The Treasure Trove of Metaphor: More on Poetry Anthologies

Rachel Hadas | October/November 2003

Rachel Hadas


Nineteenth-century poetry anthologists often use the front matter of their books to evoke the beauties and moral benefits of poetry. Twentieth-century prefaces and introductions vary from the understated to the apologetic, irascible, or confessional. But whatever the flavor and tone of an anthology's front matter, chances are it has something to say to us. And a striking amount of what's said is expressed metaphorically.

In their A Pamphlet Against Anthologies, Laura Riding and Robert Graves cynically attribute the plethora of metaphors indulged in by poetry anthologists in their front matter to the irresistible expression of suppressed poetic impulses-particularly since many of these editors are themselves poets. But is it really necessary to postulate such a return of the repressed? The main reason for the spate of tropes that pervades poetry anthologies' front matter is surely that literary and cultural debate of the kind such anthologies engage in lends itself naturally to figurative language. Questions like What is poetry? What is its nature and purpose? What sort of presentation or vision does this particular anthology provide? What is the effect of putting poems together in a certain way?-these and a host of others are most effectively addressed with the aid of metaphor.

What then, figuratively speaking, is a poetry anthology? It is a container: a piece of luggage, a vat, a package, a bed, a nest, a colander. It is something active and belligerent: an army, or a line of ships arrayed in battle formation. It is an agency or force which can reach out into shadowy terrain or down through soil and darkness, or which can give hostages which it believes to be worth a king's ransom. It is a surveyor mapping territory open to colonizing forces; or it is itself the colonizer; or it is not the territory itself but a map of the territory. It is a bonfire in the gloom. It is an imposing aspect of nature: a steep crag, a vortex, an ocean, a desert, the solar system. It is a fortress jealously guarded by gatekeepers. It is a museum; or a grand house through whose windows outsiders peer wistfully at the party (complete with Musical Chairs) in progress within; it is the High Table; a stage; the setting for a jewel. It is a tapestry, a quilt, or a secondhand clothes shop. It is a smorgasbord, an array of appetizers, a mixed salad, or a full meal. It is a snapshot, a tape loop, a roll of fabric, an old sweater about to unravel, an invisible library, a dialogue, a Rorschach test, a rigid frame imposed upon the flux of the living. It is even, as the etymology of anthology suggests, a garland of flowers.

In this profusion of metaphors, do some cancel others out? Should the whole array be taken with one large grain-indeed, hunk-of salt? One could pick out certain tropes, sniff, and say with Robert Frost "I didn't get up the metaphor and so am not much interested in it." But we would also do well to heed Frost's canny warning:

Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.1

Each figure has its own implications and extensions. If an anthology is imagined as a container, for example, then its contents-the poems-are implicit. A garland is made up of individual flowers woven together, as the title of A. P. Wavell's remarkable anthology Other Men's Flowers acknowledges. (Wavell's title page quotes Montaigne: "I have gathered a posie of other men's flower's and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.")2 A colander serves the purpose of separating out food from rinsing water and dirt. A bed may hold lovers, friends, or strange bedfellows; luggage can be packed, unpacked, carried to new destinations, or abandoned; buried treasures are unearthed; the solar system is made up of stars of varying degrees of brightness-and these are only a few of the places to which, as Frost puts it, metaphors can carry us.

Take the sea. Helpfully glossing the preface to his 1916 The Spirit of Man, Robert Bridges reminds us that the sea has more than one use:

... the reader is invited to bathe rather than to fish in these waters: that is to say, the several pieces are to be read in context; and it is for this reason that no titles or names of authors are inserted in the text, because they would distract the attention and lead away the thought and even overrule consideration.3

In another use of the fishing figure, Riding and Graves comment that "The present Professor of Poetry at Oxford, diving gamely into the waters of modernism, brought up only an old boot- Mr. Humbert Wolfe!"4

The sea can also be dotted with survivors after a shipwreck; one Cambridge anthologist equates poems he has rescued from obscurity with Virgil's swimmers after a storm, rari nantes in gurgite vasto. Another anthologist claims to have "snatched many a charming anonymous production as it floated on the stream of time toward the abyss of oblivion."5

These metaphors' stress on poems as survivors raises the question of who survives and why. The anthologist is the agent; but is the underlying reason blind chance or superiority? If only subliminally, Darwinian thinking is likely to color speculations along such lines. Among the best known passages of In Memoriam are the stanzas in which Tennyson ponders the inscrutability of survival, noting nature's simultaneous indifference to the individual specimen and protective care for the species:

Are God and nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such fearful dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod...
And faintly trust the larger hope.6

At once ruthless and nurturing, Nature is the ultimate anthologist. Tennyson's ratio of 50 to one seems not inaccurate as one flips through anthologies and considers which poets or poems-which single lives- have survived among the many specimens of the type. Frost wrote prophetically in the '30s that "a metaphor that has interested us in our time and has done all our thinking for us is evolution."7 Even now, to talk to poets about success, fame, obscurity, oblivion, and survival is usually to hear some reflection of Darwinian thought. Poets may be resigned to being some of the seeds not brought to bear. They may also feel, with some justification, that so long as their work is anthologized, time is on their side after all; their poems are there to be (re)discovered. Robert Southey wrote a poem Nicholson Baker hails as "one of the great poems about scholarship"; surely it is also about survival.

My days among the Dead are past;
Around me I behold,
Where'er these casual eyes are cast,
The mighty minds of old:
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.
My hopes are with the Dead; anon
My place with them will be,
And I with them shall travel on
Through all Futurity;
Yet leaving here a name, I trust,
That will not perish in the dust.8

On the other hand, plenty of poets undoubtedly feel bitterness at being neglected-and few are consoled by the possibility of future fame. It's naive to assume an anthology will dependably function as a life raft or time capsule; as Rodney Phillips observes, "any self-respecting anthology (is) a documentary snapshot of the present, not the future."9 In more pointedly Darwinian language, another critic declares that

The evolution of taste, like evolution in nature (though rather quicker), sooner or later favors the strong and gets rid of the weak.... Who knows what poets of the archaic twentieth century readers of The Golden Treasury in the year 2099 will choose to remember.... Whatever happens, future survival is not in the hands of... any of us. It is only vanity that blinds poets to their participation in an historical catchment they help to define but cannot control. No man or woman of any time can hope, literally, to remain "immortal," even those we think of as perennial greats. Alas, time and evolution are no respecters of human ambition.10

The metaphor of evolution handily relegates the villainous role of destroyer of a poet's aspirations to an impersonal, inexorable process. But some tropes for poetry anthologies evoke forces that are more human in scale, if sometimes ambiguous. If conflict or control is at issue, then are the warring forces the poems within an anthology or the editor who has put them there? There's often a more fundamental ambiguity: does a poetry anthology contain poems or poets? The editors of a 1977 anthology proclaim "This is an anthology of poems, not poets."11 Why in that case do they include photographs of all the poets involved - snapshots which lend the anthology what is now its major interest, that of a yearbook? Or when one critic imagines a dialogue

not only between the orthodox and the revisionists, but (that) has elicited the many voices of the human character: the omnivorous, the fastidious; purist, exquisite, democratic, elitist, exotic, Olympian, folksy, intuitive, rationalist, frivolous, conservative, archaizing, moralistic, trendy...12

it's far from clear whether what's being evoked are voices of people or of poems.

Perhaps the poems and their authors amount to the same thing. Riding and Graves, commenting on what they regard as an absurdly inclusive anthology, imagine the poets in it, not the poems, as having a hard time keeping the conversation going. John Ashbery, introducing an anthology he has edited, observes "I like the light these poets involuntarily shed on each other."13 A recent reviewer praises an anthology by saying its focus is "on poems not reputations," a deft metonymy that manages to evoke the figure of the poet without actually mentioning that such a person exists.14 When another reviewer zestfully envisions poets excluded from a recent anthology as "trying to clamber back in" or "hanging on by their fingernails," the focus is on the bodies of the writers rather than the body of their work.15

