After a long time, I read a poem I first heard from my grandmother: Casabianca. It appears in Poetry by Heart, a collection of over 200 “Poems for Learning and Reciting”, to quote the subtitle. The book includes poems we were expected to learn in school. That’s not surprising. The anthology, published this year, marks the third anniversary of the Poetry by Heart recitation competition for schools and colleges in England.
The competition was launched in 2013 by Poetry Archive, which also took the initiative that resulted in this book. I love the Poetry Archive website where you can hear poets reading their works. Many of the poems in this anthology can also be found on the website.
A collection of more than 200 poems seems like a large helping of poetry till you open the book and see how much is missing. There is only one poem by Wordsworth (The Solitary Reaper), one poem by Keats (Ode to a Nightingale), one poem by Shelley (Ozymandias) – indeed, all the great poets presented in the anthology are limited to one poem each: John Donne (The Good Morrow), William Blake (The Chimney Sweeper), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Kubla Khan), Alfred Tennyson (Ulysses), Robert Browning (Porphyria’s Lover), Matthew Arnold (Dover Beach), WB Yeats (The Second Coming), TS Eliot (Journey of the Magi).
The editors Julie Blake, Mike Dixon, Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland had to be extremely selective to present the whole gamut of English poetry from Beowulf to the present day. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton are all represented in the collection.
The old stalwarts and perennial favourites like Ben Jonson’s To Celia, Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and GK Chesterton’s The Rolling English Road make good reading, but they can be found in many other anthologies.
What makes this collection worth reading is its choice of modern and contemporary poets. Auden is represented by Musee des Beaux Arts, Louis MacNeice by Bagpipe Music, Sylvia Plath by Morning Song, Derek Walcott by Sea Canes. All remarkable poems. Remarkable, too, is Peter Porter’s Your Attention Please, the most famous poem about the perils of nuclear war. Wendy Cope is playful as ever in Proverbial Ballade.
And then there are the unexpected pleasures. Poems I read for the first time. Poems such as Ö by Rita Dove and Wedding by Alice Oswald. Reading them reminded me poems can be unresolved mysteries, especially modern poems. What we call mysteries – whodunits or detective stories – end with puzzles solved. But poems are not obliged to explain themselves. That’s left to the critics and annotators. The character Ö can mean an island in Swedish, I learnt, but that did not explain everything about Rita Dove’s poem. Ö was still strange and mysterious. That can be attractive in poetry.