Tuesday, March 16, 2010

An obsession with anthologies

Words for Women - new work by Jane Fordham and Jackie Wills

I picked up rumours about a new anthology of British poets a few weeks ago. They felt like code. The anthology was known as IP and poets had started to complain about not being in it.
It reminded me of my early days in Brighton, when I was beginning to write again. I had met some poets here who were friends of a friend and we too became friends. I knew nothing about poetry politics then but in 1993 an anthology, The New Poetry, was brought out by Bloodaxe. At least two friends were outraged because they were not included.
I still remember my sense of bewilderment - how could they feel slighted about something so ephemeral?
I understand arguments about equal representation and am quick to protest if this hasn't been taken into account. It seems IP has more women than men in it, which is a good thing.
But that issue aside, what is behind the obsession with anthologies?
An anthology is a plaything. It's as close an editor can come to writing a manifesto without starting with 'I BELIEVE'. It is quickly dated; soon has only historical or sentimental interest, like a school photo.
So those clamouring to be included are like kids running to a camera for their grins to be magnified around the world, anxious ones waiting in the VIP queue at a nightclub, hoping to god their name's not been left off the guestlist.
Have poets become dandies, so desperate that the anthology is equivalent to the must-have bag? How can poets, whose work is with words, be so taken in by marketing?
The anthology is:
- an exercise in power not taste
- an exercise in pragmatism
- a means of favouring potential enemies
- a display of tribal identity
- the lazy compilation album
- a snapshot of the editor's bookshelf
- a status symbol
- sometimes, rarely, a brave attempt to right wrongs
There are some good ones: my favourites are Faber's book of eastern European poets and Paul Auster's anthology of French poetry, a brilliant anthology of native American poetry I am glad to have on my shelf.
But the kind of anthology that is advertised, reviewed and held up as representative of British poetry is not, has never been, will never be, an indication of quality.