The Best of…………..

……..punk, bluebeat, blues, rhythm and soul, Bob Dylan, the 80’s, Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Leonard Cohen, ska, Reggae Greats, Miles Davis. A flavour of my record collection. I reckon 80% of it is compilations. Very few single albums that hold my attention all the way through. Albums without a dud track. Cohen’s ‘I’m your man’. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ (although you could argue that it’s actually a compilation of great artists). ‘Who’s next’. Tom Russell:’The man from God knows where’. I’m pushed to think of many more, off-hand. And I’m a bit like that about poetry, though that’s been changing over the last three or four years. Anthologies. That’s been my thing. Maybe that’s why I frequently go blank at poetry events when friends talk with great familiarity about poets I’m not sure I’ve heard of, and feel a bit gauche when poet friends post photographs of new collections they’ve bought in a retail frenzy at this or that poetry festival. So this week’s cobweb strand is in praise of anthologies and anthologists…or, at least, one particular anthologist. OK. Close your books, tidy your pens, sit up straight, look this way, remember it’s your own time you’re wasting and now…..

….let me take you back to 1972, when the then Education Minister, one Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory, ordered a review of the teaching of English. It was the first of a long series of attempts (which grew more successful over the years) to take political control of the school curriculum, and of English in particular. What it produced was hardly what she hoped for. The report was ‘Language for life’ (popularly the Bullock Report)…a generally humane and informed document, which you might have expected of HMI. It’s taken SATS, league tables and OFSTED to put the kibosh on that kind of subversive lefty nonsense. What we have in its place is government ministers sounding off about how we should teach the history of the First World War, and what poetry should be force-fed to the children of Albion, and how. And now…..

….as the wheel turns inexorably full circle, let me take you back another twenty years when I passed my 11+ and went to Batley Grammar School and was presented with Book One of a series of five English course books written by a man who sold at least 70 million copies of his prolific output by the time he died in some comfort in the 1990s. You might not remember just how drab and battered English course books used to be, but just to be clear, that jazzed up ‘contemporary’ later stuff was just as stuffed with clause analysis, punctuation exercises, comprehension exercises, jumbled proverbs and all the rest of the nonsense. Oh, and each chapter would begin with a bit of text, an extract of prose and, maybe twice in any one book, a poem. The one I remember from Book One was something by Masefield. Followed by exercises that sqeezed every last ounce of syntactic, grammatical, and vocabulary juice out of it.

voices 10voices 9

Of course, we were offered books of poetry which contained no exercises. But generations of desperate pencilled marginal notes.

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Palgrave’s Golden Treasuries, and the deeply dispiriting, but jauntily alliterative Paths to Parnassus: The poet’s pageant. I remember the second one from the  stock cupboards in my first teaching job. Exercises and heritage. Whose heritage was never in question. Probably not that of the lads I taught on my first teaching practice at Wharrier Street Secondary Modern School in Walker on Tyneside..alma mater to the great Eric Burdon, as it happens. So the question would arise. If you don’t want this stuff, what’ll take its place? All my secondary and university education in English Lit. stopped dead round about 1916. I was well up on prose fiction…northern realists like Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and I was totally sold on the short stories of Dylan Thomas. And I was shortly immersed in a golden age of children’s fiction. Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, all of them. But I simply didn’t know enough poetry to offer an alternative to what seemed to be on offer.. The Bullock Report noted it was still a problem in 1972.

‘The teacher is often faced with the task of showing that poetry is not some inaccessible form of utterance, but that it speaks directly to children, as to anyone else, and has something to say which is relevant to their living here and now. It is simply that much of the work of this half century, and perhaps particularly the last two decades of it, has a voice to which a larger number of young people can more readily respond. Moreover, it is fresh to many teachers themselves and some feel able to read it to their pupils with the pleasure of a new discovery. BUT  It is exceptionally difficult for the individual teacher to keep abreast of all the new poetry that is published. Indeed, except for those with a particular interest in it there is often a time lag, so that the teacher is not aware of much of the work produced in the last two decades. A good anthology will do a great deal to introduce teacher and pupil alike to new and unfamiliar material, but it should not be a substitute for the extensive reading of poetry by the teacher himself.’

I remember reading that bit about anthologies not being a substitute for extensive reading. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or indignant. Because what I believed then, and still believe, is that the best anthologies offer the shared experience of an committed enthusiast’s extensive reading. It’s taken me a long time to get round to standing up for anthologies. But here goes.

For years, the BBC ran a schools’ radio series called Books Plays and Poems,  lovely landscape format booklets that accompanied the programmes and in the mid 60’s they were the first source I had of an eclectic mix of poetry that included contemporary work (including the lyrics of Penny Lane). They had photographs in them, too! Imagine. And then, in my fifth year of teaching along came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices [Penguin. 1970]. It was the first of a series of four anthologies, and pretty soon accompanied by four more Junior Voices.

voices 2voices 3voices 4voices 5

And here’s the thing; they not only didn’t look remotely like school books, but they didn’t read like school books either. They were full of surprises, and, in the case of Junior Voices, they had stunning imagery in colour. They were books you could sit and browse, and every page brought a fresh surprise, if, like me and the rest of the teachers The Bullock Report talked about, you didn’t know much about poetry and poets and poems (unless they were on O and A Level syllabuses). What’s more, none of them seemed to have designs on a reader, other than to share a boundless enthusiasm and apparently encyclopaedic knowledge. They were eclectic and exciting. They weren’t overtly thematically organised, so there was none of that invitation to compare and contrast we were all programmed into. It was all done by smart juxtapositions.Let me tell you who they introduced me to. Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, e e cummings, John Clare, Basho, Stanley Cooke, Norman MacCaig, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Patricia Beer, Yevtushenko, Neruda. They sold me on Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’re’, and Ted Hughes’ Hawk roosting, and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts. There were medieval riddle poems, and playful stuff like ones from Alastair Reid’s Ounce, dice, trice. Haiku and and shape poems. Carlos Williams. Maybe it was Summerfield’s connection with NYU, but there were lots of American poets who I would otherwise never have come across. It was the inclusion of MacCaig’s I took my mind a walk that ended up with my reading his collected works, beginning to end. Years later. But that was the seed. Those anthologies opened my eyes and ears to world I had no idea existed.

