One of the (many) things I love about October is that it is the month when the annual anthologies start appearing. I have in my hands the latest Best American Poetry; the NZPS anthology (Building a Time Machine) launch is just around the corner, and the latest Forward Book of Poetry is winging its way across the sea even as I type.
I know some people dislike and distrust anthologies. They can be very narrow in focus, and quite often reflect the agenda of whoever is editing them. (The anthologies, not (necessarily) the people who dislike them.) I’ve even come across glowering references to ‘the anthology poem’ in much the same tone as ‘the workshop poem’. And I freely admit that they don’t ever contain enough material from any one poet to allow you to evaluate their poetic abilities (I was going to say ‘worth’, but that’s a whole other metallic cylindrical receptacle for the containment of annelids, plathelminthes and the like). Rubbish poets can produce the odd uncharacteristically good poem that then becomes anthologised, garnering them a reputation they haven’t earned. And it can go the other way – good poets being remembered for writing a much-anthologised poem that is definitely not representative of their work. It happens.
But … is there a better way of getting a sample of the work that’s out there? With so many thousands of books being published every year, isn’t the anthology a brilliantly effective way of exploring the poemosphere? (And not just as a way of finding new poets – if you read through for where the poems were first published, it becomes a way of getting a feel for different poetry magazines as well.)
I think of it like a social event. A mixer of some sort. You’re never going to get to know someone really well at a party – too many distractions, and nowhere near enough time. But a well-planned social event brings people together in a convivial setting that gives them the chance to see if there are some people they feel drawn to, people that interest them, that they want to get to know better. And that’s the job of the anthology: to bring people (and poems) together in a safe, friendly environment. From there it’s up to the individual to decide who (if anyone) they want to get to know better. Invite out for a drink maybe, or meet up with later to see a movie with. Or to head off into the bushes for an afternoon of wild sex. Whatever. It all starts with that first encounter.
So three cheers for anthologies, and all who sail in them! And here’s to meeting new poems and new poets, and all the friendships, companionships and love affairs that stem from them. A riot of flowers all round. Hooray!
Some Parties You Might Like to Visit: