In a pill-popping, downloading, makeover, quick-fix culture such as ours, it is perhaps natural that poetry anthologies should proliferate. Urban chicks want their thrills fast: their couplets with their cappuccinos-to-go, their ballads with their Botox, their Petrarchan sonnets with their Prozac. And they need value-for-money, results guaranteed. No waiting around for tradition and the individual talent, this poetry has got to work with tangible results. So the bestselling shelves are stacked with titles such as 101 Poems to Keep You Sane (edited by Daisy Goodwin), Ten Poems To Change Your Life (edited by Roger Housdon) and Good Companions: An Anthology to Inspire, Amuse or Console (edited by John Bayley). What use is a poem, after all, if it cannot offer therapy, career guidance or lifestyle improvement?
The list is the new aesthetic. Nick Hornby's selection of records in High Fidelity, Channel 4's recurrent programmes listing the best films or popstars, Tracey Emin's roll-call of people she has slept with - you name it, it has been catalogued and fetishised in some inventory or another. Selecting and reselecting, we now rely on lists of lists.
So Blackwell must think that it is on to a market winner with its new seven-volume anthology of poetry anthologies. Duncan Wu, the series editor, has taken existing excellent Blackwell anthologies and reduced each one to a 200-page book of "essential literature". While the original Blackwell anthologies aimed at "range and variety", the Essential Literature series offers "authoritative selection, compactness and ease of use". Attuned to modern demands, they are intended for "students hard-pressed for time" who want their work in easily digestible packages. And with helpful practicality, the blurb on the cover tells us, they are "short, pocket-sized collections".
Well, I am not sure what size of pockets the Blackwell marketing giants have but, at about 25cm long, my "essential literature" books fail to squash into any of my pockets. And it is not just physically that these books struggle to fit the marketing niche: they fall uneasily between the scholarly and the popular. While they look like the Blackwell anthologies, with the academic marginalia of introduction, notes and suggestions for further reading, there is no concession to commercialism in the cover design, which is actually more spartan than the original anthologies. They persist, too, in the period boundaries established by Blackwell. The title of one book, for example, Poetry from 1660 to 1780, is hardly a big turn-on in the street.
Yet the books also share common ground with Bayley's Good Companions in the sense that the selection is hugely compressed and determined by subjective editorial decisions. Wu has chosen from the Blackwell anthologies the poems that he thinks are the most "influential". He writes introductions that describe the historical and literary connections between the writers he has picked, and thereby subtly justifies his selection. The Romantic Poetry anthology, for example, includes only the poems by those whom Wu calls the "big six": Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. Wu's introduction to the volume, which, unlike some of his other introductions, contains no reference to any other critics and offers only his own four anthologies for Blackwell as further reading, traces the links between these writers. There appear to be no other poets in the period and no other narratives possible since these six worked, apparently, in such a tight-knit, mutually beneficial way. The anthology is as self-enclosed and personal as Goodwin's Essential Poems (to Fall in Love With).
This would not matter except that I fear that the result will be the reassertion of the traditional canon through the back door. The great benefit of anthologies published for the student and academic market in the years since Roger Lonsdale's pioneering Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (1989) has been their valiant attempt to widen the canon. Editors have sought out poems by women, by those from different classes and by writers from the shires; and they have broadened the subject matter included and the nature of the aesthetic standards by which poems are judged and selected. Valentine Cunningham's anthology of Victorian verse for Blackwell included, according to its editor, "poems about cod-liver oil, railway lines and railway trains, chairs, soup, soap, paintings, omnibuses, going to the dentist, Grimm's Law, weather in the suburbs, dead dogs, cricket players, a cabbage leaf, Missing Links, tobacco, booze, snow, sado-masochism, psychical research, leeks, onions, genitalia, war, New Women, fairies, love, death, God, pain, poverty, faith, doubt, science, poets, poetry". But Wu's anthology of Cunningham's anthology reduces this hotch-potch to the usual suspects of Tennyson, Browning, Clough, Arnold, Hardy, Hopkins and Housman, among a few others, and therefore reinscribes the period as a time not of dead dogs and cricketers but essentially of "God, faith, doubt and poetry".
These volumes are at their best when Wu is open and unabashed about the necessarily personal and idiosyncratic basis of his selection. He is primarily a scholar of Romantic-period literature and sees poetry from other centuries in terms of its influence on Romantic-period writers and its subsequent development of a Romantic aesthetic. Some of Milton's political sonnets - On the Lord General Fairfax at the Siege of Colchester, To The Lord General Cromwell, To Sir Henry Vane the Younger and On the Late Massacre in Piedmont - are included in Renaissance Poetry because of their influence on Wordsworth's public sonnets (which for some reason Wu omits from Romantic Poetry). Similarly, Shakespeare's sonnet 64 ( When I Have Seen by Time's Fell Hand D efaced) is selected because of its resonance for Keats when he came to write When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be.
We even encounter Chaucer through a Romantic perspective. In the introduction to Poetry from Chaucer to Spenser, we learn that Hazlitt considered Chaucer of "the first class of poetry"; that Wordsworth called Chaucer "the morning star of England's literature"; and that William Blake painted all the Canterbury pilgrims. Wordsworth and Hazlitt are the presiding geniuses of Wu's "Romantic" perspective on English literature, and their aesthetic preferences, as Wu understands them, become the arbiters of taste. So, important, "influential" poetry is male, republican and concerned with "the workings of the heart".
The danger is that while the criterion for selection is highly personal, it appears objective and authoritative. The grudging inclusion of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti because "Margaret Reynolds and Angela Leighton" have "confirmed" their place as two of "the greatest poets of the 19th century" appears less the private disclaimer of the Wordsworthian Wu and more the impersonal critical judgement of the great poetic tradition that creates and
shapes the canon, backed up by academic scholarship. Students would do better to buy the original broad and bulky Blackwell anthologies at only about £5 more a throw and save their purses for The Alastair Press's A Pocket of Poem s if they need a haiku or hexameter hit.
Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Restoration Comedy. First edition
Editor - David Womersley and Duncan Wu
ISBN - 0 631 23471 3 and 23472 1
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £40.00 and £9.99
Pages - 153