Poetry and Soda

Barbara Everett

  • The Penguin Book of Unrespectable Verse edited by Geoffrey Grigson
    Penguin, 335 pp, £1.75, November 1980, ISBN 0 14 042142 4
  • The Penguin Book of Light Verse edited by Gavin Ewart
    Penguin, 639 pp, £9.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 14 042270 6

Anthologies are coming from the publishers with the speed of Verey lights from a sinking ship. What could he better: six hundred pages of other men’s flowers, offering relief from what Henry James is supposed on his death-bed to have attributed his wearing-out to – ‘the labour of discrimination’? But the recent profusion does leave room to reflect that some anthologies are better than other anthologies, and that some subjects are better suited than other subjects to anthologies, and that some subjects are not good subjects anyway – just as anthologies are not necessarily the best form of bookmaking. Poems have as obstinate a life of their own as hamsters or baby pythons, and may profit as little from being gift-wrapped. Whoever edits, say, a gathering of Satirical Verse is going to have to fight the fact that Absalom and Achitophel or the Dunciad don’t get better by being bound up with a few hundred other satires; and since they need the authority of their full length as well as demanding circumambient space, excerpted bits don’t read at all well. Similarly, a collection devoted to that delightful and now very fashionable subject, English topography (or ‘Poems and Places’), has to confront the fact that because poems are mental events, remarkably few are really topographical at all: once past ‘Tintern Abbey’, the anthologist will have trouble finding other good poems he likes that could truthfully be said to do more than mention localities.

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