A New Book of Verse
A New Book of Verse has had two incarnations. The first was as the selection of poems that Don Stanford and I tried unavailingly to find a publisher for in the 1970s and regretfully put on the shelf. The second began after Don’s death in 1998, when I dusted off my MS and started looking for poems by poets born later than 1934, our de facto cut-off date, that could be added to it.
One thing led to another, and I revisited earlier periods, and by now I’ve added some eight hundred poems to the original two-hundred-and-thirty-seven. In doing so, I’ve considerably broadened the kinds of inclusions. There is now a reasonable, if at times heretical, selection of poems from every period. There are a number of lighter poems. There are a few indecorous ones. There are a lot more poems by women. There are more political poems.
For more about the evolution of the enterprise, see Unflown Flights.
In what follows, I shall speak in my own person, rather than faking an editorial “we.” Don and I never did put together a critical introduction, as distinct from a come-on statement to publishers. Nor, curiously enough, did we talk about poetic principles. We both simply liked a lot of the same poems and were in tune with a lot that had been said and done by the great poet-critic Yvor Winters.
But we had agreed that when and if an introduction became necessary, I would start things off with a first draft, and I think that most of what I will now be saying would have been OK by him. A number of the additions would have had him perning in his tomb, I’m sure. (Allen Ginsberg would never have got past him, even in sapphics.) But as one of the dual editors of the Southern Review, he was realist enough, I think, to recognize that the relative purity of the earlier version had got us nowhere, and that critical principles, if they are to be conceptually sound, must permit of growth and change.
A New Book began as Wintersian, and that core remains. Winters had a marvelous ear, and made wonderful recordings of poems by others, among them Williams, Pound, and Stevens, and a lot of good poets learned from him. Pound, and F.R. Leavis, and J.V. Cunningham, too, have been major presences for me over the years, and are present in various ways in my additions. I have also benefited from the broadening that has come with input from Tim Steele, Joe Kennedy, and Sam Gwynn. Other input is gratefully acknowledged at the end of “Unflown Flights.”
There are almost no poems here that I don’t like personally. The online picks are preponderantly my own, and the omissions are wholly mine. Paying the piper oneself has its advantages when it comes to calling the tunes.
Some of the choices are relatively easy to explain. With others, it’s a matter of what I can only call voice, leaving the poems themselves to do the defining. I like Leavis’s term “felt life.” There is a lot of that here. The Sampler provides some examples.
Elsewhere there are some recordings of poems. The ones especially of “Adlestrop,” the section from “ Portrait of a Lady,” and “The Raven” are not to be missed. The rendering of “That time of year thou may’st in me behold” won’t be to everyone’s taste. Personally it too delights me, but de gustibus.
I have done my best to avoid jargon, here and in the Notes, apart from the terminology of metrics, and did so as a teacher, as witness the commentaries in Saying Simply. I have something to say elsewhere about clarity and theory.
The descriptive bibliography of Voices displays some of the intellectual underpinnings of A New Book—where I’m coming from, you might say.
I would be delighted to see A New Book of Verse incarnate in page-print (as “a real book,” you know), but never will. There would be too many copyright fees and too many omissions for it to be a text for the college market, and it would be prohibitively expensive for a lot of general readers, particularly in the Third World.
But there are advantages to doing a Web book, particularly if it is indeed a Web book and not just a print book with texts on a different ground.
A lot of the poems listed here in the Table of Contents, up into the 20th century, are available elsewhere on the Web and have been linked to. Others are available in the present site, mostly in Texts and Poems, including a number for which copyright fees have been generously waived. Altogether, as of February 2011, about nine hundred poems are accessible.
In Notes I list a number of poetry sites and anthologies that I’ve visited.
Since this is a Web book, titles and texts and cross-linkings can easily be added and subtracted. The contents are not incised in stone, and no publisher’s editor has been peering over my shoulder, with a marketing editor peering over hers or his.
The Table of Contents lists over a thousand poems, arranged according to the birth dates of the known authors, with some educated guessing about the anonymous ones, such as the traditional ballads. Chaucer is the first poet, a writer born in 1980 the last—for the moment.
There are no excerpts, apart from a self-contained poem from Henryson’s The Testament of Cressid, a passage from Moby-Dick, and Canto XI from Don Juan. And not more than ten poems by any one poet.
All but a handful are in traditional metres.
The following principles seem to me to have been implicit in our joint selections in the Seventies, and to be observed, as far as possible, in the poems that I myself have picked.
This is an anthology of poems, not of poets or periods. There has been no attempt to be proportionately representative, either for individual poets, or poetic periods, or socio-political values. There is plenty of that elsewhere.
There are no “stories” here—the Wordsworth Story, the Yeats Story. Recently I dropped an essential poem in the Gunn Story, the AIDS-related “The Man with Night Sweats,” replacing it with his drug-dealer “Street Song,” which seems to me a more fully realized poem.
A line like, “I pace upon the battlements and stare,” in Yeats’ “The Tower,” invites us out into the Yeats Story. “They flee from me that sometime did me seek” doesn’t invite us into a Wyatt Story. And we know nothing at all about the “I” of “O western wind” except what we have in the poem itself. Nor do we need more.
Poems can and do fall into Wittgensteinian “family” clusters, so that one can speak in a shorthand way of “Yeats,” or “Hardy,” or “Dickinson”. But what is being referred to here is what is going on in those particular poems, not a hypothesized self behind or beyond them to which they are presumed to be offering clues, or from which what they “really” mean can be inferred.
Another working principle is that examples don’t have to be multiplied. A single poem can be rich enough in revealed possibilities by itself.
So, what other criteria have been at work? By which I’m not referring to some kind of pre-established check-lists, but to conventions and expectations built up cumulatively by the poems that simply had to be there.
Metaphors, very largely, are coherent. You know, sufficiently, what is being likened to what, and in what respect, and when you read a poem aloud, start-to-finish, or hear it start-to-finish with the mind’s ear, there isn’t an overload of meaning beyond the mind’s powers of assimilation during the voice’s brief transit through this or that particular phrase.