Among contemporary poets whom I informally surveyed about their experience being anthologized, ambivalence prevails as to whether anthologies contain poems or people. One respondent confesses that "As a poet who for decades felt himself on the outside looking in, I viewed anthologies the way I imagine the Little Match Girl looked through windows at fancy parties in rich people's houses: How do you get inside?"16 When another respondent comments that "we're all part of a gorgeous tapestry, even if some of us are lifting a leg and peeing on it," the tapestry is presumably the poems and "we" are the poets-and yet we are also the tapestry, or it is us.17 The conceit of anthologies and their component parts (poets; poems) as fabric appears elsewhere, as in Michael Klein's 1989 Poets for Life, where the AlDS quilt is evoked as a guiding principle.18 Another respondent to my survey ingeniously and warily troped anthologies' treatment of contemporary poets: "I know very well this front edge of anthologies is unhemmed and repeatedly unravels."19 But, fertile with figures as so many poets are, she goes on to refer to anthologies also as "that bedding the poems were nested in"-as well as, later, to "a high table of poets and scholars, sublimely indifferent to me."20

In this terrain, everyone makes free with metaphors -anthologists describing their own work, poets reflecting on their experience being anthologized, critics and reviewers contemplating the phenomenon of anthologies. Those who live by the metaphor perish by the metaphor, and it should come as no surprise that when anthologies or anthologists are skewered by critics, the attack is often couched in vividly figurative language. Riding and Graves's A Pamphlet Against Anthologies is a good source of zestfully merciless tropes. Anthologists who corral unsuspecting poets into a collection in progress without telling them what company they'll be in are sadistic games players; a poet so treated "might well complain that being put into a popular anthology is like being taken blindfold into a crowded room and then having the bandage removed when the doors are locked."21 Or an anthologist is an unscrupulous businessman/impresario squeezing profits out of even an unpromising or reluctant human investment: "Untermeyer, who is a businessman, pulls (Stevens) out on the Best Poets stage and makes him yield Best Poem returns."22 A more recent critic strikes much the same note: "Twentieth-century anthologies... habitually start with Thomas Hardy, a decision that smacks as much of economics (the need to open with a big hitter) as literary criticism."23

A complaint voiced by at least one of the respondents to my questionnaire is that anthologists cannibalize other anthologies rather than doing the hard work of reading countless books themselves. Riding and Graves capture this common if regrettable practice with a wonderfully noncarnivorous figure: "the copying of anthologist from anthologist always suggests sheep at a gap."24 Such sheepish behavior is what Philip Larkin has in mind when he boasts in the front matter to his 1973 New Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse "Most people make anthologies out of other people's anthologies; I spent five years reading everyone's complete works."25 This claim, whatever its truth (I believe Larkin), did nothing to mollify an American critic who faults Larkin's anthology for excluding too much:

...Larkin chooses rather narrowly, and the British "beats," as well as the more recent "Americanized" work, are not represented. He has a taste for vers de societe and a rather limited range of stereotyped British attitudes...26

also noting, on the other hand, that "Larkin has been too chary with his own best work."27

Finally, a much-anthologized poet's angle on the phenomenon of cannibalization can be seen in Elizabeth Bishop's 1970 complaint to Robert Lowell about her even then widely anthologized poem "The Fish:" "I seem to get requests for it every day for anthologies with titles like Reading as Experience or Experience as Reading, each anthologizer insisting that he is doing something completely different from every other anthologizer."28

One sympathizes with Bishop's exasperated sense that anthologies are cropping up everywhere. I began to feel this when I'd read enough in and about anthologies: not only did editors and critics liken anthologies to everything under the sun, but the reverse also seemed to be true. The metaphor switches directions, and suddenly all sorts of things are likened to poetry anthologies.

