Wake all the dead!
Stephanie Burt · 'The Poet's Tongue'
If you want to distinguish poetry, the multifarious, sometimes ridiculous ongoing enterprise, from ‘poetry’, the set of prestigious texts (most by people long dead) found on school exams, and if the poetry in question is your own, you can attempt to make the verse you write as shockingly informal, as anti-academic, as unmonumental, as your other aesthetic goals permit. We recognise the New York School poets, and the poets who would be their heirs, by such attempts, which is why scholars who work on them face a paradox.
If the poetry in question is not your own – if, for example, you are a teacher – you may need to find other methods: you may want to make the poetry of the present day, and the poetry of (for example) John Dryden's day, seem connected, not only to one another, but to the pleasures and griefs of life outside the classroom. We therefore have that odd, forever reinvented creature, the anti-academic anthology, the book of poems compiled and arranged with readers new to poetry or averse to the scholarly study of poems in mind, hence a book fit, as its editors know, for many a classroom. Think of The Rattle Bag, compiled by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, an anthology so commercially successful that Heaney and Hughes compiled a sequel, The School Bag; think, perhaps less happily, of such friendly collections of 20th-century verse as Matthew Sweeney and Jo Shapcott's Emergency Kit, or Neil Astley's Staying Alive.
The grandfather – or perhaps the generous uncle – of such anthologies may be the best of the lot: The Poet's Tongue, edited by W.H. Auden and John Garrett, saw at least two printings in 1935, and at least one more in the 1940s. At the time, Auden was teaching at the Downs School; Garrett (1902-66), then an English master at Whitgift School, would in 1935 take charge of a state school in Surrey, Raynes Park, which became briefly (so says the DNB) the academic equal of Eton. The poet and the schoolmaster put together a volume in which, the introduction says, poetry would appear not as ‘a tradition to be preserved and imitated’, but as ‘a human activity, independent of period and unconfined in subject’. Auden scholars often quote the introduction; everyone who reads poetry for pleasure should look at the rest of the book.
It’s in two parts, paginated separately; part one has simpler language, and more narrative, as if intended for younger readers. But that division is almost the only clue that Auden and Garrett intended the book for schools. Selections arrive in alphabetical order by first line (an arrangement The Rattle Bag imitated), with authors' names left out of the main text (they show up in the table of contents); humour and obsequy, fame and anonymity, prayer and limerick, show up unpredictably, side by side. Few anthologies can offer such consistent pleasure from the obscurest inclusions:
Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde:
Ha'e mercy o' my soul, Lord God,
As I wad do, were I Lord God
And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.
Against the modern, or modernist, insistence that all good poems are perfect wholes, Auden and Garrett give plenty of excerpts, some to be expected in a school text (Ulysses' speech on degree from Troilus and Cressida) and some shockingly brief: ‘Nurse oh My Love is slain, I saw him go/Oer the white alps alone,’ a line and a half from Donne's Elegy 16.
Some of the juxtapositions look planned, despite the alphabetical order. Eliot's ‘Journey of the Magi’ (‘A cold coming we had of it/…/I should be glad of another death’) introduces another death, in Wordsworth's ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’, after which comes a clerihew about Alfred de Musset, ‘whose last name rhymes with "pusset"’ (guess how it's pronounced). Wilfred Owen's ‘Asleep’ concludes, of a dead soldier: ‘He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,/Than we who wake, and waking, say Alas!’ The next selection begins: ‘Wake all the dead!’
Like all anthologies, this one speaks both to the anticipated tastes of its readers and to the real taste of its compilers. There is a lot of Owen, and more than a little John Skelton, and ‘The Groves of Blarney’, without the well-known stanzas about the stone. R.A. Milliken's lines about the Irish castle, once frequently sung, sound, in this version, simply lighthearted (though they are often glossed as hearty satire):
There's gravel walks there for speculation
And conversation in sweet solitude.
'Tis there the lover may hear the dove, or
The gentle plover in the afternoon.
All major poets learn from minor ones, but Auden, more than most, let us watch him learn.
The Poet's Tongue also includes Auden's friends, and now that it is 75 years old, how traditional most of them seem. Stephen Spender's ‘The Pylons’ now appears to belong to a centuries-old tradition of lament for the countryside's change:
The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.
The introduction says (as Auden's ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ also argued) that any division between high and low culture, between modernism and popular taste, must be an artefact of capitalism, a sign of a sick society. The argument is more familiar now than most of the poems in the book. Here and there, The Poet's Tongue is appallingly (rather than charmingly) dated: Vachel Lindsay's ‘The Congo’ (‘Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room’) comes just before a ballad about Hugh of Lincoln, killed for his ‘bonny heart's blood’ by a scheming Jew. But if The Poet's Tongue comes with reminders that it is no longer 1935, it comes with many more reminders of how long and how well poems can survive – especially if poets, and teachers, take care to treat them not as a source of exam marks, but as living, unpredictable, sometimes frivolous things.