Review of “100 Poets: A Little Anthology” ed. John Carey, pub. Yale University Press 2021
With an anthology, one is reviewing both the individual poems and the linking concept. If I were John Carey, I fancy I would be annoyed by the description of this concept on the back cover: “an anthology of verse based on a simple principle: select the one-hundred greatest poets from across the centuries, and then choose their finest poems." This of course is preposterous: no one person could do it. You would need a committee of 25, speaking at least that many languages, and they would still be arguing by the end of the decade.
Sure enough, when one reads Professor Carey’s foreword, it becomes clear the sensible chap was attempting no such thing – in fact he was doing something far more personal. He sees the anthology as a follow-up to his A Little History of Poetry (which I haven’t read) and states “I have chosen 100 poets, mostly but not exclusively English and American, who seem to me outstanding”. As for the poem choice, “all the poems I have chosen are chosen for a single reason – that I find them unforgettable.”
What we have, then, is an avowedly personal, Anglocentric anthology of poets and poems that have made a great impression on a distinguished English academic born in 1934. This shows in the translated poems he chooses – “starting, where world poetry starts, with Homer and Sappho”. I am fairly sure several Eastern cultures, including India and China, could dispute this assertion, but in fact the translated poets are mostly those an Englishman with a classical education would have come across, ie Greek and Roman. Heine, Baudelaire and Rilke are the only ones from modern languages to get a look-in and the only sign of the Chinese poets familiar to many of us in translation is Pound’s pastiche of Li Po. Nor will you find translations of the ancient Welsh poets like Aneirin and Taliesin or, later, ap Gwilym.
He also includes biographical notes, of widely varying length, on the poets, and remarks that “other anthologies” do not give the reader any context about the poets and their times. I can’t help wondering how his experience has differed so much from mine, for I have several anthologies which do just that, starting way back with the Collins Albatross anthology, edited by Louis Untermeyer in the 1960s, which sorted poets into historical periods and provided an overview of each period. Most of my anthologies do also include biographical notes on individual poets, though not so extensive as the longest ones here.
In fact the biographical approach occasionally worries me a bit, when it seems as if poems are being chosen to illustrate the biography rather than for their intrinsic worth. The biography of Housman stresses his sexuality and so does the choice of poems; personally I would say his best poems were on the subject of his mortality, which was far more an obsession with him.
Among the pre-World War II poets, Carey’s personal preferences, though they skew what most would regard as the relative importance of some poets, often result in fascinating choices and mini-essays. Giving Ben Jonson five pages to Chaucer’s one may look perverse, but the five pages of interleaved poems and biography make good reading. I also like his choice of two W H Davies poems far stronger than the over-rated “Leisure”. And the absence of poets still living is right and proper; there has not yet been time to establish their reputation beyond doubt.
Post-war, however, some of his omissions seem frankly odd. In particular the absence of the whole 20th-century Scottish group – no Edwin Muir, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown – is remarkable. I can reluctantly accept that not everyone may share my view that Sorley MacLean’s “Hallaig” is the greatest poem written in these islands in the 20th century, but this total omission of a whole national group leaves one wondering if some Scottish poet once did him a terrible injury (Henryson and Dunbar are missing too; in fact it seems Burns was the only Scot ever to pick up a pen).
Nor do Welsh and Irish poets fare much better, or Commonwealth ones. Two Dereks, Mahon and Walcott, may possibly still have been alive, and therefore ineligible, while he was compiling the anthology, but it could as easily be that they weren’t part of his personal, very Anglo-American canon.
There are also inclusions which will surprise – some for better reasons than others. May Cannan is a neglected poet, though I have seen her in Great War anthologies, and am glad to see her here. I’m not sure, though, that I ever expected to see Arthur Hugh Clough’s “Say Not The Struggle Naught Availeth”, McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” or Pudney’s “Johnny Head-in-Air” in an anthology edited in 2021, and I can’t credit that they are there for any poetic merit. Rather, all three had a powerful emotional effect on certain generations of English 20th-century readers.
I found the anthology oddly fascinating for what it reveals about the mindset and preferences of educated English (not British) readers of a certain time – it is really an anthology of what influenced them and featured in their early reading. It also takes off when he comes to what seem to be his personal favourites – Jonson, Marvell, Milton especially.
But to my mind it is being marketed as something it was not intended to be. Carey claims nothing but personal liking for his choices, but the publishers seem to regard these choices as a sort of guide to what is universally accepted as “the best”. In fact it is a personal canon, and all such canons are heavily skewed toward what the compiler read in youth. If one is an avid reader, one will add to this canon when older, but sometimes not as much as you might think, and for sure, some choices will look terribly out of date to the next generation, who have not the same emotional attachment to them.
Is this, as the back cover claims, an “accessible introduction to the best that poetry has to offer”? Well, some of the best (and some a long way below it), for its Anglo-American centricity, in both language and culture, cannot be denied.