…and I was glad to see it. I’d missed its presence, not daily, but more than twice in the six months since I’d forced it on Phillip, who said he’d not read poetry since school.
‘This is a useful anthology,’ I’d said, pulling Penguin’s Poems for Life off my shelf.
‘I’ll give it a try,’ Phillip said. ‘I do want to know more about this writing lark.’
I hadn’t realised how much I’d taken the book for granted, until it was gone. So many of my favourite poems are in it. While I have collected works, and pamphlets from various authors, sometimes only an anthology will do.
Oh, I know we can look up any poem on the internet, and I do stumble across new gems there. But reading on the screen is not the same as riffling through pages, or being provided with a well-thought out selection.
Sometimes I know roughly how far into an anthology a particular favourite is and the book, having taken shape from my visits, falls open just where I wanted it to. One natural parting place is Adrian Mitchell’s tribute to Phillip Larkin’s This Be The Verse. In three short stanzas he mirrors the rhythms of the original, and reverses the emphasis, having simply swapped a T for the F.
They Tuck you up, your mum and dad,
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.
If I’m looking for a theme, I browse the index. The categories range from Birth and Beginnings; Childhood and Childish Things and on through the stages of our lives, to Mourning and Monuments.
What I like in an anthology is variety and range. With that, I’m likely to stumble across a poet I’ve not met before. I’m a dipper in, rather than a page turning reader of poems.
Amongst the old familiars and favourites in this selection I recently discovered Ann Bradstreet, talking of how it feels to watch her children grow, in 1659.
I had eight birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest.
I nursed them up with pain and care,
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare,
Tall at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the trees and learned to sing;
How can there still be so many early writers I should have heard of? The other day, somewhere, I saw a suggestion that an early eighteenth century reader could expect to have read every fiction written. Perhaps that’s true, if they had no other activities to occupy them.
I don’t think I aim for that. There are books, and poems I’ve given up on, and some of them are classics. For me, reading and writing should be about enjoyment.
‘Well,’ said Phillip, handing the book back. ‘You know me, I don’t really read. Poetry’s a bit difficult, isn’t it? I think you need a key, and I never really liked it at school.’
Mostly poems charm, challenge and fascinate me, but I know that’s not the effect they have on every other reader. I put the anthology back into the slot it had vacated, one shelf above a copy of The Sport of Queens that I was loaned more than a decade ago, by a friend who knew I enjoyed Dick Frances thrillers. ‘You’ve got to read this,’ he said. ‘It’s all about how Frances rode the Queen’s race horses.’
I think I may have read the first page, but the truth is, it’s not really my thing.