I first noticed this in (where else?) the preface of Book-Song, an 1893 anthology of poems about the pleasures of reading. The editor Gleeson White first executes the familiar gesture of comparing an anthologized poem to a gem in need of a proper setting. But then he segues into reverse: not only does the anthology (or its contents) resemble x, but y turns out to resemble an anthology:

A pearl of great price may lose part of its beauty between common crystals, sparkling in a way, but lacking the fire of the precious stone; on the other hand, a gem that in the pages of a periodical flashed out with a really brilliant polish, torn from its setting seems a thing of paste mechanically fashioned. Yet to apologise for an anthology might be pardonable in one way; for is not life spent in making collections to one's own taste-of friends-of opinions-of facts-and possibly of enemies? We all criticise our neighbors' anthologies; and at times our own, edited, as we would fain believe, with so much care and judgement, and yet with so many mistakes and errors, whether lives or volumes of verse.29

White's notion that many (perhaps all) aspects of life consist of collections is artfully deployed as a proleptic apology for any idiosyncrasies of taste readers might discover in Book-Song. But one can follow the hint beyond the confines of White's anthology: think of collections and they turn up everywhere. For example, T.S. Eliot's famous formulation in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" leaps into focus if one applies it to the notion of poetry anthologies:

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of the order... will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is altered by the past.30

In a more lighthearted vein, Leo Rosten expresses a similar idea: "Whenever the shelves in the library of Heaven were entirely full, and a new, worthy book appeared, all the books in the celestial collection pressed themselves closer, to make room."31 The library itself becomes an anthology, as does Eliot's museum-like space with its monuments in an "ideal order," or for that matter Tennyson's nature, careless of the single life while careful of the type.


Rachel Hadas is the author of more than 12 books of poetry, essays, and translations. She teaches English at the Newark campus of Rutgers University.


  1. Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry," 1930.
  2. A.P. Wavell, Other Men's Flowers: An Anthology of Poetry (Cape, 1944).
  3. Robert Bridges, The Spirit of Man (Longmans, 1916), ii.
  4. Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (Longmans, 1928), 27.
  5. E.E. Kellett, A Book of Cambridge Verse (Cambridge University Press, 1911), iv.
  6. Tennyson, In Memoriam, LV.
  7. Frost.
  8. Robert Southey, "The Scholar," Palgrave's Golden Treasury.
  9. Timothy Liu, ed., Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry (Jersey City: Talisman House, 2000), 421.
  10. Anne Stevenson, "Why Palgrave Lives," in Victorian Poetry Vol. 37 No. 2, Summer 1999, 212-13.
  11. David Rigsbee and Ellendea Proffer, The Ardis Anthology of New American Poetry (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1977), ix.
  12. Barry Goldensohn, "Poetry Anthologies and the Canon," Yale Review Vol. 74 No. 3, April, 1995, 405.
  13. John Ashbery, ed., The Best American Poetry 1988 (New York: Macmillan, 1988), xvii.
  14. Stephen Knight, rev., The New Penguin Book of English Verse, 2000, Times Literary Supplement 12 January 2001, 18.
  15. David Kennedy, Untitled review of Foil: Defining Poetry 1985-2000, The Cortland Review, Spring 2001 feature,
  16. Roderick Townley, letter, November 21, 2000.
  17. Daniel Hall, letter, October 24, 2000.
  18. Michael Klein, Poets for Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS (New York: Persea, 1989), 11-16.
  19. Kay Ryan, letter, November 13, 2000.
  20. Ryan.
  21. Riding and Graves, 52-3.
  22. Riding and Graves, 132.
  23. Knight.
  24. Riding and Graves, 45.
  25. Philip Larkin, ed., New Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (Oxford, 1973). v.
  26. Goldensohn, 410.
  27. Goldensohn.
  28. Elizabeth Bishop, 1970 letter to Robert Lowell, quoted in Anne Ferry, "The Anthologizing of Elizabeth Bishop," Raritan XIX No. 3, Winter 2000, 47.
  29. Gleeson White, ed., Book-Song: An Anthology of Poems of Books and Bookmen from Modern Authors (New York: Armstrong, 1893), v.
  30. T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (Methuen, 1920), 50.
  31. Leo Rosten, Infinite Riches (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 45.

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