These things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
One of the magnificent Dover Thrift editions, this book is just shy of a hundred pages, and like most of the books in the series, can be purchased for only one dollar. That right there, elevates the entire series to greatness; great literature at a price that is finally truly affordable. Skip one candy bar today and you’ve got instead food for the soul.
Due to this desire for affordability and therefore concision, many long poems are omitted, a fact owned up to with some degree of melancholy in the introduction. As well, the emphasis, befitting the Dover label, is on American and English developments. This book is, editor Smith asserts, rightfully, merely to serve as an introduction.
And as an introduction, well, it is brilliant.
In chronological order, roughly at least, the book begins with two anonymous ballads and moves up and on, ending with Dylan Thomas raging against the dying of the light. In between, we’ve hit Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Jonson, Herrick, Marvell, Gray, Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Emerson, Kipling, Browning (times two), Longfellow, Whittier, Poe, Tennyson, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Frost, Sandburg, Pound, Cummings and fully a dozen others I don’t mention for lack of space.
Some are represented by a single poem, others by several; this book must be reviewed more or less as a greatest hits album would be reviewed. That said, there are some odd choices: Cummings is represented with ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town,’ rather than any number of better poems he did; Gerard Manley Hopkins gets two poems but neither of them is “God’s Grandeur,” etc.
But it works despite the unavoidable omissions. It gives you a picture of poetic scale. We run from the exalted verse of Wordsworth to the purely utilitarian minimalism of William Carlos Williams, from the nightmarish intensity of Coleridge to the jocular storytelling of Lewis Carroll, from the dense terror of Poe to the sentimentality of Housman. And, by God, it works. You feel it. You feel it all.
And, reading this book through, you’ll be shocked again at just how poetry has influenced the common language. Here you’ll find the origins of “All that glitters is not gold,” “The lap of earth,” “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” “And miles to go before I sleep,” “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” “They also serve who only stand and wait,” etc. to infinity. To read this book is to reconnect with the English language as pure expression.
Poetry anthology is like any anthological art form, a dicey thing to pull off. You’re apt to disgust people with both your inclusions and exclusions, but this book by and large is what it claims to be. Best loved? Perhaps not, given the strict English bias and the tendency toward brevity. But can it be found in the heart to quibble while turning these lovely leaves? Hardly. Nary a bad poem can be found in these pages. A brilliant collection which finds its only weakness in its concision. But who could lug around the entire body of great poetry? And who could hesitate to return to these masterpieces and reacquaint with them? If your love of poetry has dropped off somewhere and you never read it anymore, pick this one up; you’ll find a hundred (and more) sparks rekindled into flame.
5 out of 5 stars.