What does an anthology of poems do? It lets you – it makes you – experience in words the feelings of others. And then it makes you do it again. Open an anthology and you’re time-travelling. You’re also leaping from body to body, from mind to mind, letting other people speak through you. That in itself is a radical act – though we are fit for it. We’re mimicking animals. We learn to smile by imitating our mothers. And our mirror neurons fire not only when we see an action done, but also when we read about it being done. Reading poems, embodying in words a chain of apprehensions, is to know something of a particular writer’s way of being in the world. It says, “And there’s this.” We experience some part – lexically, chemically, electrically, emotionally – of what the writer felt. What knowledge could be more consoling – or more difficult to bear in mind?
So much for the theory. In practice, an anthology begins as a pile of poems you’ve read over the decades and kept in a file in your drawer, and on your fridge, your bathroom mirror, your study door. When Don Paterson and I began putting together an anthology a few years ago, The Zoo of the New, the criterion we agreed on was whether a poem was “good enough”. As a definition, it’s obviously spectacularly useless. But it allowed us to choose only poems we loved, only poems that seemed capable of shaking us awake to some experience, only poems that were getting it down right in words. The remit had to be nebulous: we wanted to throw the net as wide as we liked. Part of the pleasure was sending poems to each other and finding one’s own enthusiasms (mostly) returned, and often magnified. Having said that, neither of us will ever get back the hours and hours on Skype spent arguing over certain poems and poets, certain stanzas, certain words, but it is done now – and since we only rather slowly and ineptly herded the thing together, I think we can say without undue pride that these are poems of brilliance from the last 600 years of the English language. We wanted a big, baggy book that could range as widely as life does, that changed, like life, without warning. Plenty of poems about the Eliotic brass tacks of birth, sex and death, but also poems about nothing, about being bored, about rubber boots, about hedgehogs and microscopes and gardens and dogs.
But last month – after the EU referendum, after the US presidential election, after seeing the damage that can be wrought through language – as I read through the book’s proofs, it struck me that the anthology form itself can be viewed as a progressive undertaking, an act of unity and of empathy. The hand of any poem is open – never clenched in a fist. Even if the poem resists our immediate comprehension, it aims to impart some clarity, however small. When 400-odd poems are side by side, you see something of the plurality of the human. And when they are ordered alphabetically, by poem title – as they are in our volume – then this sensation of plurality is intensified: the book moves in quantum leaps through the human story. It is no small thing to be reminded that other people’s wants and fears are mappable on to ours – if only for the length of a poem – particularly in this historical moment in which public rhetoric seeks to separate the world into the banal categories of “them” and “us”. A poetry anthology is by its nature various: it does not attend to theories or policies, since poetry is happy to concede that each of us is both sui generis and more than a bit alike. Populism claims to love the people but of course it hates the individual, and poetry is one mode of opposing that. It only deals in individuals, while its trust in complication is at the far end of the verbal scale from the demagogue’s three-word phrases framed as hoarse imperatives.
There he is again. I live in New York and the whole city, the whole country, is currently focused on a single man. You catch the stolid syllable everywhere you go, on the subway, in cafes, in the library stacks. It is a great fat orange dent in the middle of the space-time fabric and it pulls everything towards it. Even that dull, rough moniker – monstrously freighted with the rhymes it drags behind it (slump, dump, thump, frump, bump, lump) – seems to signify something of its owner’s fumbling bluster, his hollow meretriciousness.
To read poetry, to return to a space for second thoughts, for complexity, for empathy, for words that are not defensive or aggressive or divisive or belittling, renews a faith in language and stillness, and a courage in the possibilities of protest, of “speaking truth to power”. Poetry is always a form of political intervention, since it creates a reader who is interested in other people, in relations between experience and truth.
Those who would harm us, and have us harm others, target the language, as Orwell and Huxley and others described. The discourse is debased. In 1944, Sartre wrote that we should “never believe that antisemites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies”. They “are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words”. Poets believe in words. There is a terrible violence done to human thought when the official discourse normalises lies, racism, sexual violence. Poetry is one kind of civic response to the barbarities of the two-bit huckster’s spiel, his slogans, his dog whistles: it insists on an attempt to speak the truth, even if, as Dickinson has it, it tells it slant.
The subtitle of The Zoo of the New is “Poems to Read Now”, and “now” has never seemed as necessary a time to be on the side of life. Poems remind us to be open to the world, that other people, no matter how apparently “other”, may yet feel the same as us. There is a Jack Gilbert poem in here, “Games”. This is it in its entirety.
Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were
afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with
really felt pain? Imagine how
impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.
Perhaps it is the end of poetry to aspire to this – to imagining the reality of other people’s suffering. Like the other arts, poetry is an ethical space where we confront pains other than our own.
But an anthology allows the full human scale. It contains multitudes. And it is also simply a gift to be able to pass on one’s favourite poems, to let the next person in line know what tickles or thrills you. For a lyric can also of course be alert to instants of lightness, it can flash with love for the world. And these kinds of delights are as much bonds between us as the bonds of suffering. But all this is much better put by Tony Hoagland, in another poem in the book, “Field Guide”:
Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious
element of all,
I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards
floating on the tension of the water,
at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,
hovered over it, then lit, and rested,
I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page
in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know
where to look for the good parts.
• The Zoo of the New: Poems to Read Now, selected by Nick Laird and Don Paterson, is published by Particular on 30 March. They will be discussing the book at the London Review of Books bookshop, 14-16 Bury Place, London WC1A on 27 March, and at Waterstones Piccadilly, 203/206 Piccadilly, London W1J, on 28 March.