In his afterword, Peter Jay says that in compiling this anthology he “wanted to give poems rather than poets primacy”. He has chosen from among the works of thirty years of Anvil poets poems which for him exemplify in some way the hope, joy and memorability which define for him a ‘good poem’. In allowing the poems to speak for themselves without any apparent sense of order imposed, the reader has a rather pleasing sense that the poems have ‘found each other’ and cluster together naturally around others which complement them. Poems echo each other in quite subtle ways; from a cluster which are linked by the particular way they talk about death we move seamlessly to a raucous group talking of drunkenness, or a quiet one or two talking of heaven, or loved places. This leads to interesting juxtapositions which in more conventional ordering would be lost, like the celebration of bread-making by Sue Stewart in ‘Too Many Cooks’ turned completely sinister by EA Markham’s ‘Don’t Talk to Me about Bread’. Jay is open about the poems being not even representative of the poets themselves, not necessarily their definitive or ‘best’ work. He has gone for a rigorously subjective approach in order to produce a pluralist (although, he insists, not relativist) collection.
While being its strength, this is also the book’s weakness. In mixing the “jokiest epigrams” with “the most serious examination of human turmoil” he succeeds on occasion in showing the former up as somewhat shallow (I for one do not see either the importance or poetic skill in Gavin Ewart’s epigrams) and losing sight of the latter. A poem like Nichita Stanescu’s ‘Sixth Elegy’ seems to me to require more space around it and more acknowledgement of its comparative weight. So while this could indeed, as Jay intends, be a book suitable for “non-poetry-reading friends”, the unguarded reader might easily miss the few handfuls of truly outstanding poems contained here.
Jay’s evident love of epigram is, to me, the main weakness of the collection itself. Only Olav H Hauge seems able to carry these off reasonably successfully; mostly they seem unskilled and awkward amongst much more accomplished poems. Such obviously bad poems, or at least not-poems, could have been dispensed with so that longer poems may have flourished, or each poem had a little more space.
However, there is much that is hopeful and impressive about the anthology, most notably the publisher’s clarity of vision and optimism. This is no hastily brought out time-for-a-retrospective anthology. Jay is clear about what good poetry is to him and he succeeds in his aim to bring that vision to his audience. He believes that what unites the poems is the generosity and optimism of the artist’s impulse, and the “robust tendency towards hope and joy” which the poems share. This is the thesis around which the collection is built, the title coming from Ivan Lalic’s poem, the last in the collection, which expresses the transient, yet recurring nature of of these moments. I’m not sure that a sense of hope is the essence of a good poem: much of our best poetry is truly bleak, and even in this collection the idea of hopefulness is strained at times: János Pilinski’s poem ‘Desert of Love’ describes hope as “like a tin-cup toppled into the straw”. Those moments of hope are irretrievably lost, tantalising close but not able to be touched.
Perhaps what Jay is getting at is the ‘life-force’ inherent in a good poem, its drive to ‘be’ in spite of everything. Perhaps to make the book inviting to the “non-poetry reader” this must be sugared as hope. But however we may feel about Jay’s vision of poetry, this is a generous and enjoyable collection which takes us on a refreshing journey through the life-so-far of an important publisher, one who is not afraid to let poems, not reputations, speak for themselves.
Reviewed by Polly Clark