review of Little Poems, ed. Michael Hennessy
Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series
by Amit Majmudar
All anthologies are arbitrary, but some are more arbitrary than others. A good anthology of Little Poems ought to leverage its arbitrariness—from limericks to ruba’i to haiku, there are a lot of little poems out there in the world—to surprise and illuminate the reader.
Surprise is all too rare in this anthology. Have you read that poem called “The Red Wheelbarrow”? No? You mean you’re the last poetry-reading American who hasn’t encountered that chestnut at some point or another? Well, this anthology will take care of that for you. Williams’s plums are here, too, as well as Wordworth’s daffodils and Hopkins’s dappled things. A startling number of poems in this anthology were familiar to me from high school textbooks. I started to get the idea, around the time I saw that “real cool” Gwendolyn Brooks poem, that this editor imagines his audience to be a group of people utterly insulated from poetry as she is taught through the English-speaking world.
Very well then. At least make sure your anthology of poems consists, consistently, of poems. Why include an excerpt from a John Donne sermon that wasn’t a poem to begin with? (Spoiler alert: No man is an island.) He even includes snippets of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and Joyce’s Ulysses, which he labels “found poems.” Even if you are going to do this with Joyce’s fiction (a separate Joyce poem, composed as a poem, is a dud), at least avoid excerpting the most familiar passages. (Spoiler alert: Molly Bloom says, repeatedly and without punctuation, “yes.”) If the editor is willing to excerpt outright prose, why not excerpt longer poems, too? If I were feeling generous, I could justify this decision as a demonstration of Poe’s theory that longer poems are experienced and remembered as flashes of beauty—that is, in the form of shorter poems. But if that is going to be the editorial logic, then it undermines the whole idea of an anthology of “little poems.” They either stand alone, or they do not stand.
The editor mixes translations of different poems by the same poet from different centuries. On one page, Catullus is voiced by Jonathan Swift in strict rhyme and meter; on the facing page, he has been translated into Peter Whigham’s mid-twentieth-century, idiomatic free verse. Martial gets a similar translations-through-the-ages treatment. I remain on the fence about this decision, but overall, I think it was a mistake—it shifts the focus from the art of the short poem to the art of translation.
To include is to exclude. You cannot judge a 250-page, pocket-sized Everyman anthology on Little Poems on whether or not it tapped your ancestral literary tradition or your favorite poet. The editor seems totally unaware of the massive number of Sanskrit and Tamil poems of love and devotion that might have fit here—A. K. Ramanujan’s anthologies, like Speaking of Siva, would have been excellent sources; Kabir and Meerabai have found excellent English translators as well. Alas, India doesn’t exist for this editor, but neither do Africa or pre-Columbian America, so I shouldn’t complain.
I was surprised at the near-absence of Persia from this anthology, too. The four-line rubai was a form that proliferated in Persian poetry, made famous by Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam translations. Many ghazals of five or six couplets qualify. Rumi gets a single poem, fortunately one not “translated” by Coleman Barks, who doesn’t read Persian. Kenneth Rexroth has two poems titled “From the Persian” that do not seem to translate any specific text and have nothing distinctively Persian about them.
Admittedly, no selection is going to really “cover” the absurdly broad field of poems-under-thirteen-lines. The anthology, to account for this, could have been structured differently. The editor has arranged the poems chronologically, but his “Early Poets” section lumps together ancient Greece, ancient Rome…and ancient China. That decision makes a bid for panoptic inclusivity, then excludes some inconveniently unfamiliar civilizations (as I noted above). The Japanese haiku writers make some appearances in the next section. Then, around 1600 A.D., China and Japan mysteriously stop producing poetry. Rumi’s one poem is included with an anonymous poem about a Viking raid, Han Shan, Shakespeare, Chaucer, the troubadour Arnaut Daniel, and the Japanese poet Arikide Moritake. All this, under the heading “Medieval and Early Modern Poets”—which projects loose and unhelpful Western historiographical categories onto half a millennium of literature from the entire Eurasian landmass.
You can’t expect a full historical survey out of such a book—this is normie poetry territory, one of the Everyman pocket series. Was there a better way? In his Introduction, Hennessy says he wanted to juxtapose different kinds of short poems to showcase the flexibility of the form. In my opinion, he should have made that the structuring principle of the anthology. Gather love poems, elegies, satirical epigrams, spells and prayers, nursery rhymes from around the world, and jumble them together fruitfully within a section dedicated to each subgenre of short poem. That way he would have avoided the feel of an historical survey of the short poem—one that, inevitably, feels truncated, distorted, anarchic. I would have preferred it if the anthology had made a point of showcasing the versatility and profundity of the short form, or if it had dedicated itself to seeking out examples from around the world. This one is somewhere in between, accomplishing very little and leaving this reader, at least, dissatisfied. When I read an anthology, I want to feel grateful for the editor’s taste or the editor’s diligence. My moments of gratitude were all too few.
Still, there are a few unexpected gems collected here. In spite of quite a few read-throughs of Keats’s collected poems, I must have passed by the one about a dove—“I kissed you oft, and gave you white peas.” The quiddity and reality of those “white peas” sets Keats apart from the run-of-the-mill Romantics, whose poems are frequently devoid of such touching details. My favorite poem in the anthology, whose unfamiliar beauty made me grateful to the editor, comes from an anonymous Irish poet. In our age of upheavals, it offers a reminder of the small-scale blessings that sustain our days. It’s what I will remember from this anthology, and I leave you with it here:
Three slender things that best support the world:
the slender stream of milk from the cow’s dug into the pail,
the slender blade of green corn upon the ground,
the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman.