A Short Ramble on Books / Authors / Anthologies
100 Favourite Scottish Poems
Edited by Stewart Conn
Published by Luath Press & The Scottish Poetry Library, 2006
The books we hold in our hands, open, peruse, and read were (most of them) manufactured by machines. They arrived in our hands via bookstores or from on-line sellers. But whether purchased from AbeBooks online, or Powells (in Portland, Oregon) or The Poetry Bookstore, or, for that matter, from Murder and Mayhem (both the latter in that marvelous town of books, Hay-on-Wye, in Wales), we tend to forget that the actual contents were arranged, considered, revised, and at last determined for good or for ill by someone -- often someone called "the author." Criticism late in the last century quite interestingly called into question the degree to which authors ought to -- or might significantly make -- any difference to readers. Authors, even famous ones like Ms. Rowling, are generally remote from readers. Many authors we read are dead. In any case, authors tend not to want to make much comment ('read the book,' they say). And when they do make comment, can readers trust it? After all, whose relationship to a book is more complicated or fraught?
Yet in general, authors do (or did) exist, and most of the time they can be named. Shakespeare is one author often suspect. Despite the recent industry in speculative biographies, we know both very little and quite a lot about his life and character. He may not have been Shakespeare, so we hear from the Oxfordians who champion Edward de Vere as a liklier bet. And Mark Twain, who's smart on so many things, said famously that Shakespeare wasn't the author of his own plays, but someone else with his name was. We do know Shakespeare's plays were not published in his lifetime. When we read the First Folio (1623), are we reading what he wished us to read? Maybe.
So yes, authorship can be a vexed question. Yet we can agree that the great majority of books are assembled by single authors: Kate Walbert, Marie Howe, Peter Lovesey, Sylvia Plath, to name but four. Yet even here, murk exists. Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems (I can see it on my shelf) is not the assembly of her own deliberations; it was published after her death. But Lovesey's mystery novels are surely his own work, presented as he wishes them, as are Walbert's novels and Marie Howe's books of poems.
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This long preamble suggests three observations.
The first is that whenever possible it is enlightening to read individual books rather than anthologies or compendiums or even collected poems. Individual books are, by definition, individual works. They represent and reflect one artistic effort an author has made. (A collected poems jumbles these efforts inside a single cover -- a convenience to publishers, but perhaps not to readers.) Better yet is to purchase an individual book printed in the author's lifetime. This way, you see what the author might well have held in her (or his) own actual hand. Thus, one of the books I own and most value is a late printing of Yeats's The Tower. It features the same artful green cover (by Sturge Moore) as the first American edition that surely Yeats knew. And this year I've purchased a copy of Dylan Thomas's Deaths and Entrances ("Fern Hill" is its last poem), Thomas's last book published in his lifetime. The publisher is J.M. Dent & Sons, London; it's a thin little book, bound in orange cloth in a plain, similarly colored dust jacket, Third Impression, 1949. It looks as though it's printed from scraps from other projects; few of the pages are exactly the same size. And the book itself is only four and a half inches wide, five and three quarters tall.
The second observation is this: anthologies tend to confound the question of authorship. Whether the anthology is a Palgrave Treasury, an onionskin tome by W.W. Norton, or Dog Tales: Classic Tales about Smart Dogs, the contents (however duly identified by author) were assembled into a book by an editor. Do these individual pieces reflect their author's interests, predilictions, talents, and overall voice? Perhaps. One would need familiarity with an author's entire oeuvre to know for sure. Do these individual pieces reflect an editor's expertise, bias, and purpose? One assumes the answer here is yes.
Observation number three: anthologies can also be wonderful introductions. The anthology in my hand at the moment is titled 100 Favourite Scottish Poems, edited by Stewart Conn (Edinburgh's first official Poet Laureate) and published jointly by Luath Press Limited and the Scottish Poetry Library. A pleasure of an anthology (one you're not assigned to read but merely wish to) can arise in the recognition of familiar names. Seeing authors you recognize can go some distance towards confirming an editor's critical tastes. Here, seeing Alistair Reid's name in the table of contents bodes well. (Reid's book, Weathering, remains delightful.) Other names are readily known: Robert Burns, of course, and Walter Scott, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, and the contemporary Kathleen Jamie. But who was Lady Nairne? Violet Jacob? Who was Alexander Gray?
Any way one considers it, a country is an invention of place and people -- and what those people value, claim, revile, and profess. Stewart Conn's editorial hand is a sure one here. If you would know the Scots, perhaps this anthology is as good a place as any to read (delightedly) and learn.