So many excellent anthologies of poetry were published in the second half of the 20th century, and continue to be published into this century. Anthologies, collections of poems by numerous authors pulled together under a single cover, are attractive to readers because they give more bang for their buck, and I don’t just mean the retail price of the book. There are volumes that revolve around very particular interests, such as A Ghost at Heart’s Edge, a respectably sized volume of poems that are all about adoption. There are collections that limit their focus to a tightly defined time and place, such as Reversible Monuments, a thick book of contemporary verse from Mexico, and The Lava of This Land: South African Poetry from 1960-1996. More frequently, the poems that have been collected in anthologies were put together by an editor whose goal it was to reflect a specific theme or concern. Among some of the best of these types of anthologies that have been published in recent years areStaying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, an ambitious and moving volume that includes poems that help the reader sit with and then move through all of life’s changes and losses; Garrison Keillor’s simply titled Good Poems, a collection of well-known poems from across time and place that have moved masses, as well as poems that are more obscure but still deeply touching; and Bill Moyers’s anthologies, The Language of Life and a subsequent volume, Fooling with Words, both of which celebrate the motion and emotion of language, not only through the gathering and replication of the included poems, but the interviews that amplify the poems’ shouts, whispers, and echoes.
With all of these excellent collections available to readers, one might ask, and with reason: Is one more poetry anthology necessary? My answer to that question is yes. There is always space on the bookshelf for a carefully constituted anthology that seeks to explore something that is more than a simple theme or idea, but one concept of beauty that transgresses the poetry of various cultures. One of the functions of the anthology is to help the reader come to know more about people, places, and experiences by linking poems together that may, at first glance, seem disparate in time, space, and origin. The astute, successful editor pulls these pieces together and makes sense of them not just as individual scribblings, but as an entire unit with a cohesiveness that might otherwise have been overlooked. The anthology can be pulled from the shelf and dipped into to find just that poem that reflects that which the reader feels but may not be able to articulate himself or herself. The poems which it contains find the perfect pitch, the correct cadence, in short, the right words, to create a spark of recognition, identification, and finally, the growing fire that is connection. “That is precisely what I feel," the reader thinks, sometimes without even having known the feeling existed before the poet gave it life with words. These are the kinds of poems the reader can return to again and again, dog-earing the pages of the anthology, underlining or highlighting words that are particularly powerful, or making notes in the cover about a poem so powerful it must be able to be found again, and quickly. Part of what makes this collection of poems special is that the reader is never tied to or bogged down by one particular element or theme but rather is allowed to explore different beauty in completely different poems, all of which are connected together only by a particularly complex or powerful use of language, particularly in the way the poets select certain words and use syntax.