Similies are solid and used continently. A frequent recourse to similes can be a cop-out. Failing to vivify something directly (a matter, often, of getting the verbs right), you compare it to something else, also not described vividly.
There are few poems here containing generalizations that are obviously untrue or simplistic, as distinct from bold reachings of the mind like the opening stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium” or, humorously, Landor’s “Ireland Never Was Contented”.
There are very few epigrams, the field being simply too big to cope with.
Voices are here, voices that aren’t just referring to selves (I feel this, I felt that) but being selves in particular relationships (physical, psychological, moral, spiritual, etc)—selves preponderantly engaged in realizing the being of other selves, whether lovers, or gods, or dead friends, or young girls experiencing temptation, or clerics awaiting death at the stake, or gray-flannelled breadwinners coming home from work, or a beloved old cat whose contentment one wants to prolong a little longer.
They are voices, if I may be permitted the metaphor, in the cave of Being, construed as the realm of substance, not of shadows, the realm in which experiential thinking goes on and ideas, in a more than merely talky sense, become incarnate.
A lot of the poems are basically iambic, because that is what a great deal of English metered verse is. But considerable flexibility is possible, as witness a number of poems here, such as Robert Lowell’s “Waking Early Sunday Morning.” The main thing is that metrical stresses and speech patterns coincide sufficiently for one to be able to read straight through an unfamiliar poem aloud without having to keep stopping and restarting to correct mistaken emphases.
Also, what’s going on is sustained start-to-finish. The term “organic unity” is obscurantist if used to describe supposed processes in the poet’s creating mind, or the ontological status of a work. But nothing could be altered without loss in a poem like “The Twa Corbies” (first published in 1803), and there are lots of other perfect poems here.
Winters somewhere or other uses the term “specific gravity.”
That master epigrammatist J.V. Cunningham packs weight into
Lip was a man who used his head.
He used it when he went to bed
With his friend’s wife, and with his friend
With either sex at either end.
Orpheus’ lament for the lost Eurydice in Christoph Gluck’s great aria “Que farò” has outlasted symphonies.
As far as possible, too, the poems are free-standing. You don’t need to know about the lives of the authors, or about other poems by them, and the poems are not overly dependent on social facts that flood in at the touch of a phrase.
I haven’t been absolutist about that, though.
If you’ve gazed out the window as your train entered the outskirts of London, a phrase like “And someone running up to bowl” in Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” instantly evokes white-clad figures on a green field in among the built-up areas, probably seen through a fringe of poplars. But they aren’t “there” in the words, the way things are in “The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat,” in Edward Thomas’s deservedly famous “Adlestrop” (pronounced Addlestrop), which I discuss in “Personals.”
“The Whitsun Weddings” is a delightful poem, though. And you don’t, as you read, have to flesh out the narrating “I” with what you think you know of bespectacled, prematurely balding, thirty-five-year-old librarian Larkin coming down to the metropolis from Hull on a particular identified date to meet with his publisher and maybe pick up an “interesting” book or two in Soho, and (my imagined researcher has really been busy) all the more poignantly conscious of the innocent happiness that he witnesses because of the row with his girl friend that morning that had made him miss the train that he’d meant to take.
I hasten to add that I am fictionalizing here, at least so far as I know.
I jettisoned Larkin’s very personal and depressive “Aubade,” however, after including it for a while because of the deeper depths it supposedly revealed in him.
It’s heavy-footed compared with his best verse. And his dread of extinction, as distinct from regret for the still un-done and unfulfilled, or the fear, fortunately unwarranted in his case, of being all too rapidly forgotten, or
the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done and been, the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
(T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”)
seems to me incongruous in an atheist and poetically unpersuasive.
There’s a difference between being assured that what someone feels about something is how everyone feels, which can be pretty presumptuous, and being told something in such a way that one can indeed feel it oneself. John Betjeman’s “Cottage Hospital” is a much better poem.
A lot of biographical information substitutes cruder selves—more like yours and mine, maybe?—for the finer states of selfhood attainable in good and great works of art.
Do we ever, while listening to Mozart, want biographical information at any point in order to clarify or enhance what we’re hearing?
Certainly not what’s proffered in Amadeus.
Nor do we need it when reading Larkin’s marvelous and often hilarious jazz reviews collected in All What Jazz, apart from what he chooses to provide himself.
Some glossing is simply like the defining of words in a foreign-language text that have already acquired some meaning from their contexts. We know that what someone is wearing is a piece of apparel, not of machinery or seafood.
When Winthrop Praed in his delicious Regency “Good Night to the Season” gives us
Good night to the Season!—the buildings
Enough to make Inigo sick;
The paintings, and plasterings, and gildings,
Of stucco, and marble, and brick;
The orders deliciously blended,
From love of effect, into one …
we have already gathered that the Season is the London social season, coinciding with the sittings of Parliament, during which everybody who was anybody was in Town rather than back in their estates or over on the Continent taking the waters.
If you don’t know that “Inigo” refers to Inigo Jones, the great 17th century British architect, at least you know that the person alluded to is someone of relatively pure architectural tastes.
“Orders” is trickier, being an architectural term having nothing to do with commands and, according to my dictionary, signifying “any of several classical styles of structure, determined chiefly by the type of column and entablature…” But we know from the syntax that separate things have been blended “deliciously,” so that there are no theatrics of disobedience here.
At other times, though, providing or obtaining needed or desired information can impose a simplified grid over a poem or passage, so that you’re not seeing how the rhetoric actually goes. I talk about this in my extended note on Charles Churchill’s problematic later-18th-century poem “The Dedication.”
Place-names can be over-used.
When W.H. Auden at the start of the 1939 war wrote,
I sit in one of the dives,
On Fifty-Second street,
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade …
a British reader wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of what Fifty-Second street was like, beyond the fact that it had low dives. But that was enough.
