Anthologise: Advice from Poets and Anthologists

06 September 2011

Some poets and anthologists offer you advice on compiling a fantastic anthology.

 

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Anthologise: Advice from Poets and Anthologists

 

The order of poems in an anthology is important... Poems can surprise you in the way they pick up themes or patterns from each other and you can make the whole anthology sing from page to page‘Anthology’ means ‘a gathering of flowers’...  A really interesting anthology will have have poems of all colours and shapes and sizes and smells – and maybe a few weeds and thistles too.

Don Paterson


‘Anthology’ means ‘a gathering of flowers’. So don’t collect only daisies, or only tulips, or only hollyhocks. A really interesting anthology will have have poems of all colours and shapes and sizes and smells – and maybe a few weeds and thistles too.

Try to find connections between poets from different eras. Contemporary poems often make older poems easier to read, and can offer the reader a way in to language that’s sometimes forbiddingly strange.

Too much emphasis has been placed recently on poems which are ‘relevant’ or ‘address issues’. Most readers and almost all poets consider this approach a bit silly. Just because a poem talks about an ‘issue’ doesn’t mean it’s any good. In fact - it doesn't mean anything. What means something is if a poem moves you, or makes you think - or preferably both. (Or makes you laugh, of course.) These poems are always relevant, and might have been written last week, or a thousand years ago. Ezra Pound once said that poetry is ‘news that stays news’.

Themes are fine - but only if they’re broad enough to allow lots of variety. (Anthologies of sonnets - good; anthologies of poems about cheese – less good.) The most famous anthologies have not, generally, been themed at all ...

... But you can group poems by theme. However, most readers don’t read anthologies straight through like a novel. They’ll often start the book in the middle, or open it at random. So it’s just as important to think about ‘juxtaposition’ - i.e. which poems go well together. Two poems might might share a title, a subject, a key word, or an image – or they might be completely, disturbingly different. The best approach is to try to find a connection which will surprise the reader. So be artful in how you arrange the poems: when you’ve chosen them, lay them all out on the floor and see if you can spot which ones speak to each other.

And finally ... Trust your instincts. Don’t put anything in because you think it should go in. Only put in poems you like!

 

 


Choose a poem because you like it, or better still, because you love it. Good poems sing...  They move us because of the way their language moves, sound, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, echo, all carrying meaning into our hearts.

Gillian Clarke

HOW TO MAKE AN ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS

Read and collect as many poems as you can. Ask friends and family to tell you their favourites. If they can’t quite remember, a few words will probably be enough of a clue to Google the poem. Look at old anthologies, as well as modern ones. A good anthology brings together new and old, and shows us treasures we might have missed.

Every poem you choose should pass this test: does it turn ordinary words into music? Does at least one line stay in your mind after reading it? Does something inside you say ‘Yes!’ as you read it. If so, it’s because loved poems tell us a truth. Sometimes that truth is a shared human feeling. Sometimes the poem’s truth is in something perfectly observed, or in an image that’s just right. Every spring when the buds begin to open on the trees, I think of these lines by Philip Larkin:

‘The trees are coming into leaf
 Like something almost being said.’

Every stormy night I remember the image from Ted Hughes's poem, ‘Wind’

‘This house has been far out at sea all night’

Choose a poem because you like it, or better still, because you love it. Good poems sing. They are music made of words. The language wakes us up. They are both mysterious and familiar. They move us because of the way their language moves, sound, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, echo, all carrying meaning into our hearts. Poems carry truth to the heart through the ear.
   

Jo Shapcott

The order of poems in an anthology is important: how they strike sparks off each other, how ideas weave through the pages.  Serendipity plays a part here but I've found the best way to sort out the order is to spread the candidate poems out on the floor (you may need to borrow a big floor).  This way, you can see them all together and experiment by moving them around to see which poems go with which - how they speak to each other when they are next door neighbours, or how they don't get on at all.  Poems can surprise you in the way they pick up themes or patterns from each other and you can make the whole anthology sing from page to page like this.   You can also see quite quickly where particular poems - sometimes even very good ones - don't fit in your anthology at all.