Saturday, February 24, 2018

`Amused, Amazed, or Excited'

After Wednesday’s post about the anthologist William Rossa Cole, Dana Gioia wrote to remind me of literary evanescence:

“He is a forgotten figure today, but he actually made his meager living on poetry. Bill wrote for the non-academic reader of poetry. He covered the subject for Saturday Review and did a whole series of popular anthologies, mostly of comic verse. I own at least half a dozen of those collections, all used, which I picked up in different places over the years. What the books all have in common is that they had more or less been read to pieces by their previous owners.”

Which is the truest critical accolade. Readers, common and otherwise, are the ultimate critics. Sadly, the “non-academic reader of poetry” is an endangered species. I know of seven. Dana added:

“Bill’s other specialty was the short poem--ten lines and under. I have never found a book he edited which I haven’t read in toto with pleasure, which is more than I can say for Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom who seem under the sway of the goddess Dullness. Bill read voraciously, and he was often the first person to champion poets who otherwise would not have been noticed.”

From the library I borrowed Eight Lines and Under: An Anthology of Short, Short Poems, an anthology Cole edited for Macmillan in 1967. In his introduction, Cole credits an unlikely trio of poets with suggesting such a collection: George Barker, Leonard Cohen and J.V. Cunningham. All had chosen poems of four to six lines to include in an earlier anthology, Poet’s Choice. “This set me to thinking about the beauty of brevity, and, with no ulterior anthologistic purpose, I began copying attractive short poems and stuffing them in a filed. Thus, over five years, this anthology accreted.”

I’m sympathetic to Cole’s criteria. Poets can be at least as gaseous as politicians. If your name is not Homer, Virgil or Dante, think twice about trying to write a long poem. The twentieth century is littered with botched attempts. Cole includes four poems by the famously laconic Cunningham, none longer than six lines, and two of two lines, including one of his best:

“This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”

Cole’s taste is often good. He includes “Exeunt” by Richard Wilbur:

“Piecemeal the summer dies;
At the field's edge a daisy lives alone;
A last shawl of burning lies
On a gray field-stone.

“All cries are thin and terse;
The field has droned the summer's final mass;
A cricket like a dwindled hearse
Crawls from the dry grass.”
Cole includes one of his own poems, “Time Piece,” a witty meditation on human vanity:

“Take the back off the watch
and see that universe of small parts,
bobbing and turning,
each doing what it should be doing,
and ignoring you completely.”

Cole modestly closes his introduction:

“This anthology is not trying to prove anything about trends, schools, or movements; it is simply claiming, `Here are a couple of hundred short, short poems, each of which has amused, amazed, or excited the compiler.’ To say more would be to bring suspicion on my praise of brevity. The last word is Alexander Pope’s:

“`Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.’”

1 comment:

mike zim said...

Thanks, for suggesting this enjoyable collection!