On the other hand, a slew of more recent poems assume that we’ll be acquainted with the streetscape of the Via Longhi in Perugia where the couple will soon be having their tête-à-tête in the Trattoria Baldessari over the veal scaloppini marsala and a charming local Orvieto.
So of course we do some filling-in from all the movies that we’ve seen where that kind of thing happens, just as we fill in the Fall-in-Manhattan poems and My-Grandparents’-Farm-in-New-England poems.
But it thins out the verse and lowers the tension, and the shelf-life of the poem is shorter.
The delicate intimations of a whole cultural milieu in Martha Collins’ lovely “The Story We Know” are another matter.
There is no travel writing.
The traffic in comprehension and respect needn’t all flow one way, present to past.
Imagine, synchronically, Chaucer reading “The Rape of the Lock,” Ben Jonson reading Edwin Arlington Robinson, Rochester (Wilmot here) reading Roethke …
But respect for what?
Well, craft, certainly. And psychological substance.
Though these poems are almost all formal ones, with a preponderance of rhyming, they’re not formalistic (what Leavis, years ago, called “the stiff suit of style that stands up empty.”)
There’s a degree of concreteness here that transcends loose conventional dichotomies like “Romantic” and “Classical” (on which see my discussions in Powers of Style).
There’s also a relative tautness of progression inside a poem, whereby something “happens” rhetorically not only from rhyme to rhyme (when there is rhyming) but in the passage from stanza to stanza or (in a poem like Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife”) verse-paragraph to verse-paragraph.
What about the French and German poems?
Well, they mostly fall within the same broad stylistic range as the ones in English. Mallarmé’s complexly symbolist “Le vierge, le vivace, et le bel aujourdhui” isn’t here, let alone his (for me) even more difficult “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune,” or the typographically proto-modernist “Un Coup de Dés.” Nor is Rimbaud’s hallucinatory “Le Bateau Ivre.”
A rule of thumb is that I myself, assisted by a dictionary, have to understand a poem reasonably well at the level of paraphrase. But I talk about obscurities—and riches—in “Vision and Analogy,” especially XIX-XXVI.
In their treatments of the body, sex, and religion, the French poems here, starting with Villon’s great ballade of the gibbet, throw into greater relief what we don’t, and do, get in contemporary English dealings with those themes.
A colleague once told me angrily that I had no time for the Romantics.
I refrained from replying that, on the contrary, I considered the Romantic movement so important that a really strong appointment in the period was desirable, meaning someone who moved easily across national borders, looked at the emergent new philosophizing critically, and didn’t engage in selling the whole explosive mix as exciting and unequivocally truth-revealing.
As Leavis pointed out years ago, there are Romantics and Romantics, romanticisms and romanticisms.
Shelley’s brand of idealism in his shorter poems looks all the tackier in comparison with the very great poetry of Hölderlin. The 19th century of Hugo, Gautier, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Corbière, Rimbaud, Laforgue is powerhouse in comparison with that of the Victorians. But the excellence of a number of 19th-century poems in English isn’t undercut thereby.
Some of the poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine were very much in the consciousness of various British poets in the 1880s and ‘90s. Which is to say, in the emergent Symbolist movement in Anglo-American poetry. But Baudelaire wasn’t fully assimilated and transposed until later, in some of the poems of Roy Campbell and Edgar Bowers.
Tristan Corbière’s “Cris d’Aveugle” blasts its way off the page, reminding us of the tradition of song in French poetry, the importance of regions (here, especially, Brittany), and the vitality of elements of Catholicism.
Apollinaire was the major transformer of 19th-century romanticism into 20th-century terms, fertilizing the work of poets like Louis Aragon, Georges Brassens, and (not present here) Jacques Prevert, the latter so important for French cinema in the Thirties and Forties.
Heine’s political ballads were stimulants for Brecht later, and the poems from his own heroic pain-wracked final years are deeply moving, Some of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus are simply among the most beautiful poems in any language.
The French and German poems are very largely in forms and modes that were—and still are— available to Anglo poets. Few of the French poems here are in alexandrines. And metrically, once you’ve grasped the principles, they’re mostly not seriously different from English poems. They are, in effect, poems which technically could have been written in Engish but for cultural reasons weren’t.
The frequently repeated assertion that whereas English verse is accentual-syllabic, French verse is syllabic, as if all that writers and readers need do is count the number of syllables in a line, is seriously misleading.
See “A Note on Metrics.”
Kenneth Rexroth’s “The Influence of French Poetry on American” (1958) is interesting reading.
I simply don’t know enough about Spanish or Italian poetry to have included any.
Some of the Renaissance poems here are among the greatest in English.
If one wanted to talk about the collective moral authority of high ideals and a shared variety of exploratory forms perfectly managed, it is here that one would go first—to Raleigh, Sidney, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, and others, the idealism memorably summarized in the statement by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine that
Nature that formed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.”
(Act II, scene 7).
But themes can wear out, and in several of the male 17th-century poems here we see an interesting shift away from the theme of Love as a prime mover, and from the central relationship of the soul to God, to the more individual satisfactions of friendship (Cowley’s “On the Death of Mr. William Harvey”), learning (Vaughan’s “To His Books”), personal honour (Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”), unromanticized fucking (Rochester’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment”), and, complexly, Nature (Marvell’s eroticized “Garden”).
A classical mode of plain speech and common sense about matters of serious personal and social concern (including marriage and authorship) continues during the increasingly mannered 18th century in the poems here by Anne Finch, Elizabeth Thomas, Mary Barber, Martha Sansom, Elizabeth Toller, Henrietta Knight, and Mary Jones (found in Roger Lonsdale’s excellent Eighteenth-Century Women Poets).
They look with unillusioned eyes on the pretensions of men, the skewings of womanhood in a male-controlled society (see To Mrs Frances-Arabella Kelly), the difficulties of female authorship, the realities of aging and dying, and (Knight’s “Written to a Near Neighbour”), the perils of “romantic” abandon.
