunlit doorway,
Drinking the scent of wayside blossoms,
How must the whispering wind thrill through thee,
Crying soft the heart of silence,
Speaking to thee as to all things lonely.

An Abandoned Adobe by Rose Henderson

3. Wind

Twas such a saucy little brook
And had so beckoning a look
And had a wink so sly,
That oft I follow’d where it led,
Caught by its roguish eye,
Caught by the dimpling laugh that sped
Ever ahead, ever ahead,
Amid the grasses growing :–
And O the wind was blowing,
And O the wind was high!

from: And O the Wind by Witter Bynner

4. Trees

Today I have grown taller from walking with the trees,
And the seven sister-poplars who go softly in a line;
And I think my heart is whiter fro its parley with a star
That trembled out at nightfall and hung about the pine.

from:Good Company by Karle Wilson Baker

5. Birds

Heaven is my hand, and I
Touch a heart-beat of the sky,
Hearing a blackbird’s cry.

from: A Blackbird Suddenly by Joseph Auslander

6. Flowers

My tall sunflowers love the sun,
Love the burning August noons
When the locust tunes its viol,
And the cricket croons.

from: Sunflowers by Clinton Scollard

No one could object to such poetry, I’d have thought. It’s engaging, perceptive and illustrates what our grandparents thought poetry should be: simple, heart-felt and spiritually uplifting. Walter de la Mare’s was the only name well known to me, but the anthology includes biographical sketches of contributors. All were educated at leading universities, and all were respected figures in their day. However outmoded they may seem to us in their sentiments and expressions, the poems are no worse, surely, than the collections put out by our contemporary literary presses. Indeed, they’re probably a little better: unpretentious, with sensible themes, adequately crafted.

But it’s not very demanding work. I wouldn’t doubt the anthology gave vivid pleasure to numerous readers – publishers were commercially minded in those days – and would have lain on countless bedside tables, to be dipped into before turning off the light. But it is a little parochial, rather like the amateur painting club’s annual show: skilled but also derivative and unconcerned with contemporary themes. I hope that doesn’t sound dismissive or condescending, because it’s essential we appreciate what these poets were achieving before we look at what the Modernists were trying to escape from- something I’ll look at in the next post.

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