Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Heart Poetry Anthologies

It's snowing again. I think five inches have fallen in the last five hours and there's no sign of it slowing. Nights like this, it's kind of nice to be stuck inside with a nice book of poetry to read, don't you think?

I love poetry books. I like collecting big volumes of my favorite poets' collected works: Kunitz, Cummings, etc. I like reading poets' individual books, too--Merwin, Alexie, and Adonnizio are a few I've read recently.

But for some reason, the poetry books I truly adore are anthologies. Like a mix tape on poetry steroids, a good anthology can keep my attention for weeks or more. And it's anthologies I always return to when seeking new poems and poets to read.

I love their diversity--the intermingling of poetic styles, the combination of poets both lauded and unknown--and yet, when they're done right, the anthology flows seamlessly from one poem to the next. And then there's the fact that you can just dive right in, open it to any one page and maybe discover a new favorite or rediscover a poem near and dear to your heart. Yes, anthologies are the cat's pajamas but unlike feline sleepwear, I think I'll never own enough of them.

Oh, I almost forgot one of the best features of some anthologies--introductions! I get a kick out of reading the anthologist's thoughts about poetry and about how they put their collection together. If you read past the obligatory "There were so many good poems that I couldn't include..." you usually get some insight into the method behind their choices.

Wow, I almost forgot another wonderful feature of many anthologies--appendices! I love it when you get to read a little blurb about the poets included in the book. And it's even better when, as in the Best American Poetry series, the poet's own thoughts are included, letting the reader in to the mystical minds of the writers themselves.

Here's one example of an anthology I came across recently, The Poets Laureate Anthology edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt:

It includes poems from every poet laureate of the United States. Ever. As well as short biographical pieces about each one. I learned a lot from this book. I did not know, for example, that William Carlos Williams and Gwendolyn Brooks were each nominated to this position (which at that time was called "Poetry Consultant"--although Williams never actually served!). Good stuff.

Here's "Abandoned Farmhouse" by one of my favorite laureates, Ted Kooser:

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard.

Read the rest here.

One of my other favorite anthologies is edited by Naomi Shihab Nye and is called This Same Sky.

It features poems from around the world and is a must have, especially for teachers. Take for example, "I Hide Behind the Simple Things" by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. Here's the first stanza...

I hide behind the simple things so you'll find me,
if you don't find me, you'll find the things,
you'll touch what my hand has touched,
our hand-prints will merge.

Read the rest via Google Books.

I could go on and on, I suppose. And still I don't think I've truly captured what it is that I love about poetry anthologies and why I prefer them. Maybe something to explore in the future. If you have a favorite anthology, please share it with us in the comments!

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