Pope is exuberantly still the dominant genius of the century. But what he does doesn’t undercut the voicings by women, or John Gay’s knowledgeably bucolic “The Birth of the Squire.”
But the one-way-street coupleted iterations of Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” look stiff and laboured in comparison with Pope, and in its melancholy emphasis on the foredoomed ruination of great enterprises and great or would-be great men, the poem is curiously proto-romantic, with a dash of the Piranesi of ruined Imperial Rome.
Johnson’s two neo-classical Prologues, imbued with a generalized dignity consciously recalling an ideal Roman gravitas, while obviously conscious of the actualities of contemporary theatre audiences, are more flexibly and subtly argued.
There are interesting shiftings away from classicism, neo- or otherwise, in the poems here by Gray, Charles Churchill, and Blake.
Wordsworth is here, with psychological originality and mostly sensitive blank verse, in “Tintern Abbey,” his egoism still reasonably under control, perhaps because he was addressing the one person, apart from himself, whom he deeply cared about. If excerpts were permitted, there’d also have been two or three of those nature passages from The Prelude). Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is here too, of course, so important for Poe and the French, and still the most extraordinary work of all-too-transient visionary genius in English non-dramatic verse.
And Keats’s superbly confident rhetoric in his two best odes is memorably strange and high-octane, particularly when viewed against a lot of “period” fumblings, with their mismatch between fading poetic mannerisms and exotic new subject matters, for which see The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse. And in the best Canto of Don Juan we see a social grounding of romanticism out of which Pushkin’s great Eugene Onegin would emerge, along with the elegant sweet-sour poems here by Winthrop Praed, Alfred de Musset, and Théophile Gautier.
And though “A Mask of Anarchy” would require too much prior agreement about what conditions in Britain amounted to anarchy, the allegory being so general, there are even half-a-dozen poems by Shelley, principally as a political poet, including, despite the adolescent self-pity of the two final sections, the rhetorically powerful “West Wind,” which in its context here is simply a poem among others, and not a revelation of immortal truths or the cri de coeur of an authenticated Beautiful Soul.
We also have here from those decades the superlative greatness of Hölderlin (on whom see “Holderlin, Shelley, and Romanticism”), the poignant psychological and social realism of John Clare, rejecting the insidious rural falsifications of “L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” and Gray’s “Elegy,” and defining in “Decay; a Ballad,” better than Coleridge, what happens when Romantic idealism fades. Plus some of the finest traditional ballads, almost certainly composed later than used to be supposed. (See, for example, David C. Fowler’s A Literary History of the Popular Ballad).
Plus from-the-heart love poems and a political ballade by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. Plus the sensitive vigour of Hugo in certain poems, and the Byronic wit and social observation of Praed, whose poems remind us, as does Charles Dibdin’s charming “The Lady’s Diary,” that poets were not compelled to use “poetic” dictions, the primary function of which was to assure readers that what was in front of them was indeed poetry, with a patina of tradition.
It doesn’t matter if certain poems were written after the supposed chronological end of the period. What makes a work “romantic” isn’t when it was written but how it reads, as in the lovely poems here of Frederick Tuckerman, with their poignant sense (in the sonnets) of the fragility of human beauty and order amid a Nature vaster and more powerful than Britain’s, and, in his strange ode “The Cricket,” the unstable interplay between a classical European ordering—rhetorical, mythological—and the immediacy of “American” experiences.
The poems from the 1890s—Gray’s “Mishka,” Beardsley’s “The Three Musicians,” Dowson’s “Chanson sans Paroles,” Symons’ “Prologue”— are less “period,” less programmatically fin-de-siècle than the usual offerings, such as Dowson’s “Villanelle of the Poet’s Road” (“Wine and women and song,/ Three things garnish our way…”). They are more individuated, less merely literary. They are better. They are not in the Nortons or the 1139-page New Penguin Book of English Verse.
Good poems didn’t have to be “period,” stylistically, as witness Gabriel Rossetti’s extraordinary proto-Symbolist “The Woodspurge,” unique in his oeuvre, and welling up though layers of medievalizing and pseudo-spirituality, and the still amazingly fresh and erotic “Goblin Market” of his sister Christina.
Anglo-America is back up to strength here with the traditional versification and ability to sustain important themes of Hardy, Yeats, Robinson, and Frost, the selection from Robinson including the dramatic monologue “Rembrandt to Rembrandt,” which would never make it into a college anthology, but which, in its sensitive intelligence, shows up the coarse intrusions between viewers and paintings of Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto.”
Wallace Stevens (standing out in his equal mastery of iambic and “free” verse serving a variety of different expressive functions) is here, with a robust transposition of Mallarme’s sense of an ideal and (in “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune”) sensual Beauty into the particulars of a continent with colder winters, hotter summers, lusher vegetation, and a big, blue, and benign ocean.
Some of Lawrence’s, Pound’s, Williams’, and Eliot’s best free verse is here, as is Hart Crane’s too rarely represented “Cutty Sark,” less would-be-profoundly generalizing than a lot of his poems.
The politically-conscious 1930s of too often portentous and over-figurative verse aren’t here, except for Auden in “Refugee Blues,” with its interesting adaptation of the three-line blues stanza, the bleak ballad “James Honeyman,” and the Brechtian “The biscuits are hard …”
But in the non-modernist poems by Betjeman and McGinley, Auden and MacNeice, we have memorable celebrations of “ordinary” pleasures made all the more meaningful by a consciousness of the depredations of Time.
John Betjeman’s British order (the lovingly-tended old walled garden in a country town) and Phyllis McGinley’s American order (husbands returning on the evening train to caring suburban wives) are there for us, as is the mortality of the experiencing selves.
So, with more artifice, are the surrealistically heightened exaltations of love in Auden’s ballad-like “As I Walked Out One Evening,” his pop-culture “Stop All the Clocks” and the coffee-shop bliss of the lovers (inviting a compare-and-contrast with Robert Graves’ best poem “Counting the Beats”) in MacNeice’s “Meeting Point,” in which
Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.
Betjeman wasn’t always Sir Nostalgia Niceguy, of course, as witness “Slough” and “In Westminster Abbey.”
In another direction, the poems of Yvor Winters, who did for northern California some of what Yeats had done for provincial Ireland, display a slowed-down verse movement, a strong concern with history, a disposition towards the summatory (whether in statements or by means of conceptually intensified single words), and a classical sense of the moral significance of representative occasions and figures—features, some of them, present to varying degrees in the work of associates of his like J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Janet Lewis, Alan Stephens, Helen Pinkerton, and Scott Momaday.
The ability to range with equal assurance across “high” and “low” subjects is impressively on display in the poems of Cunningham (Classical mythology, Platonic philosophy, Manhattan dives, college classrooms, Vegas strippers, alcoholism,) and Roethke (a Renaissance magnificence about love and beauty; domestic playfulness; institutionalized hydrotherapy, presumably for alcohol-fuelled manic-depression.)
I won’t attempt a running commentary on more recent work. But it has been a treat coming across a rich variety of fine poems.
Marilyn Hacker’s gorgeous “Dusk: July,” is surely one of the best Anglo love poems of the century. I wish she had given me permission to add it to “Reservoir,” along with the exuberant “Iva’s Birthday Poem” (“They hand out ice cream in the station,/ with chocolate bars as big as bricks.”) Her Villonesque “Ballad of Ladies Lost and Found” is entertainingly raffish in its pre-Google celebrating of feminist/lesbian icons, often simply by first names, with a take-it-or-leave-it provision of minimal identifying information. (“Big Sweet who ran with Zora in the jook,/ Open-handed Winifred Ellerman.”)
Herbert Morris’s “House of Words” gives us movingly the 63-year-old Henry James coping with an attack of near-panic about the distance that he has contrived for himself over the years, starting perhaps with his avoidance of service in the Civil War, from “life”-elements that might have interfered with the sustained creation of his “house of words.”
The blank verse is loosely counterpointed by a quasi-Classical metre that strengthens the identity of each line and enforces an attentive reading so as to get the speech stresses right.
The volume containing the poem appeared in 2000. So did the one containing Helen Pinkerton’s remarkable blank-verse Civil War poems.
There’s also an increasing presence of ballad-modes and adaptations—expressive heightenings, transformations, compressions—in individual poems by Auden, Roethke, Sterling Brown, Geraldine Brooks, X.J. Kennedy, Christopher Middleton, John Whitworth, and Kit Wright, and memorable blues from Bessie Smith, Brown, Auden, Donald Justice, Allen Ginsberg, and A.E. Stallings.
There are strong-flavoured works that should long since have been in the anthologies, such as Frederick Seidel’s extraordinary “The Blue-Eyed Doe,” Henri Coulette’s “Evening in the Park,” Joan LaBombard’s “The Return,” Matthew Mead’s “The Flickering Shadow Stanzas,” Robert Wells’ “The Winter’s Task.”
I’m particularly grateful to Timothy Steele, Clive Wilmer, Joe Kennedy, Sam Gwynn, John Whitworth, and Catherine Tufariello for their suggestions and encouragement.
The poems in A New Book testify to the range and power and openness to experience of formal verse.
There are hangings, and prayings, and sexual impotence, and badger-baiting, and yachts, and sweaty businessmen in double knits, and young love/lust, and ideal antique Grecian landscapes, and Magi, and battles, and taverns, and prostitutes, and aerial dogfights, and churches, and, and, oh, too much more to itemize.
Robert Lowell takes us out multi-stanzaically into a spiritually fragmented Vermont Sunday morning apprehended with bipolar intensity. Tony Harrison (alas, no text) copes with the painful dying of an intimate friend, while conscious of his own making of a multi-stanza poem about it, with rhymes that must be found. W.D. Snodgrass does an extended stock-taking of his own aging alongside the youthfulness of his coed students (“Younger and pinker every year”). E.g.,
I haven’t read one book about
A book or memorized one plot.
Or found a mind I did not doubt.
I learned one date. And then forgot.
And one by one the solid scholars
Got the degrees, the jobs, the dollars.
Can one be as wryly funny as that in free verse?
In the twenty-four stanzas of “Le Cimitière Marin.” Paul Valéry engages in one of the great philosophical meditations on Being.
Blake’s “Everything that is possible to be believed is an image of Truth” is surely a pernicious falsehood. But wide as the range of poems in A New Book has now become, I would like to think that collectively they help to define a major zone of Western consciousness, and that there are relatively few poems here that readers who value expressive form will reject out of hand for political or philosophical reasons.
At least they won’t have to put up with adolescent self-pity (“when i think/ of my father’s insensitivity/ tears of rage/ come into my eyes”), ponderously figurative generalizations (“The World is but a gleam upon the sands/ Of Time, unless the Spirit breathe in us”), portentous linguistic contortions (“The grunched oak yaws its bosomed crystal tines”), and all the rest of it.
In his “Classicism and Romanticism,” once so influential for early Anglo modernism, T.E. Hulme interestingly adduces “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” and odes (unspecified) of Keats as examples of classical attitudes.
You know, when one steps back and squints at the Greco-Roman litscape, with its Virgilian lachrimae rerum, Homeric robustezza, Ovidian myths, Horatian moralizing, Martialesque cunts and assholes and stinky breath, and so forth—and the relishing of craft, and the grounded social contexts—it wouldn’t really, would it, require much of a twist to see the zone of A New Book as itself classical?
But then, that term, along with ones like “metre” and “syntax,” has become for a lot of people as offputtingly anti-poetic as “caucus” and “tariff reform.”
So maybe we’d be safer with the spirit of Auden’s conclusion to “Heavy Date”:
When two lovers meet, then
There’s an end of writing.
Thought and Analytics:
Lovers like the dead
In their love are equal;
Sophomores and peasants,
Poets and their critics
Are the same in bed.
