Anthology Wars: Which is the definitive Contemporary British Poetry collection?

Much has been made of the recent spate of Contemporary British Anthologies in literary circles and many have written about the ongoing wrestling match over the 20th Century British poetry canon.  As Skylight Press gears up to kick off its poetry list in the coming weeks, we thought it might be instructive to take a quick look at recent anthologies and the differences between them.  All feedback is welcomed.

New British Poetry – Eds. Don Paterson & Charles Simic (Graywolf Press)

An anthology perhaps better known by its inflamed foreword against postmodernity, T. S. Eliot Prize-winning Scottish poet Don Paterson and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic collect some 35 post-Larkin poets born after 1945 and having published at least two books in Britain.  It includes well established poets like Andrew Motion and James Fenton, formal poets like Alice Oswald and Carol Ann Duffy, and a smattering of experimental poets like John Ash and Jo Shapcott.  Some criticisms have been that it panders to the more elite and conservative academic poetics – and that it features English and Scottish poets exclusively.

Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry – Ed. Keith Tuma (Oxford University Press)

Canadian Keith Tuma presents a wider range of contemporary British poetry that is far more inclusive of the Irish contingent. The collection starts with canonical poets such as Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, D.H. Lawrence, Hugh MacDiarmid, Wilfred Owen, Dylan Thomas, and W.B. Yeats, but also includes lesser known contemporaries such as Nancy Cunard, Ivor Gurney, F.R. Higgins, Mina Loy, and Charles Madge, who normally get left out of anthologies.  Also included are more experimental voices such as Tom Raworth, Maggie O’Sullivan, Paul Muldoon, and Craig Raine, “Black British” writers including David Dabydeen, Jackie Kay, and Grace Nichols, and feminist poetry by Caroline Bergvall, Carol Ann Duffy, and Anna Wickham.  Some criticisms have been that it includes a swathe of poorly published ‘pamphlet’ poets and that it lacks any Welsh representation.

Contemporary British and Irish Poetry – Ed. Sara Broom (Palgrave Macmillan)

Much like Tuma, New Zealander Sara Broom covers a wide range of ethnic and regional backgrounds along with varying poetic styles.  This smaller collection includes mainstream names like Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy alongside more marginal and experimental poets like Tom Raworth and Geraldine Monk.  The anthology also seeks to distinguish between Anglo-Carribean, Gay, Feminist, Modernist, Postmodernist, and Nationalist poetics.

OTHER: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 – Eds. Richard Caddel & Peter Quartermain (Wesleyan)

In this U.S. published collection, well known poet Richard Caddel and prominent critic Peter Quartermain collect a diverse range of work that spans different cultures and ethnicities.  In what appears to be a much more “outsider” collection, poets such as Bill Griffiths, Tom Raworth, Barry McSweeney, Denise Riley, Tom Leonard, Chris Cheek, Maggie O’Sullivan, and Bob Cobbing make up the bulk of the offerings.  Some criticisms include a lack of space for the more canonical and influential poets of the Twentieth Century.

The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry – Ed. Edna Longley (Bloodaxe Books)

A much more ‘choosy’ selection from Edna Longley here, who makes some surprising omissions, such as J. H. Prynne, Sean O’Brien, and A.E. Houseman.  The reader moves from giants like William Butler Yeats and Thomas Hardy to lesser lights such as Simon Armitage and Ian Duhig.  As much as the anthology is often noted for who it leaves out, it has to be said that it also includes some often neglected poets such as Ivor Gurney and Basil Bunting.


About Daniel

Writer & Musician
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