poetry anthologies

poetry anthologies
   For many, their first meeting with poetry is the anthology, as school reader, GCSE or A-level set text. The selection principle in anthologies is rarely made explicit. Nevertheless this is how, unnoticing, readers begin to regard literature’s worth and value canonically. It is therefore important to interrogate the process of selection and justification. Further, some politicians, who have responsibility for curriculum direction, believe that encouraging or directing curriculum managers to prescribe their contents can promote an ‘approved’ poetic culture. A wide spectrum of anthologizing agendas exists: gendered, chronological, regional and national are all present. The reader must not only examine the selection of poets but the editorial principles expressed by the anthologizers’ introductions. For example, the almost total omission of women poets in earlier anthologies seems inexplicable, were it not in some cases deliberately and insultingly ‘justified’. There is, however, an important line of collections with claims to the term ‘key anthology’. It runs at least from Robert Conquest’s New Lines (1956) through Alfred Alvarez’s The New Poetry (1962) and Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 (1970, revised 1985), to Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), and on to Jeni Couzyn’s Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets (1985) and The New British Poetry (1988), edited by Eric Mottram, Gillian Allnutt, Fred D’Aguiar and Ken Edwards. The latest is Bloodaxe’s The New Poetry Anthology (1993), edited by Michael Hulse, David Morley and David Kennedy. ‘New’ is the key word as each struggles to claim power and relevance for its anthologized poets. The anthologists reveal their desire to shock and surprise, claiming relevance and centrality. In the same paragraph of promotional comment, one anthology praises itself as, ‘the most controversial event in the poetry world for many years…’, and ends, ‘it has been taken up as a set text for many school and university courses’. In their confrontation with past and contemporary foes, anthology editors claim their selection’s victory. Nevertheless, the most worthwhile development has been the geographical spread of poetry presses with quirky anthologizing principles; almost every British region possesses at least one publisher of poetry. Bloodaxe in Newcastle upon Tyne and Carcanet in Manchester serve as exemplary models for many others.
   Further reading
    Longley, E. (1996) ‘Signposting the Century’, Poetry Review 86(1): 8–12.
   JIM MALONEY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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