Whence my democratizing of nomenclature in the Table of Contents. What on earth has the possession of a title to do with the quality of what someone writes?
I’ve even removed some brand-name markers. Say “William CARLOS Williams” or T.S. Elliot (so shrewdly unromantic a self-defining back when) and instantly “Red Wheel Barrow,” and “Prufrock,” and “The Waste Land” pop up like on an old- fashioned cash-register.
Quality doesn’t flow from poem to poem by osmosis.
I’ve enjoyed playing here and there against the standard image of a particular poet.
Rimbaud’s tender “Les Effarés” (“The Transfixed”) about hungry urchins out in the snow pressing their faces against the window of a baker’s shop is not what you’d immediately associate with the savagely brilliant “Mon Coeur Volé” (“My Stolen Heart”).
It’s nice finding Christina Rossetti talking about a card game, and interesting seeing John Clare attempting the Don Juan mode.
Walter Landor’s charming “Everything tells me you are near” (my own discovery, so far as I know) is not in the least epigrammatic or marmoreal, nor is Stevie Smith’s “Pretty” in the least cute.
Laforgue’s unmannered and compassionate “Complainte des Pianos” isn’t Eliotic.
One of Verlaine’s powerful under-the-counter erotic poems (not included here) is an address to his cock. As is one of Cunningham’s epigrams, also not included here. (His quota of ten poems was full.) And as, more decorously, is Robert Graves’ “Down Wanton, Down.”
It seems to me a good thing to be reminded of the range of attitudes that can be accommodated, functionally, within an ongoing adult mind, such as Cunningham’s.
And a more interesting kind of quasi-essentializing can result. The “mind” constituted here by the ten poems by Herrick seems to me a more exciting one than what we see in the forty-six poems included over Herrick’s name in Alastair Fowler’s revised Oxford Book of Seventtenth-Century Verse (1991)
It is certainly much superior to what’s on display in “Ode to the West Wind.”
There are more Scottish poems here than is customary in from-soup-to-nuts anthologies. This has nothing to do with ethnic pride. (I’m half Cornish and a mere one-thirty-second part Scottish.) I’ve simply liked particular poems by Dunbar, Henryson, Scott (Alexander), Montgomerie, Stewart, Boyd, the Sempills, Ramsay, Fergusson, Burns, Scott (Walter), Elliot, Mitchell, and Herbert, and various ballads and broadsides.
But I notice a pattern of sorts.
In Elizabeth Tudor’s England the high-prestige short form was the sonnet, with Francesco Petrarca as the presiding Continental genius, and a quasi-divine Love as its principal theme. Its basic mode was a heuristic progression to a consequential summation, in a voice functioning within a narrow range of speech patterns. And with a formally adored VIRGIN Queen on the throne, the pleadings, cajolings, accusings, apologizings and so forth of sonnetteers prudently didn’t involve actually getting virgins into unsanctified beds, and the delights thereof.
Not in sonnets. Not in the ways that you find in that other major Continental sonneteer Pierre de Ronsard, who could even mention dildos.
Later this purity, in a socio-sexual sense—this absence of everyday corporeality— would enable the sonnet under Wordsworth to become the quintessential utterance of the True (English) Poet for over a century.
In Renaissance Scotland, on the other hand, the principal inspirer was François Villon, the poet of corporeality, whose dominant form was the octosyllabic ballade
Which is to say, an expansive and faster moving form in which a relatively public theme, stateable in a single one-line sentence, is announced in the eighth line, to be developed and illustrated during the remaining twenty. More concrete details can be provided than is possible in the sonnet, the voicing is not that of a seer uncovering major hidden truths, and there is a song-like aspect to the rhyme scheme, with its “turn” in the fourth and fifth lines.
The fact of Elizabeth Tudor’s being viewed by Catholic Scots as an English bastard (in the legal sense) and Mary Stuart by Protestant ones as a French whore also worked against the cult of Love.
David Hume presented a copy of the 1723 edition of Villon’s works to the National Library of Scotland.
The English short poem lost heft and traction in the later seventeenth century when Love as a quasi-divine force ran out of steam and dwindled down under Charles Stuart to the stylized fictions of popular song, and outright obscenity, with couplets now doing the heavy lifting, Things were more complex up above the border.
In 1724, the Edinburgh bookseller/publisher/poet Allan Ramsay followed up the success of his Tea Table Miscellany a couple of years before with The Ever Green; a Collection of Scots Poems Written by the Ingenious before 1600, with its generous helpings of poems by Dunbar, Henryson, Kennedy, and others.
And he himself, as poet, presented with Villonesque directness the imagined unapologetic deathbed advice of the Edinburgh madam Lucky Spence, and lamented the passing of the benign patron of impoverished young roisterers, the tavern-keeper Maggie Johnson.
Moreover, while a lot of the anonymous songs in The Tea Table Miscellany feel to me like Cavalier or Restoration ones, we also see in inclusions like “Bonnie Barbara Allen,” “O Waly Way,” and “The Bonny Earl of Murray,” the anthological beginnings of what became a major presence of Scottish ballads in that century, a number of the best ones almost certainly composed during it, with their “medieval” violences, passions, and supernaturalism, so major in their consequences for English poetry,
And the energies of precise form, combined with colloquial diction and speech patterns, persisted, contra the imperial dominance of the couplet, in the six-line stanza associated most immediately with Burns, but first used in the sevententh century it would seem, by Robert Sempill.
Here is Lucky Spence addressing her young whores.
My loving lasses, I maun leave ye;
But dinna wi’ ye’r Greeting grieve me,
Nor wi’ your Draunts and Droning deave me,
But bring’s a Gill;
For Faith, my Bairns, ye may believe me,
‘Tis gainst my Will.
O black Ey’d Bess, and mim Mou’d Meg,
O’er good to work, or yet to beg,
Lay Sunkots up for a sair Leg;
For when ye fail,
Ye’r Face will not be worth a Feg,
Nor yet ye’r Tail.
