POEMS FOR YOUR PENCIL CASE
Fifteen years ago, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney compiled their highly successful anthology The Rattle Bag. Their follow-up, The School Bag, is 'less of a carnival, more like a checklist'. Will it too be a winner?
Sunday 06 April 1997
Now we have The School Bag - and the title suggests something more orthodox. (At least, it does when we have suppressed other and simply distracting thoughts about where the sequence might lead next: The Hand Bag? The Sponge Bag?) But does this necessarily mean the book will be less likeable? Only if its poems reinforce old-fashioned ideas of a fixed and stable canon. Only if Heaney and Hughes have sold out to the system by compromising their heart-felt sense of what is essential.
Heaney's Foreword to the anthology gives some cause for concern. At one moment he speaks of the contents in terms of absolute value, referring to them as "a checklist". At others he sounds much less dogmatic, talking about "a memory bank", "a compendium of examples", and "a kind of listening post". This shift between two languages is not surprising: Heaney's gift has always depended on a shrewd suppleness. Yet it is slightly unsettling to the reader. Is the book canon-fodder, we want to know - admittedly of an inspired kind? Or is it centred in the same sense as The Rattle Bag, about which Heaney and Hughes said "Most of the poems lay about for the taking in places already well known to people, younger or older, who read verse"?
Some of the editorial practices raise similar questions. We are told, for instance, that the anthology embraces "the whole score of poetry in English", only to find that it concentrates almost exclusively on work produced within "these islands", America and Australia (though there is no Les Murray). And it contains very little modern vernacular verse from anywhere. In a book that was completely sure it did not aspire to canonical status, like The Rattle Bag, the omissions would not matter (or would matter differently). As it is, they seem to have a categoric emphasis. Are Walcott and Brathwaite not here because Hughes and Heaney don't rate them? Or are they ruled out by some unstated editorial principle? Or is their absence an oversight? There's no way of telling.
There are other problems, too. On the one hand, the structure of the book is refreshingly original: Heaney and Hughes have included only one poem per poet (there are 271 of them). Furthermore, they have grouped their choice "in ways that invite different kinds of historical and thematic reading", sometimes forming clusters of poems which have to do with, say, water or forests, and sometimes creating much looser associations around subjects like suffering, the supernatural and sex.
On the other hand, The School Bag cannot help being focused by its editors' interests and tolerances. It has a good deal to say about heroic individual endeavour, and is filled with poems which are mud-spattered and wind- swept, intensely organic, fundamentalist and (in the best sense) primitive. It has almost nothing to say about cities and traffic jams, tower blocks and street life, specifically urban angst.
In a sense this doesn't matter. The human lessons of one world can easily be transferred to a different one by sympathetic and well-practised readers. But, once again, this is a school bag - and the many city children who will use it to discover poems for the first time may feel excluded, or suppose that poetry can only describe a landscape of the mind, rather than one they actually inhabit. For these sorts of reasons, it might have helped if there had been a larger and more diverse selection from contemporary writers.
Heaney and Hughes have included only eight poems written during the last 25 years; when we set these against the 48 by ancient Anon, and the significant number of medieval poems which are also included, we can easily appreciate the prevailing mood of the anthology as a whole. It is early.
All of which makes The School Bag sound a little unstable - hesitant either to resist or to accept the implications of its title. This is not the same as calling it a disappointment. Once we have finished weighing the structural arguments, and are living in the thick of the book itself, the experience of reading is exhilarating. Hughes and Heaney repeatedly breathe life back into familiar masterpieces by placing them in surprising contexts. (To read a selection of Berryman's "Dream Songs" after Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot", or an extract from William Langland's "Piers Plowman" after Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California", is to discover fascinating similarities in form and address.) Elsewhere, less well-known minor poems are often shown to contain a major dimension when juxtaposed with something unarguably greater than themselves. (Graves's "Lost Love" reads better when it is only a page away from Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind".)
Of course there are some bizarre choices (Auden's "Law Like Love" seems chosen more to illustrate a theme than to prove its author's gift). Of course there are times when the positioning of a poem in one group rather than another seems arbitrary (Keats's "La Belle Dame" could fit comfortably into a number of different contexts.) But these things, even when they combine with the larger, over-arching questions which shadow the book, cannot obscure its central and very valuable achievement.
The School Bag - whether or not it wants to define a canon - teaches a lesson that no sensible reader can afford to ignore. It shows how different ages can communicate with each other about unchangeably important human subjects. It proves the inter-dependency of forward-looking culture and backwards- glancing heritage.
'The School Bag' is published by Faber at pounds 20 (hardback) and pounds 12.99 (paperback).
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