No 10 - Summer 1997
Shaking the dust bag
The School Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes [Faber £12.99]
Heaney’s and Hughes’ first anthology, The Rattle Bag, was an immense success. It sold in huge numbers in all the English-speaking countries of the world and continues to sell well. It is the general poetry anthology (general in the sense of not having a particular interest, theme or period) to which I return most frequently, an experience shared, it seems, by many others. The reasons for the book’s success and its readers’ pleasure are clear: an exceptionally wide range of good short poems, all clearly valued by the editors, and the neat trick of printing them in alphabetical order of first line which, again and again, creates unexpected and delightful juxtapositions.
With such a success, it was inevitable that Faber would want a sequel and this presented a problem. Heaney and Hughes could easily have produced ‘Rattle Bag 2’, organised in the same way, but this would have risked being inferior. It would have consisted, after all, of runners-up, poems that didn’t make it into The Rattle Bag itself. The editors therefore adopted a different strategy, outlined by Heaney in his foreword:
We wanted this anthology to be different from The Rattle Bag, less of a carnival, more like a checklist. It would be a school book in the usual sense - the poems, for example, are grouped in ways that invite different kinds of historical and thematic reading - but it would also resemble ‘a school of poetry’ gathered on traditional bardic lines, a memory bank, a compendium of examples.
This is a large undertaking and, to keep the book to manageable proportions, the editors have limited themselves to one poem per poet.
The result is a discomfiting hotchpotch. Reading The School Bag, it becomes clear that the editors’ three criteria - canonicity, inclusiveness and single examples - continually conflict with each other.
The book’s first aim is to set out a representative canon, in Heaney’s word ‘a checklist’, of English poetry and about a third of it consists of poems that are found in any good historical anthology: mediaeval ballads such as Sir Patrick Spens, Thomas Rymer and Lord Randal, through Wyatt’s They flee from me, Spenser’s Prothalamion, Southwell’s Burning Babe, and King’s Exequy, and so on, century by century, to Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, a good selection of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Arnold’s Dover Beach and much of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol.
The editors have a broad view of poetry and so include narrative (Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, both complete); dramatic (King Lear, Act III, and Faustus, Act V, in substantial extracts); humorous (Hood’s Faithless Nelly Gray, McGonagall’s Tay Bridge Disaster, Reed’s Naming of Parts); nonsense (The Owl and the Pussycat, Jabberwocky); and demotic (several British, Australasian and Afro-American ballads).
This has the essentials of a good historical anthology except that, at every turn, the editors come to grief over their one-poem-per-poet criterion. The effect of this is to imply that all the poets are of equal value and, for this reason alone, The School Bag is useless for educational purposes. Each poem’s year of composition is given and this might suggest to the student reader that Chidiock Tichborne (Elegy for Himself) is comparable with Donne (Valediction Forbidding Mourning); or Southey (After Blenheim) with Byron (extract from Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage); or, in our own century, Spender (The Truly Great) with Auden (Law like Love).
One poem can reasonably represent the work of poets who wrote little or whose work is very consistent. But it is absurd to suggest that Hopkins’ life work is in any sense represented by Inversnaid alone, or Yeats’ by Long-legged fly alone, or Wallace Stevens’ by The World as Meditation alone. As an indication of where the editors’ priorities really lie, The Rattle Bag contained twelve poems by Hopkins, eleven by Yeats and four by Stevens. One-poem-per-poet is, in reality, an evasion of every anthology editor’s responsibility to show where they place greatest value. As a criterion for assembling a canon of poetry, it is disastrous.
This draconian rule was forced on the editors by the need to limit the vast number of possible poems to which they were led by their second criterion: inclusiveness. As indicated, The School Bag includes most genres of English poetry. It also includes a good range of American poets (but not Sylvia Plath) and some Australasian ones (but not Les Murray). However, about a fifth of the book consists of translations from Irish, Welsh and Scots Gaelic. Heaney explains this as:
a matter of editorial principle and personal taste. It is only in the relatively recent past that that there has been any developed awareness of the deep value and high potential of the non-English poetries of Britain and Ireland, so it seemed to us that some account of these basic elements would be both worthwhile and timely.
