Pocket Book of Poetry, by Various (128 pages, Barnes & Noble, 2014)
I have long advocated that poetry is important. I would argue, in fact, that it is not merely important but necessary. The presence or absence of poetry serves as a barometer for measuring the health of a culture. A culture which has ceased to read poetry is on the path to self-destruction. We live in a very unpoetic age.
Considering my advocacy of poetry, I was intrigued by a slim volume of verse given to my daughter this year on her birthday. It is a Pocket Book of Poetry, published by Fall River Press, which is a trademark of Barnes and Noble. Clearly such a book, barely a hundred pages in length and published by a major retail chain, is intended to be popular and therefore populist. It represents something akin to an “all-time greatest hits” collection. What, I wondered, would the anonymous compiler of such a slim volume, hired by a retail chain to produce something popular, include in his “greatest hits” collection. What would be his selection criteria?
Considering the space constraints, it is no surprise to find that very few longer poems are included. If the book is only going to be 115 pocket-sized pages in length, it is necessary to squeeze as many poems as possible in the limited space available. Although this approach precludes the inclusion of many of the finest poems ever written, we see the necessity of the compiler being granted this poetic license. It is also understandable that the selection is modern, in the broadest sense of the word, beginning with the early modern poetry of Shakespeare, and that it is broadly secular with only hints of Christianity here and there. Pre-modern poetry, such as medieval verse, is awash with Catholic piety which would not sit well in a volume aiming to please most of its readers most of the time. On the other hand, and for the same reason, presumably, of wanting to please most of the people most of the time, there is no avant-garde or “politically correct” agenda evident in the selection. On the contrary, one would have to say that the selection is somewhat “conservative.” Most of the poems are canonical, in the sense that they have been taught and learned, and known and loved, by generations of readers.
Having discussed the selection criteria, let’s take a look at the selection itself.
It begins with three of Shakespeare’s best-known and most popular sonnets, a perfect way to raise the curtain on all that follows. Although the selected sonnets are fine (of course!), I would have preferred the following slightly more adventurous trio: Sonnet 23, with its coded reference to the Mass as “the perfect ceremony of love’s rite”; Sonnet 73, with its lament for the destruction of England’s monasteries (the ”bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang”); and Sonnet 129, with its unequivocal condemnation of “lust in action” as the “expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”
We see lust in action in Andrew Marvell’s seduction of his “coy mistress” and courtly love waxing lyrical in Ben Jonson’s “Song to Celia” (Drink to me only with thine eyes), both of which are indubitably “greatest hits” and indispensable to any good anthology. What we don’t see, except for a passing deferential nod in the direction of John Donne, are the greatest Metaphysical Poets. There’s no sign of George Herbert, Robert Southwell, or Richard Crashaw. The reason is easy enough to adduce. These poets write overtly and avowedly of the life of faith in a manner which would no doubt be thought too edgy in a work seeking to please everyone. This is the reason for the censorship of John Donne so that only those poems of his that don’t mention potentially offensive words, such as “Jesus” or “Christ,” are considered publishable. Although Donne’s Christianity is implicit in “Death,” one of the two of his poems which make the cut, it is subsumed in such a way that it can be glossed over by those not wishing to see it or be troubled by it.
As we move through the book and through history, we find Milton represented by the famous sonnet on his own blindness and Robert Burns contemplating colloquially the “best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” and comparing his love to “a red, red rose.” These are safe and predictable choices to be sure, but also welcome and laudable ones.
The Romantic Poets are safer fare for the modern palate than are the Metaphysicals and are consequently much more widely represented. There are three poems by William Blake, including “The Tiger,” the omission of which would have been a crime, and three also by William Wordsworth, one of which finds him wandering lonely as a cloud. Coleridge, on the other hand, is only present in the form of “Kubla Khan,” a poem I’ve never liked and which is unrepresentative of his oeuvre. The problem is that Coleridge’s finest poetry (“Ancient Mariner,” “Lime Tree Bower,” “Hymn Before Sunrise”) is too lengthy to be included in a volume such as this. Byron and Shelley are represented, which is fair enough, the latter by the cautionary brilliance of “Ozymandias” with its timely reminder of the ultimate futility of the cult of Pride and “self-empowerment.”
