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29: A CUPPED HANDFUL OF SONG

#29: A CUPPED HANDFUL OF SONG. Most poetry anthologies are programmatic—examples of the work of a group, a time, a style, a theme— and sometimes the editors are more interested in the program than in the poetry. The earlier great anthologies—Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Quiller-Couch’s original edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, or Pompidou’s Anthologie de la Poesie Francaise—have stayed alive and influential, still setting standards, because the editors loved the poems for themselves, and selected above all for excellence. One of the most instructive things any reader curious to understand and experience great poetry can do is to read some war-horse anthology, Oscar Williams’s Immortal Poems of the English Language, Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine’s Six Centuries of Great Poetry, or, more recently, Harold Bloom’s Best Poems of the English Language, from start to finish, to hear the evolution of our poetic language as its rhythms sway and change, become languourous or staccato. Three of the most enjoyable recent anthologies have been edited purely as collections of poems the editors loved: no program, no axes grinding, just the poems selected and set out purely for their own sakes, to perform that undefinable act that poetry does. These are The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (Faber, 1985); Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neal Astley, the great editor of Bloodaxe Books (American edition from Miramax/Hyperion, 2003) and Real Cool, edited by Niall MacMonagle (Marino Books, 1994). I recommend them all, and there’s very little overlap between them.

And of course everyone wants love poems: I recommend The Penguin Book of Love Poetry, edited by Jon Stallworthy (Allen Lane,1973), full of the famous greats and lovely unfamiliars, which will acquaint you with the highs, hopes, and hells of its topic.

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