This position is illogical. The School Bag contains substantial numbers of American and Australasian poems, but no translations from the American-Indian, Aboriginal or Maori languages. On what basis are the other languages of the British Islands included, but not those of the other English-speaking countries? I suspect that the editors have been led by Heaney’s growing interest in, and commitment to, translating Irish verse and, perhaps more specifically, by his wish to make amends for the fact, much criticised in Ireland, that The Rattle Bag contained little Irish poetry.
Interestingly, The Rattle Bag, which contained little translated Irish, Welsh and Scots, included translations from Czech, German, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Spanish, Swedish and Yoruba. Looked at in this context, The School Bag’s constriction to Irish, Welsh and Scots only, and large amounts of it at that, begins to look like the stirrings of Celtic nationalism.
As a representative anthology, “a checklist”, The School Bag is fatally flawed by one-poem-per-poet and by the excessive amount of translation. (I don’t include the versions of Old English poems in this - Old English did eventually become Modern English.) Its pleasures are therefore occasional. The first, as with all anthologies, is the inclusion of personal favourites - the satisfaction that one’s personal taste has been publicly approved. I will mention three: Wulf and Eadwacer, perhaps the only surviving Old English poem in a woman’s voice, a despairing outcry whose savage force is glimpsed in Michael Alexander’s translation; Edward Thomas’s Unknown Bird; and Elizabeth Bishop’s At the fish-houses, about which Heaney has written movingly in The Government of the Tongue.
The second pleasure is in juxtaposition. The poems are arranged thematically, which gives scope for placing them in interesting contexts. Sometimes the placing is mechanical, giving the distinct impression that the poem was chosen because it fitted the scheme rather than because the editors valued it. Browning’s Child Harold to the Dark Tower came follows the King Lear extract on a line of which it is based. Pound’s Canto 1 is followed by another rendering of classical myth - part of Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Thomas Moore’s Dear Harp of my Country is followed by Betjeman’s The Burial of Thomas Moore; Whitman’s Song of Myself by Ginsberg’s vision of Whitman in A Supermarket in California; and so on.
Elsewhere there is a rather weary searching for parallels. Wordsworth’s encounter with the Leech Gatherer, Owen’s Strange Meeting and Lear’s encounter with Poor Tom in the storm all involve meetings, but they have little in common and don’t illuminate each other. Much of the ordering of the poems is mechanical in this way.
Sometimes, however, the juxtapositions are genuinely illuminating. In the light of what precedes and sometimes follows it, a poem - even a poem one knows well - seems startlingly fresh. If the doors have not quite been cleansed, at least the dust bag of one’s perceptions has been shaken. I had always seen Eliot’s Hollow Men as self-indulgent moping and it gains strength from being placed between two specific contexts for extreme despair: Patrick Kavanagh’s bleak lament for the potato famine (The Great Hunger) and Isaac Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches. At a lower level, the ornate language of Masefield’s Cargoes gains a bizarre glint from following The Owl and the Pussycat.
Best of all is where the poems complement and resonate with each other across the centuries: the sickened worldweariness of Lowell’s Waking Early Sunday Morning and Pope’s Epistle to Arbuthnot; the desire in Larkin’s Wedding-wind echoing that of Westron winde (and followed by Wulf and Eadwacer); the surging eroticism of The Song of Solomon followed by the playful sexiness of Herrick’s Delight in disorder.
My favourite is the placing of Frank O’Hara’s A step away from them between the opening of Piers Plowman and Gray’s Elegy. OHara meditates on the beauty and fragility of life during a lunchhour in New York:
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks...
O’Hara’s perception of transitoriness is at one with Langland’s vision of ‘a fair field full of folk’ on their way to eternity and Gray’s meditation on the lives and deaths of the rural poor.
It is at moments like this that one realises what Heaney and Hughes could have achieved if they had seen their way clearly. With the ever increasing fragmentation of cultural experience, the need for a canon of poetry is a need to show that, beneath all the changes of style and language, poets address the same feelings that they always have; that, at its deepest level, human experience is continuous; and that, whatever else they may achieve, computers like Deep Blue will never write a significant poem. The School Bag should show how, most intensely, we describe and have always described ourselves as human. This was Heaney’s and Hughes’s opportunity. As the leading poets of their generation, they had a unique authority. Sadly, they blew it.
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