Light canon

The School Bag Edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes Faber #163;20 (#163;12.99)

This anthology does not replace the editors' former compilation, The Rattle Bag, but accompanies it. The difference is one of tone, says Seamus Heaney in the Foreword: "We wanted this anthology to be different from The Rattle Bag, less of a carnival, more like a checklist." Bookshops and school libraries, please take note: you may continue to stock both books. Sound marketing.

So what's new? The School Bag offers itself as a roam through the established canon, with a few surprises thrown in to keep experts in literature on their toes: here are quite a lot of poets you have heard of already, plus some you haven't but feel grateful to meet.

Heaney admits the pedagogical purpose of the selection: "It would be a school book in the usual sense - the poems, for example, are grouped in ways that invite different kinds of historical and thematic reading - but it would also resemble 'a school of poetry' fathered on traditional bardic lines, a memory bank, a compendium of examples . . . a kind of listening post, a book where the reader can tune in to the various notes and strains that have gone into the making of the whole score of poetry in English. "

He does concede that selection according to these criteria might not be quite as simple as he makes it sound: "And yet there was always going to be a personal element at work in the selections because many of them would represent a homage to poets to whom we ourselves had 'gone to school' in one way or another from the beginning . . . Time and again we were forced to decide whether personal affection for something not particularly 'major' could be allowed to outweigh the historical and canonical claims of a more obvious selection."

Some questions, you suspect, might have been begged. It is perhaps a little nave to erect the canon on one side as something objectively established and impartially agreed upon, versus personal choice on the other.

Contemporary quarrels over the canon, whether it's valuable at all, who's in charge of drawing it up, and who should be in it, have revealed that questions of personal taste, ideological opinion, political judgment and sexual bias may unconsciously affect the supposedly "pure" process of deciding literary merit.

Heaney admits the contradiction of trying to glean the canon while being partially guided by personal taste, but doesn't perhaps spell out sufficiently that what he and Ted Hughes provide looks, to this reader, like a powerful and characteristic portrait of poetry in English that mirrors its editors' predilections. This has both advantages and disadvantages, as I'll discuss later.

Canons, in any case, are mainly of use to people who believe in drawing up curricula for students. The rest of us can enjoy what we read at school but then rejoice because, once we've left school, we can start to read whatever we want and be guided by desire. We then discover all the wonderful poets and poems left out of the school and university curricula. We start to form our own canon, and constantly to revise it. The canon is more slippery than fixed, and surely that's as it should be. The resultant disputes, as Heaney says, are part of our schooling.

Hughes's and Heaney's main shift is to redefine "English poetry" as "British poetry", so that the term covers poetry written outside England and can include poems in translation from Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic.The brief also allows in some poems written in North America but very few from other places in which English is a language for literature. With great modesty, the two editors also omit any poems of their own.

Each poet is represented by just one poem, and these are arranged in thematic groups that blend into each other without labels. The subjects chosen appear to be of general human interest at first, though once you realise that more than eight times as many male poets as female are included, you find you are following a predominantly masculine perspective on these topics: the sea, men and adventures, men and nature, landscape, independence and selfhood, solitude, partings, the seasons, myths, animals,death, religion, accidents and disasters, drinking, war, parenthood and childhood, the supernatural, and new beginnings.

The great advantage of this thematic arrangement is the way that

the individual poems, placed in unfamiliar settings, jostling and rubbing up against each other, talk to each other and draw new meanings out of each other.

For example, one group of three poems, each dealing with wet, windy weather, makes you really feel new currents of air blowing away worn-out imagery.

In Emily Bront's "Silent Is the House", the speaker pits inside against outside: "One alone looks out o'er the snow-wreaths deep, Watching every cloud, dreading every breezeThat whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.Cheerful is the hearth, soft the matted floorNot one shivering gust creeps through pane or door". Inspiration is a drawing-in of breath, the way that God the Holy Spirit or Sophia or the Shekkinah (the indwelling aspect of God) gets inside us. Bront's "God within my breast", her angel of inspiration, breaks down all oppositions between inside and outside by simply becoming, by manifesting a presence: "Hush! a resulting wing stirs, methinks, the air:He for whom I wait, thus ever comes to me;Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy".

Following this comes a different sort of ecstasy. Philip Larkin's "Wedding-Wi nd" summons the elements to celebrate the bliss of the instinctual life experienced by the woman speaker: "The wind blew all my wedding-day,And my wedding-night was the night of the high wind . . . All is the wind Hunting through clouds and forests, thrashingMy apron and the hanging cloths on the line". The wind connects the woman to everything else, and the poem is saved from being too romantic by that "hunting" and "thrashing". Though death is invoked, it can't destroy the "floods" and "lakes" created by the overnight storm, nor the joy of the newly married pair who kneel "as cattle by all-generous waters".

The wind that is the image of loss arrives as a shock in the anonymous quatrain that is placed next: "Westron winde, when will thou blowthe smalle raine downe can raine?Christ if my love were in my armesAnd I in my bed againe".

Just reading these three in sequence makes you want to go on to the next, the anonymous Old English poem "Wulf and Eadwacer", which is notoriously dense in the original and is here presented in a highly convincing translation by Michael Alexander, whose versions of poems in Old English, recurring through the book, are one of the great pleasures of The School Bag and bring him credit as a poet in his own right.

The anthology, rich in these correspondences and intriguing juxtapositions, also forces you to appreciate, as vividly as if you were eating and drinking it, the historical changes and variety in the language itself. So, for example, the 1611 King James version of the Song of Solomon sings next to Herrick's 1648 poem "Delight in Disorder", so that after the praise of nakedness comes the pleasures offered by the careless dresser: "A sweet disorder in the dresseKindles in cloathes a wantonnesse:

. . . A winning wave (deserving Note)In the tempestuous petticote:A carelesse shooe-string, in whose tyeI see a wilde civility Doe more bewitch me, than when ArtIs too precise in every part".

The hundred years' difference between these two languages is sharpened even more by the artful apparent vernacular of the poem that follows, Richard Wilbur's "Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning": "I can't forgetHow she stood at the top of that long marble stair Amazed, and then with a sleepy pirouetteW ent dancing slowly down to the fountain-quieted square".Perhaps the triumph of this book is the way it demonstrates the beauty of the language in which some poets have chosen to write poetry.

Only some, though. Here is only a partial view of what English can do. Its full range is not demonstrated. Much as I rejoice at seeing so much translated from the Gaelic, from the earliest surviving manuscripts, much as it's good to see American as well as British poems included, I deprecate the inclusion of so few poets from other parts of the world who write in English, and of so few women poets.

While we know that poets from these groups were mostly excluded from formal education for centuries, and so participated in the oral tradition of ballads, catches, hymns, changes, blues, lullabies, spells and so on (some of which are published in The School Bag as by that prolific poet Anon), when it comes to the 20th century, with its struggles against the old authorities, there is an explosion of wonderful poetry that simply is not recorded here.

It's not enough to hint at a female literary tradition by including a few aristocratic or royal poets who benefited from privilege and were able to write and publish. It's not enough to nod at two or three black poets and expect us to be satisfied. Where the hell are Gwendolyn Brooks and HD and Sylvia Plath, to name but three out of hundreds omitted?

If the editors are claiming to be canonical, which they suggest they are, they need to explain these omissions. Asserting their right to a personal choice, as they do, is not good enough. This book is likely to be bought by schools, for it is published by one of our most establishment publishers and edited by two of our best-known and best-loved male poets. What a pity they didn't print short poems by some of the male poets they admire, and so make room for the others they've exiled.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you