"Well, nobody actually reads anthologies – you teach out of them. You find the one that fits your own pedagogical predispositions most closely, then you supplement it with online texts & handouts & so forth. But you can't be thinking of reading the things."
That's my inner behavior-censor, calling me down the other day when I took down Christopher Ricks's Oxford Book of English Poetry (1999) & started reading straight thru it – started at page 1, "Sumer is icumen in" (anonymous) & now in the middle of Sir Walter Ralegh (1554(?)-1618). I hope to finish (page 662, Seamus Heaney's "The Pitchfork") sometime in the next couple of months.
I guess, strangely enough, I'm feeling a bit burned out on contemporary poetry. I've read quite a bit lately – indeed, I've been on something of a bender reading slim volumes of contemporary verse for maybe a decade or so, between two and four a week on average. It's not that I don't admire much of what I'm reading – some of it is stupendous – but I'm feeling the need to reconnect with the "tradition," to work my way back thru the whole historical development of poetry in English. I'm guessing I've probably read 85% of what Ricks anthologizes in the Oxford Book, at least up thru the beginning of the 20th century (where our tastes pretty radically diverge). But much of it I read decades ago, back in my own college & grad school days, where as Samuel Johnson says I "read hard" – very hard. I want to get the feel of 17th- & 18th-century poetry back in my head; I want to revisit some of the minor Victorians.
Ricks is a solid place to begin. His taste is staunchly canonical, so there aren't many "major" poems that fall thru the cracks entirely, and there are a good number of "minor" figures who make it into his net. And I've always found the Oxford Books of X Verse, as a series, to be rather wonderfully readable – pleasant typography, very little unnecessary academic apparatus. Of course, anthologizing is never a neutral activity: without commenting on the way the entire post- or late-modernist tradition gets passed over in Ricks's choice, I'm struck by how much of the poetry in the first stretch of the book emphasizes mutability, decay, the imminence of death. Perhaps that's what poets from the 13th thru the late 15th century were obsessed with. Or maybe it's Ricks's own preoccupation; after all, he was in his mid-sixties when compiling this collection.
I do like the idea of having an anthology going at any given moment. After this one, I suspect I'll tackle either John Dixon Hunt's Oxford Book of Garden Verse or Alastair Fowler's Oxford Book of Seventeenth-Century Verse. Or maybe one or more of the nifty collections of contemporary poetry hanging around the shelves.