And that wasn’t all. Hard on their heels, in 1974, came this

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This one was truly a revelation. A carefully edited selection of each of the seven poets (and by then I was beginning to think I knew them) BUT accompanied in each case by a personal statement or essay by each poet AND a photographic essay on each poet by the wonderful Fay Godwin (and if you haven’t got her collaboration with Ted Hughes in Remains of Elmet then you can do no better than to rush out and buy it. It’s never too late). As I was doing a bit of googling, trawling for images for this post, I was delighted to stumble across a post by Anthony Wilson in September 2013. Anthony describes how he encountered Adrian Mitchell, and therefore one of his selection of Lifesaving poems, in this very anthology. ‘Worlds, says Anthony Wilson, ‘is one of the most important books in my life.’ I’ll second that. It will come as no surprise, I suppose, to discover that you can now only buy second- hand copies of these lovely books. Meanwhile, Coles Notes go from strength to strength, and supermarkets stock books of exercises to drill your children through their SATs and their phonics, and so the world turns,and the mills of Gove grind exceeding fine. Thank god for Geoffrey Summerfield and Michael Rosen and the rest, and whoever picks up their mantle in coming years

Now, it may well be that lots of you have parallel experiences. I’d be delighted to hear about them. But before I go, I want to say a word about about a different way of encountering an anthology. I’ve been going to Ann and Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business writing days for about five years. In the process I realise they’ve assembled a very special anthology for me. Very often, a writing exercise will begin around, or from, a photocopied poem. I’ve religiously trimmed them down and stuck them in my workbooks so I know which poem triggered which draft or prose ramble. And now I have probably a couple of hundred, and in the process I’ve realised that these workshops have done for me now what Voices and Junior Voices and Worlds did, way back when. Without them I’d never have met Alison McVety, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Liz Berry, Martina Evans, Frank o’Hara, Tishani Doshi, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Van Dias, Claudi Jessop, Stewart Conn…and on and on it goes.

That’s what a great anthology is. The shared experience of folk who know more than you and who fill you with enthusiasm to know more than you do. To want more of the best of the best of.

OK. If that was all very teacherly, I guess it’s what I do. Certainly what I did for 40 years. Hard to shake off. I promise the next cobweb strand will be much less about me and infinitely more about a poet who stops me dead in my tracks. No. I’m not telling you who it is.

And finally, and without a shred of shame or irony, I’m going to advertise not an anthology, but a collection. My collection. I posted this at the wrong time, I realise, bang in the middle of Black Thursday, so I’ll run it past you one more time.

larach cover for cobweb 001

I’m really delighted to say that I’ve had to bespeak a reprint of Larach. Thanks to everyone who’s already bought a copy. Now, here’s the deal. Having Larach published in the first place was my prize for winning the 2014 Lumen Camden Poetry Competition with the poem about Emily Wilding Davison ‘Camera Obscura’. (If you follow the cobweb strands you’ll know that I posted it a couple of weeks ago as a reminder of what the right to vote cost so many courageous, selfless individuals). The judge was Sir Andrew Motion who is a patron of the charity. This year’s judge is George Szirtes. It’s a great competition, no question. If you entered this year, then good luck…results must be out soon.

The purpose of this annual competition is to raise funds to support a winter night shelter for rough sleepers. One of my sons was once, for a short time, a rough sleeper. It’s a charity near to my heart. It was the reason I entered the competition in the first place, knowing that my entry fee would go to help the charity’s work. There is no profit from the winners of this competition.

If you already bought the book you paid £3.00….I always thought that it could raise more, so here’s the deal. WardWood agreed to reprint the book at a price to me of £3.00 a copy. I’ve had the book repriced at £5.00. For every copy I sell £1.00 will go to the charity. I’ll use the balance to cover post and packing for orders I take via the cobweb site. Just check out the details about ordering copies by clicking on My Books at the top of the page. And anything left over after that can go towards funding any future reprint (Fingers crossed)

I hope you’ll all be happy about this arrangement. If you are then I’d take it more than kindly if you reblogged this post, or Shared it in Facebook and/or Twitter. And let me know what you think about it all via the Comments box below. I really do want to feel as though I’m doing the right thing all round.

3 thoughts on “The Best of…………..

  1. ah Geoffrey S. And when he left York they sought a team from us to fill his boots. Some hope eh? I like the parallel with though in Peter Kays car Share he told her you cant have Now 38 as your best album. They often led me to an artists album, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Webster etc. The smorgasbord of listening. Do you recall an (American?) poem which relates how one evening the desk reverts to its natural state and ends up sprouting leaves while fauna abound round its feet? Fab and I want it


  2. I don’t recall the poem, Nick. But I want it. Summerfield was the first person to actually tell me we were doing a proper job at Boston Spa, and brought his American English teachers from NYU into school to watch what we did. Gave me the boost I needed at a point when boost was not on the menu. Lord love him. And we got two of his star students in Yvie and Julia. Lucky us.


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