Entertainment Books

Thursday 23 November 2017

A book of things that we love...

Poetry: The Zoo of the New, edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson, Particular, £25

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath
The Zoo of the New

Charlotte Runcie

Seamus Heaney described The Rattle Bag, the colossal poetry anthology he edited with Ted Hughes in 1982, as "an intervention". It wasn't to be a comprehensive or predictable history of poetry, but a jostling of surprising ideas and voices.

The Zoo of the New - an anthology edited by the poets Nick Laird and Don Paterson, and taking its title from the poem Child by Sylvia Plath (inset below) - is unashamedly a response to the example set by Heaney and Hughes. The Rattle Bag was their "principle inspiration", Laird and Paterson state in the introduction. "It's just a book of things we love," they say. "Its 'zoo-ness' consists in the variety and strangeness of the poems, and its newness in the apparently inexhaustible ability of those poems to surprise, delight or shock us."

They admit that the selection is highly personal, and have imposed their own limits to keep the book from sprawling. They have dodged nepotism or trendiness by deciding to rule out work by any poet currently under 60.

"Poets, after all, are almost always rotten judges of the true importance of their own contemporaries," they say, and that's a refreshingly true statement.

I have to take issue with some of their methods, however. As they write in their introduction, The Rattle Bag featured only 10 women out of 130 poets, and in The Zoo of the New roughly one in four-and-a-half of the poems is by women. An improvement, but still Laird and Paterson wring their hands at the fact that the book is such a "pale and male" affair, blaming their cut-off date and the unequal history of poetry publishing for the overwhelming numbers of white men represented.

Hang on. Isn't this an act of poetry publishing, too? They decided their own cut-off date, they admit to choosing poems they like best, and the lack of women is thus entirely their fault. They say they feel there should be, for balance, some sort of "corrective bias" when picking works, but then turn all squeamish about the idea when it comes to including more women - as if the whole premise of selecting their favourite poems wasn't already dripping with bias.

You can't have it both ways: to claim complete freedom over the "surprising" poems you choose, and then to pre-empt criticism by trying to blame others for filling the book with famous white men, is disingenuous. Try harder.

The poems are arranged alphabetically by title, which means the first piece by a woman that we reach is the stirring and influential Ain't I A Woman by the 19th-century American civil rights activist Sojourner Truth, a searing piece of black feminist rhetoric. It's a controversial inclusion given that in its most famous transcription it was heavily rewritten by a white abolitionist, and is more obviously a speech than a poem.

But though I read this and some other selections (such as the series of anonymous limericks, including There was an old man of Nantucket...) with a raised eyebrow, I have to admit that Paterson and Laird have chosen lots of my own favourite poems, which I wholeheartedly agree succeed in feeling "new" long after their composition. Frank O'Hara's Animals, apt for this Zoo, is as perfect as ever in its opening lines: "Have you forgotten what we were like then/ when we were still first rate/ and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth".

There's W S Graham's devastating elegy Dear Bryan Wynter, which describes the detachment of grief so exactly: "I am up. I've washed/ The front of my face." And there are lovely moments of fun, such as Dorothy Parker's Comment: "Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,/ A medley of extemporanea;/ And love is a thing that can never go wrong;/ And I am Marie of Roumania."

Blockbuster names are present, of course: prime cuts of Whitman, Burns, Larkin, Blake, Tennyson, Kipling, Donne, Eliot, Pound - with a helping of Shakespeare - are all part of the parade of heavyweights. Really, the best thing to say in praise of The Zoo of the New is that it feels like a very modern view of the history of poetry - self-conscious political anxiety and all.

©Telegraph

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