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Great Old Poetry Anthologies

Updated on November 24, 2012

Reviewing all the books of poetry on the shelves of one's local library is one way of getting perspective on the history of poetry. It's also a way to find old gems that may no longer be of interest to the average patron but may be of interest to a lover of poetry or a lover of poetry of a given period. I've found three to date, all of them anthologies, and decided it's time to share my finds.

The most recent is the 1950 edition of The Oxford Book of American Verse, edited by F.O. Matthiessen. What made me want to jump up and shout was Matthiessen's declaration in his introduction that he would not neglect longer works simply because they were long. Many wonderful long works have become hidden because of the tendency to exclude them from anthologies. So in this book we have Whittier's "Snowbound," Whitman's "Song of Myself," Robert Penn Warren's "The Ballad of Billie Potts," and others that are many or several pages long. It's so refreshing to see a selection of T.S. Eliot the does not include "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" but does include "The Wasteland" in its entirety.

Matthiessen also states that he decided to err on the side of more examples of each poet rather than including as many poets as possible. His aim is to show the scope of a poet's work. Hooray! again. So we are given 120 pages of Whitman in this 1106 page anthology, and 46 pages of Stevens (25 poems) and Frost (40 poems). E.E. Cummings is represented by 25 poems. And our editor still managed to include 51 poets in all. Of course, I'm still not completely satisfied, feeling he has shorted Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. But that is an editor's prerogative.

At the time this anthology was compiled almost half of the poets in it were still alive, nearly everyone forward of Robert Frost. This is one of the things I like about old anthologies. They are historical for me but they weren't (or only in part) for the editors compiling them. So we get to see what was considered worthwhile--and what we may also consider worthwhile--at that time, before whoever does the sorting sorts them, granting canon status to some and the wayside to others. In this case, we have ample selections of Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, John Crow Ransom, Conrad Aiken, and Archibald MacLeish. And there are names completely unfamiliar to me as well: John Very, Trumbull Stickney and others.

Poems for Modern Youth is another musty anthology that I've fallen in love with. It was put together in 1938 and there is nothing modern about it (in the sense of the modern period of art full of challenges to convention). Although I'm a lover of truly modern, experimental and/or profound, serious, literarily sophisticated poetry, I'm also all for fun poetry, spooky poetry, poetry that tells a good story, or moves one with a sense of adventure. This book is full of the latter, though it also offers the former since the two aren't mutually exclusive. Overall, I found it delightful and intend to purchase a copy of my own.

Another anthology I found curious was one of protest poetry titled The Writing on the Wall. This book has 180 poems by poets, both unknown and well known, in response to the political and social scene of the 1960s (it was published in 1969), but it also looks back through American history. It includes poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Ishmael Reed, Langston Hughes, Hayden Carruth, Denise Levertov, Leroi Jones, David Ignatow, and the list could go on. It's a book to give a radical or proponent of justice renewed vigor and to give anyone perspective.

For those of you who love poetry or poetry of a specific period, check out your local library. Take a look at those old out-dated books. You may find some that will rouse you and send you hunting for an old copy of your own.

Some excellent current poetry anthologies

Currently available books by some of the poets mentioned above


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    • Jen Pearson profile image

      Jen Pearson 6 years ago from Alabama

      Thanks for reading and commenting, jhamann. I also have an addiction to used bookstores (or thrift stores that include books). Purchases from them do pile up quickly!

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 6 years ago from Reno NV

      You have mentioned some excellent Anthologies, Poets, and Poems. I love the library and have spent many a good hour or two. My addiction was used bookstores, and now my collection is kind of intense and hard to move. Thank you for your hub, Jamie.