The anonymous compiler indulges himself by devoting four of his precious few pages to publishing one of Shelley’s longer poems, “Ode to the West Wind,” which made me wonder why he would select this particular longer poem instead of “To a Skylark” which is so much the better of the two. Keats is an obvious favourite because the compiler indulges him with two longer poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” expending seven of his precious pages in doing so. These are two of the finest poems ever to grace the English language, meriting their space-devouring inclusion, and, personally-speaking, I would also have included Keats’ neo-medieval “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”
Crossing the Atlantic, the compiler includes Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” and Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” those pillars of patriotism which are considered so sacrosanct on this side of the Pond that the present author dare not pass judgment one way or the other. Passing on, therefore, in silence, we come to three other American poets, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, whom I admire in descending order respectively.
Moving back to England, and back to terra firma with respect to the present writer’s critical sensibility, I was pleased and surprised to see the inclusion of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem on which I was raised, my father’s regular and repeated recitals of it spanning the decades, undimmed and undiminished, its militaristic metre still ringing and drumming in the ears of memory. Less surprising was the predictable inclusion of “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold’s evocation of the religious skepticism of the Victorian age, which was juxtaposed, somewhat incongruously but perhaps providentially, with the nonsense verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Equally providential was the placement after Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” of William Henley’s preposterously prideful paean to his own “unconquerable soul.” In similar vein, a few pages further on, is Rudyard Kipling’s perennially popular “If,” which my father was also wont to recite. This was once a great favourite of mine but it now reminds me insistently of Polonius’ pridefully vacuous advice to his son, Laertes, in Hamlet.
Crossing another pond, an altogether smaller one, we find ourselves wishing to accompany the incomparable Yeats to “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” seeking the peace of the “bee-loud glade.” In the same spirit, though lacking the necessary degree of melancholy, is John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever,” evoking the poet’s desire to return to the seafaring life.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in this whole volume was the inclusion of Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” a lengthy narrative poem spanning eight precious pages. This was one of the most popular poems of the Edwardian period, as Noyes was one of the most popular poets, until both poem and poet were swept aside by the waves of modernism which followed in the wake of Eliot’s “Waste Land.” Noyes was an outspoken critic of modernism and a champion of traditional poetic form, rendering him outrageously out of fashion in the changed aesthetic climate of the 1920s. Henceforth, the reading of his poems was considered anathema. (I wrote about this at some length in a chapter entitled “Poetry in Commotion” in my book, Literary Converts.) Although I am a great admirer of Eliot’s poetry, none of which is included in this volume (another surprise), I always felt that Noyes was treated very unfairly and that the almost total eclipse of his reputation was a crime against the humanities. It was, therefore, with sheer delight that I greeted the inclusion of his best-known poem in this volume.
If the resurrection of Noyes is one indication of the essentially “conservative” nature of this pocket-sized anthology, so is the selection of poetry pertaining to World War One. John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is included, as is Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (“If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England”). What is not included is the acerbic realism of other war poetry, such as Wilfred Owen’s ironically titled “Dulce et Decorum Est” or Siegfried Sassoon’s spleen-venting “Fight to a Finish,” both of which might have been considered too edgy for the “conservative” comfort zone in which the compiler was working. (As a side note or postscript, it was good to see the inclusion in this volume of Joyce Kilmer, another war poet, whose most celebrated poem, “Trees,” the one selected for this volume, is perhaps the most overtly and unambiguously religious of any of the poems in the anthology.)
And this brings us to the close of the volume, which ends with a veritable whimper. The poem selected to bring the curtain down on the volume is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Pullitzer Prize winning “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” which is decidedly mediocre. It would have been much better to have ended with “The Road Not Taken,” one of the two poems by Robert Frost which are included.
Although it would be all too easy to list the anonymous compiler’s many sins of omission, lamenting the many poets who might have been included, it would be a trifle unjust to do so. This self-proclaimed “Pocket Book of Poetry” is a pocket-sized selection which contains much that is good and surprisingly little which is bad. It is secular but not secularist. It has no axe to grind and it drives no agenda. It pays due deference and rightful respect for those poems which have stood the test of time, remaining popular even as fads and fashions change. It’s the sort of introduction to poetry I’d be happy to buy my daughter for her birthday and I am pleased that one of our friends actually thought of doing so.
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The featured image is a detail from “Apollo, God of Light, Eloquence, Poetry and the Fine Arts with Urania, Muse of Astronomy” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.