Saturday, April 02, 2011


"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.


Archambeau said...

You know who's a good minor Victorian poet? John Davidson. I think he's the only poet John Wilkinson and I actually agree on completely.

Curtis Faville said...

I well remember my days as an undergraduate English major at Berkeley. After four years of concentrated attention on the whole range of classic poetry, from Spenser right through to Yeats, my head was so filled with the whir and rustle of well-wrought language that I fairly hummed inside. It was out of that vortex or maelstrom of sensory excitement that I first began to write my own poetry. I think in some respects I've never written better work than I did then, partly at least because I haven't read as deeply of that literature in the subsequent decades as I did then.

I often assign myself to delve again into the stream, but there are always excuses. I knew teaching wasn't for me, so teaching tools (like anthologies) haven't been a part of my regimen. Silver Poets of the 17th Century is one I keep meaning to read....

Michael Peverett said...

Anthologies have almost become independent literary entities. Anthology-Raleigh (consisting of the scallop shell, the lie, the nymph's reply, walsingham), is a potent cultural presence worthy of attention in its own right, independent of whatever larger sense a scholar can make of Raleigh.

Stephanie said...

Go for the Fowler. Also Ricks's own Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.

John Davidson, though: "Thirty Bob a Week" is fantastic, but last time I checked the dropoff got pretty steep.

Ray Davis said...

The Fowler is a lovely thing. My favorite Ox, though, remains McGann's _Romantic_ - I always seem to find something to think about.