When I requested a review copy of The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, which Seashell Press kindly sent to me, I thought the company had published a collection of poems by well-known and not-so-known poets. Come to find out though, this 2011 anthology, which originally saw publication in 1996, has now gone into its fourth printing. Oh, for my books of poems to do the same!
Since my bookshelves at home contain many fine poetry anthologies, the success of this edition intrigued me. Let’s face it: No matter how famous a memorable poem has become, publishers can put them together only so many times before poetry book-buyers like me start to catch on to little more than repackaging. Not so with this book!
As the editor, Christopher Burns, says in the introduction, “Great poetry is personal.” Ironically, this does not mean self-centered expressionism but, more likely, the opposite, for “It is in poetry, not on the Senate floor, that we debate the issues of honor, loyalty, love and respect for nature that are the foundations of our society. Poetry is a truth toward which our reason turns and we measure its strength by the way we feel.”
Although most poets and writers identify with “the contours of life, the loneliness of the artist, the uses of war, the role of nature, the constancy of love and the coming on of death” as individuals, we also recognize universal themes that say, “This is the singing of our tribe, called out across the noisy business of daily life.” Nevertheless, we’re to “Take it personally” as we feel, care, reach out, and swap stories.
The interweaving of poetry from centuries ago and the present day add to the call-and-response effect this anthology often gives as the poems interact with one another and with us as readers.
For example, that wonderful poem “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson (1919) which opens the book, calls out where “Darkness covered everything,/ Blacker than a hundred midnights/ Down in a cypress swamp” until, eventually, “This Great God,/ Like a mammy bending over her baby,/ Kneeled down in the dust/ Toiling over a lump of clay/ Till He shaped it in His own image;/ Then into it He blew the breath of life,/ And man became a living soul.”
These lines help us to recall the beginnings we have in common to the core, and then Anne Sexton gives her 1975 version of “The Earth,” where God “does not envy the soul so much./ He is all soul/ but He would like to house it in a body/ and come down/ and give it a bath/ now and then.” In “Yet Do I Marvel,” Countee Cullen (1923) wanted to know why God would “make a poet black, and bid him sing.”
In the section entitled “For My People,” Walt Whitman (1855) sings his “Song of Myself” while Emma Lazarus (1886) focuses on “The New Colossus” in the Statue of Liberty who cries “With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
And then, a poet unknown-to-me, Charles Reznikoff (1936) insists, “I will write songs against you,/ enemies of my people,” before admitting, ”I will pelt you/ with the winged seeds of the dandelion./ I will marshal against you/ the fireflies of the dusk.”
Focused on the natural and the unnatural, love and war, life and death, the anthology gathers poems from the 16th century to the present day with an enormous range of voices from the melodious to the discordant, but each with something to say and a unique perspective or intriguing story from which to speak.
Besides the pleasure of seeing these universal themes approached from many directions, I appreciated “discovering” poets whose work I have not previously read mingled with old favorites, some of whom have fallen out of favor in recent years and anthologies. Realizing this, however, helped me to see that many anthologies aim to preserve the popular poetic works of a particular time, whereas this anthology concentrates on well-written poems, yes, but on poems that speak clearly and passionately to and for the people.
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer is the poet-author of Outside Eden that speaks to and for Bible people and Living in the Nature Poem in print and in an e-book on Kindle with poems that speak to and for nature – from wildlife to human nature to our spiritual nature too.
The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, paperback