1 July 2015

The 'Voices' Anthology

In Anthony Wilson's fantastic new anthology 'Lifesaving Poems' (Bloodaxe, 2015), there is a poem called 'The Picnic', by the American poet John Logan. Anthony recounts how this was the poem which was his gateway into the world of poetry, when an inspired English teacher read it aloud to his class of schoolboys. And when I heard Anthony read this poem at the Bodmin Moor poetry festival I had an instant flashback to my own school days.

I was thirteen - in what would now be called Year 8 - and the Lower School English Monitor. This role consisted of keeping the English stock room tidy, and had the work-related benefit of being able to spend every lunch time ensconced in a book paradise. It was a small room, in an old Victorian granite building with high church-like windows; every wall was covered with shelves upon which were stacked all the books that might be used in the first two years of the school.

To be honest, keeping the room tidy didn't take very long. So I spent most of each lunch-time reading. I often found the playground a difficult place - books were much more reliable companions. And the book to which I kept going back was a poetry anthology: Voices, the third book, edited by Geoffrey Summerfield. Before Voices, I had loved poetry, but the poetry I loved had been very limited. I'd been brought up on AA Milne and Lewis Carroll, with quite a bit of Kipling; I knew Allingham's Fairies in their rushy glen, and William Brighty Rands' 'The Pedlar's Caravan'. I had the 1973 Oxford Book of Children's Verse, (edited by the wonderful Opies) but that ended with Eliot's cats and a verse by Ogden Nash. I'd read and had read to me lots of poetry - but nothing like the poems contained between the covers of this book, with its picture of a candle-lit skull, and a moth perilously close to the flame.

I had never read anything like it before. This was real, grown-up stuff, stuff that hit me in places I didn't know I had. The poems seemed to encapsulate all I needed to know. Philip Larkin’s ‘Days’: such simple language, and the first time I had come across a poem which didn't tell me everything but made me realise it myself.  Wole Soyinka’s ‘Telephone Conversation’: just that, a conversation, shockingly introducing me, a child from the exclusively white society of rural Cornwall, to the reality of racism.  Thom Gunn’s ‘Jesus and his Mother’ which extended, and made me question, all I had taken for granted about religion. Suddenly I was reading Auden, Heaney, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, Wilfred Owen, Ted Hughes and many, many others. Charles Causley, Miroslav Holub, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Carl Sandburg: they all spoke to me, to me directly, through those black and white pages. A lot of them didn't rhyme, a lot used very plain language, some were instantly accessible, others took a bit more work. But they all set my head on fire.

Wole Soyinka (photo of Soyinka by Roger Mayne)

And there was 'The Picnic' by John Logan. This was a poem about teenagers. People not much older than me. Here, in this book. Not patronising, or didactic, or diminishing the experience of youth through the filter of the adult gaze. Just the words, freighting the experience of a life that a thirteen year old could imagine as their own.

Radio 4 once had a series called 'The Tingle Factor', in which musical, artistic, and literary personalities shared the things which made the hairs on the back of their neck stand on end. Hearing Anthony read 'The Picnic', I now know that this poem, along with Tchaikowsky's 5th Symphony, Beautiful South's 'Good as Gold' and several other pieces of music, has the Tingle Factor for me.

Voices is still one of my favourite anthologies. I bought my own copy during my teens and I still dip into it regularly. Now I am able to appreciate the skill of the editor, and the choice of challenging but incredibly apposite illustrations. 'The Picnic' is flanked by Edwin Morgan's 'Strawberries' and an anonymous C4/5th Chinese poem about a boy and a girl sent out to gather rushes and returning with none - a triptych of adolescent summers which to me as a teenage reader functioned almost like one of those triple mirrors one sees on dressing tables. Wilfred Owen's poems are preceded by Hardy, Hughes and Rosenberg on war, and then a six-page series of photographs of World War I: a pictorial narrative which concludes with pictures of a dead soldier and his horse, and a devastated town. Poems are also juxtaposed with art by Peter Blake, Elisabeth Frink, Hokusai, Hogarth and many others. Absolutely brilliant. Tingle-inducing indeed.

Last year I bought a second-hand copy for my thirteen year old niece. A quick peep into the Amazon Marketplace tells me that there are 47 copies on offer, mostly for a penny each plus postage.

Might I suggest buying two - one for yourself, and one for a Year 8 person you might know?

Peter Blake and Brian Patten
Emily Dickinson and Edvard Munch

Frink, Waley, Hopkins