Book of the week: Here To Eternity: an anthology of poetry

9th November 2001 at 00:00

There used to be a small frame in the Pompidou Centre containing a typed statement, "THERE IS AN ARGUMENT GOING ON". In front of it would stand knots of people, saying "That isn't art" and "Yes it is" with equally pleasing belligerence.

Anthologies start the same mental squabble. "That shouldn't be in." "Yes it should." Good anthologies exist for reference, for reminiscence, for light snacks rather than whole-hog reading and as sources for English literature examiners scouting for "unseen" material (God help them).

Andrew Motion's anthology, Here To Eternity: an anthology of poetry (Faber pound;16.99), is an intelligent, accessible collection, but it commits some offences. The title is hackneyed, and the cover is a bland, anaemic reproduction of part of Turner's "Shields Lighthouse", here bisected by a dull lemon spine.

It contains a generous 525 poems, but uses nearly every inch of blank space to squeeze them in. Thus, on page 316 we enter halfway through a Greville poem, pick up a Celan and an R S Thomas and leave page 317 halfway through the second quatrain of a Clough. This can be immensely irritating. Motion's deliberate decision to include poems in translation is great. But three poems by Brecht? Three indifferent poems, too. But that's anthologies for you: there's an argument going on.

Here To Eternity is organised around 10 "overlapping themes" - Self, Home, Town, Land, Work, Love, Travel, War, Belief and Space. These feel arbitrary: ask anyone to write down the 10 greatest universal themes and I bet you nobody will pick travel. With three exceptions, the poems are interestingly and artfully placed, seeming to pick up on the previous poem.

Motion's anthology is principally 20th-century, with 90 poems from before 1900. I like this. The pre-1900 poems are inserted in such a way that they anchor the collection without sending the cargo to the sea bed. The choices are wide-ranging, and I was pleased to see favourites of mine such as Charlotte Mew, David Jones and Elizabeth Bishop represented.

  • Picture: Andrew Motion
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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