The juxtaposition of poems encourages this luxurious lightheadedness. So Marianne Moore's "A Grave", ending "neither with volition nor consciousness", tips the reader into the hallucinatory aquarium of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner". Poetry at school has seldom been so dangerous.
Some teachers, finding this volume in their pupils' schoolbags, may be a little bothered. It has scant introduction, and no contextual notes. It tells you the poet's name and the date of the poem, then lets you get on with things. Though there are significant groupings of poems in the anthology, dealing with such topics as love, nature, drink and loss, you have to work out what these groupings are because no signposts are given. What's here is just poetry - take it or leave it.
This is poetry the way poets like it. It isn't translated into explanation or weighed down by managerial prose. Like the ocean, it just is. So the reader has to navigate as well as he or she can among 600 pages of swirling waves set up by these two masters. The poems (only one by each poet) are set out in complete defiance of chronology and geography, so that part of the reading experience involves casting oneself on the waters, allowing oneself to go with the flow.
This is a fine experience for those with an inclination for poetry, but many pupils, teachers and other readers may find themselves out of their depth. Being at sea is a good thing, and a powerfully educative experience. Yet it is the hardest thing to justify in terms of the National Curriculum. What is evident even in the book's title, and in Heaney's page-long foreword, is a tension between this book's function as as an anthology for everyday use in schools ("Take out your books, class") and the sense in which it is an instrument for the schooling of poets ("Sing, Muse!").
The editors haven't sought to resolve that tension. This means that what they have produced looks in one way like a very old-fashioned schoolbook whose poets are occasionally elderly, but nearly always dead.
In another way, it looks like a wonderful text for an advanced creative writing class, where all the readers will respond to the stimulating imaginative patterns that Heaney and Hughes have set up. They rearrange and disrupt the canon so that the translated Gaelic of Cathal Bu'l'Mac Giolla Ghunna precedes the Scots of Burns's "Tam o' Shanter", and Ezra Pound meets the Great Silkie of Skule Skerrie. Whoopee!
This unresolved tension between poetry for schools and a school for poets makes it hard to see The School Bag taking over secondary classrooms. It is too quirky, and demands too much imaginative effort. Yet, if the test of a good anthology is the low number of duds it contains, then Hughes and Heaney score virtually 100 per cent. This is a very high-voltage book, crammed with poetic intensity, and edited with a flair that allows Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill" to graze against Sorley MacLean's "Hallaig".
The presence of translated Gaelic, Old English and Welsh material alongside poems in Scots and in English from Britain, Ireland, America, Canada and Australasia (but not Africa or India) is richly revealing. There is still a sense of England as the principal wellspring, but one that has been magnificently defiled and enhanced by other languages and other national traditions.
The graffiti of my mind tell me Hughes is a Satanic Majesty, the Bard of Crow, whose manners are tearing off heads; Heaney is Pope Seamus, making the sick whole again with a benign yet demanding twinkle. Hughes's England is deep and pikey; Heaney's Ireland mixes bog and aerial shinings. Yet each is a poet who has tried to remake himself, and who has kept up a sense of poetry as an exploratory medium. A sense of energetic and continual realignment permeates this book, creating something of a daze in the reader; but a good, vatic daze.
Nationality and chronology blur as Alexander Pope is followed by John Berryman, yet throughout one is aware both of nations and of castings adrift from them. The Poet Laureate's sense of the sea-girt isle meets the corracling imagination of the Irish bard.
Hardly any other anthology can be trusted to deliver the poetic goods as reliably or as riskily as this one. Yes, the editors were right to include William McGonagall's immortal poem about "the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay"; yes, they were right to juxtapose the erotic cascades of Hopkins's "Inversnaid" with Spenser's more stately and licit "Prothalamion". But surely the version of "Sir Patrick Spens" they chose, with the King "drinking at the wine", lacks the potency of the version that Robert Frost loved, in which "The King sits in Dunfermline toun, Drinking the blude- reid wine"?
I missed the presence of Les Murray, of Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. I wondered if poetry was quite as un-urban as this book would suggest. I'd have liked some poets under the age of 70.
Ultimately, though, anthologies should be judged more by their contents than by their exclusions. Heady, visionary, and voyaging, this one is a winner. But it's for the ocean voyage, not for the classroom.Reuse content