It’s an attractive idea for reasons practical and commercial. Some readers are intimidated by bulk. Small books seem accessible. Thus, the Pocket Poets series of Everyman’s Library. Some of its attractive little volumes (4⅛ by 6¼ inches) are devoted to individual poets – Robinson and Akhmatova, for instance. Others are themed, and that’s where a good idea begins to sour. When poems are chosen because they conform to a theme – “On Wings of Song,” “Animal Poems” – with little or no thought given to their worth as poetry, even the most intrepid anthologist is doomed to compromise. I’ve looked at several volumes in the Pocket Poets over the years – they have the irresistible heft small objects sometimes possess – and customarily put them down in disappointment. Too much dubious work that feels like padding or just bad taste.
Poems of the American West (2002), edited by Robert Mezey, is the exception. His notion of what constitutes a poem of the West is elastic (Apollinaire makes the cut), and he was compelled to include the work of some well-known inferior poets – Jeffers, Rexroth, Bukowski – in order to fill out the theme. But the overall quality of his choices is remarkably high: Janet Lewis, Yvor Winters, J.V. Cunningham, Zbigniew Herbert, Edgar Bowers, Donald Justice, Henri Coulette (who died in 1988, not 1989, as Mezey reports), Thom Gunn, R.S. Gwynn, Timothy Steele, Timothy Murphy. In other words, much of the best poetry written in the twentieth century, though he leaves out Helen Pinkerton and Dana Gioia. Here is Coulette’s witty and very Californian “Quake”:
“Jack Donne and Raymond Chandler, like shattered pigeons, fall,
All thud and blunder, quintessential California.
“A name like Richter gives a signature to fear,
And palm tree rats now hearken to the lisp of God.
“The swimming pools of Eden suddenly are empty.
Bertolt Brecht’s spectacles lie splintered on the floor,
“For the world is made of glass and makes to break,
And shines like stars without a heaven, and makes to cut.
“Alas, O children of paradise, it comes to this:
This bed thy centre was, that is a midnight mouth.”
Also included is a poet I have read only in scraps, though all of them have been good: Suzanne Doyle. She is the poetic grand-daughter of Yvor Winters, whose student, Edgar Bowers, was her teacher. Her single poem in Mezey’s anthology is the Wintersian “Heart’s Desire.” Here are the closing lines:
“It is inhuman beauty, cold, austere,
You open to receive without a fear,
Arousing your remote and shattered core
To the release that only it can bring:
Annihilation of the self by Nothing.”