As I say elsewhere,
In contrast to the more common aabccb narrative stanza, the balancing of which permits of a steady advance, we have here each time, a three-line surge forward, and then a kind of check and diminuendo, which makes each stanza slightly more individual. Hence there is more opportunity for the kinds of variations in subject and syntax that can enable one to feel that, yes, there is indeed progression going on, a progression in the thinking and/or recalling of the speaking voice.
Byron, himself half-Scottish by birth, and with several years of his childhood passed in Aberdeen, is partly a “Scottish” poet in works like “A Vision of Judgment” and Don Juan.
A New Book is also an anthology in which poems are political for real, and not just literary games-playing or episodes in the history-of-ideas. There are real angers, at times real take-no-prisoners hatred. People can die here, or kill, for their convictions.
We have broadsides like “A Prognostication” and “A History of Insipids,” major campaign-flag poems like “The Marseillaise” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a rich variety of protest poems by Cowper, Heine, Shelley, Hugo, Desbordes-Valmore, Michel, Clough, Kingsley, Brecht, Brassens, Meeropol, Auden, Randall, MacColl, McGrath, Kennedy, Fenton, Dylan, and others.
I am speaking, I must emphasize, of particular poems. Politics, like merit, don’t travel by osmosis. Cowper’s polemic against the slave trade, “Sweet Meat Has Sour Sauce,” is political. The other two poems by him here are not, and there is no hierarchy in their relationship.
As I’ve said, this is an anthology of poems, not poets, poems picked because they seemed to me good, and not as representatives of this or that.
Individual poems are as far as possible free-standing in ways that would enable them to function even were they anonymous or if one of them, encountered in some other anthology, were the first poem by that poet that someone read.
So there is less need for the kind of background information at the high-culture end of the spectrum—history-of-ideas, biographical details, and so forth—that in the Guardians-of-Tradition view of things is essential for intimidating and civilizing the young. And elsewhere I have simply ignored culture markers of the “You are now leaving Serious Art. Welcome to Mere Entertainment. Have a good day” variety.
This doesn’t make all the poems equally good or great, of course. But so far as I am concerned, the term “poem,” like the term “play” is a neutral marker, not an honorific, and “Spider Man Blues,” “Setting the Woods on Fire” and “The Ball of Kirriemuir” are all poems.
A poem is a poem by virtue of what is there on the page, which is to say various formal features, and not because of its real or imagined origins or intentions.
I provide support for that point of view at various points elsewhere.
So we have here a greater continuity of content and form across the centuries than is customary in the Zeitgeist-and-Genius view of poetic history, in which the presumed essence of each period or phase swells up at particular points in poets of genius (on which see my “Vision and Analogy”), and more of a concern with action (there’s a lot of speech-act here).
Even the more playful and entertaining poems, such as “What tho’ they call me country lass”, or the Broadway lyrics, have emotional substance—sexual, mostly, or, in Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Gardener’s Song,” serious derangement of the kind explored by the neurologist Oliver Sacks. Or at times an underlying darkness, as in Edward Lear’s take on bourgeois family life in “Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos.”
And absent the view of the past as a sequence of inevitable style-shifts in successive cultural periods, each with its academic explicators and defenders, we don’t have here the stylistic incoherence of the past two or three decades when writers entering, as it is supposed, a new and uncharted period, fall back on tried-and-true free-versified autobiography and climate-of-the-times opining.
The endgame of A New Book (but of course the game is still in progress) is particularly rich and individuated. These are not writers whose selfhoods have been cramped because they enjoy speaking iambically and rhyming with skill, and who may have done a good deal of reading and thinking, not all of it about literary matters.
It is the ongoing formal structurings—metrical, syntactical, semantic —that generate the energy. A statement like “I hate you,” energy-charged though it may be in a family context when it is screamed at a parent, is dead on the page by itself. Hating, like loving, has to be incarnated.
Several poems in A New Book deal with the Classical underworld—poems by Nerval, Tennyson, Lawrence, Hope, Kay, Pinsky, Stallings. Artistic creation can involve spelunking in areas of the self or of culture, often at times the same thing, that are not of the most salubrious kind.
Fleur Adcock has a strong early poem about that, “Mornings After,” in which she speaks at one point of the kind of vision in which
I see myself inspecting the vast slit
of a sagging whore; making love with a hunchbacked
hermaphrodite; eating worms or shit,
or rapt upon necrophily or incest.
And whatever loathsome images I see
are just as vivid as the pleasant others.
I flush and shudder: my God, was that me?
I wish that I could get the whole poem for A New Book.
And states of derangement are powerfully evoked in poems like Cunningham’s “An Interview with Doctor Drink, Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a funeral in my brain,” Rimbaud’s “Le Coeur Volé,” A. Mary F. Robinson’s “Neurasthenia,” John Whitworth’s “Reading the Bones,” and Blind Willy McTell’s “Talking to Myself.”
But they are not presented as Hart Cranean spiritual questings along the road of excess. If they were they would be less interesting, since it is the coping with the undesired, psychologically and rhetorically, that binds them to us.
In “If wisdom, as it seems it is,’ Cunningham reflects that,
If wisdom, as it seems it is,
Be the recovery of some bliss
From the conditions of disaster—
Terror the servant, man the master—
It does not follow we should seek
Crises to prove ourselves unweak …
The “gay” loneliness in Edgar Bowers’ “Wandering,” like the alienation in Baudelaire’s “Le Jeu,” is obviously not sought. Nor were the bodily deterioration present in the Lazuras poems that Heine coped with so heroically in his last years.
With the Scrutiny enterprise in mind, F.R. Leavis remarked somewhere that “We did not need Nietzsche to tell us to live dangerously. There is no other way to live.”
So the copings and orderings, and the empathetic turnings away from narcissistic self absorption to the thereness of others, as in Baudelaire’s “Les Petites Vieilles,” or Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Veteran Sirens,” or Apollinaire’s “Le Synagogue” are all the more to be cherished.
There are a lot of “others” in A New Books, and delightful celebrations of sociability and festiveness in poems like Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper,” and Herrick’s “Corinna’s Going a Maying, and d’Urfey’s “The Gree- Gowne,” and Francis Sempill’s “The Blithesome Wedding,” and Praed’s “The Last Quadrille.”
A parallel of sorts for A New Book, it has occurred to me, might be with Joyce’s Ulysses. Of course there isn’t all that clatter of up-to-the-minute urban details that has kept a lot of modernists busy. But there’s quite a spectrum here from religious devotion (presented unironically) and high philosophical speculation to, well, whatever strikes one as antithetical in other directions.
Including a fair amount of libido, not all of it from the approved erogenous zones. Marlow and Donne and Rochester are here, of course. But so are poems not normally included in college anthologies, such as Ronsard’s dildo sonnet, and George Colman’s pseudo-Byronic gay polemic Don Leon, and “The Good Ship Venus,” and—but readers can discover some things for themselves.
I may be speaking out of a vested interest with the Ulysses analogy, since elsewhere in Jottings (the main site, of which Voices is one of several sub-divisions), I myself am spelunking, at considerable length, in the underworlds of British pulp fiction in the 1940s and early ‘50s. Nihilism, Modernism, and Value also took me into zones of risk, of a more serious kind.
At bottom, though, what excites me now when I browse in A New Book, which is starting to feel as if it had been assembled by someone else, is the sheer glorious abundance and variety of the poems. This is not “my” anthology. It is the poems’ own. It is about poetry, not politics, and the poems are there to be enjoyed.
Lots of them.
The selection of French poems in Angel Flores’ An Anthology of French Poetry from Nerval to Valéry with English Translation (1958) is outstanding. Among the verse translators are Stanley Kunitz, Barbara Gibbs, Richard Wilbur, Vernon Watkins, W.S. Merwin, and William Jay Smith. I have translated a number of poems for A New Book myself when nothing, or nothing suitable, was available or when the payment of copyright fees would have been required. Louis MacNeice’s fine verse translation of Aragon’s “Zone Libre” must be sought in his Collected Poems.
Roger Lonsdale’s Eighteenth-Century Woman Poets (1989) summons lots of poems and poets back from the shades. The reader’s knowledge, derived from the poems themselves, that the writers are not, like the male poets in Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of English Verse (1984), moved principally by the need for money and a desire for renown, but also have to cope with idealized images of Woman, the practical domestic operations of households, the brutality and unfaithfulness of lords and masters, and limited social mobility, gives a greater feeling of psychological concreteness to the collection as a whole, assisted by a narrower stylistic range.
The 770 pages of poems in Jerome J. McGann’s The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (1993) contain a great many poems and excerpts running from 1785 to 1832 and arranged according to the date of first publication of each poem. This dismantles the standard Himalayas image of the Big Poets and sends their poems out to take their chances among ones by Richard Polwhel, Charlotte Smith, Samuel Bamford, Mary Tighe, George Croly, and others. It is interesting “becoming” a reader at the time, and reading and reacting more freshly.
The first two volumes of the Library of America’s American Poetry; The Twentieth Century (2000), going from Henry Adams to May Swenson in almost 1800 pages , are exemplary in the catholicity of the selections, ranging from Ira Gershwin, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and H.P. Lovecraft (!) to fifteen by Janet Lewis and over twenty each by Winters and Cunningham.
A lot of poets are retrieved from obscurity here (if you’re curious about Donald Evans whom Winters praised, two of his sonnets are here.) Enough space (sixty Frosts, forty-one Stevens, twenty-three Langston Hughes, thirty Marianne Moores, etc) is given to Names for you to get a reasonable idea of what they’re up to). And one gets the impression that the five members of the Advisory Board, four of them poets themselves, aren’t Nortonizing and are aware that what some poets do in this jostling and elbowing of styles will be anathema to others and that the editorial/pedagogical task isn’t to persuade students to like, or at least be deferential to, everything here as all equally Poetry.
If you want to find out what was going on in those decades, this is the place to go, even though there is plenty to disagree about in some of the selections. A number of New Book poems aren’t in those pages, but that is only to be expected, and at least I found McGinley’s poem here. The volumes perform the primary task of scholarship, namely making works available. When, oh when will the third and fourth volumes appear?
John Whitworth’s Making Love to Marilyn Monroe; the Faber book of Blue Verse (1990) is an especial joy. Whitworth, a fine poet himself, has gone way beyond the conventional ooh-la-la titillating into the underlying textures and continuities of sexuality across the centuries, as explored in muscular and largely formal verse. Among the sections into which the poems are divided are Youth and Age, Name Calling, Getting Religion, and Parts of the Body, Mostly Male. Among the many poets are Gavin Ewart, Paul Verlaine, Fleur Adcock, William Dunbar, Catullus, Ezra Pound, Wendy Cope, X.J. Kennedy, Pietro Aretino, and Judith Kazantzis.
Kit Wright’s hilarious “Underneath the Archers or What’s All This about Walter’s Willy?” is there:
Everyone’s on about Walter’s willy
Down at the Bull tonight.
He’s done Dan’s sheep and he’s done them silly—
He’s had young Phil and his daughter’s filly—
And folk don’t think it’s right.
Folk know it can’t be right.
And so on for eleven more stanzas.
The limericks, almost all of them new to me, are funny. E.g.,
From the depths of the crypt at St. Giles
Came a scream that resounded for miles.
Said the vicar, “Good gracious!
Has Father Ignatius
Forgotten the Bishop has piles?”
The Notes to A New Book of Verse include a list of anthologies consulted and Web sites visited, as well as comments on various poems, starting with a 13th century evocation of the coming of death and a moving 15th-century lament over the body of the dead Christ by his mother.
Yes, there are even Christian poems here, some of them twentieth-century—a vanishing presence in college-market anthologies, presumably because “controversial.” There is also, I have noticed, less in those anthologies now about death.
September 2007, revised February 2008, 2010 and 2011.