IT’S a great title for a poetry anthology. There’s a deliberate echo of Ezra Pound’s notion that literature is “news that stays news”, but it goes even further than that. We treasure poems about animals, I guess, because reading them is very much like wandering around a zoo and coming across species familiar but rarely seen up close or so unfamiliar and strange that we stop and stare. Whether caged in rhyme and metre or allowed to roam in open enclosures, poems represent a rich gathering-in of the natural world.
Nick Laird and Don Paterson are imaginative zookeepers, but they’re not afraid of the obvious. Glimpsing the title, one immediately begins to think of contenders: the poems of John Clare, who saw animals more vividly than he saw his fellows; Rilke’s Panther in the Jardin des Plantes (it’s not included, sadly); DH Lawrence’s heuristic snake isn’t included either, though Self-Pity is (it’ll be familiar to some from its unexpectedly powerful appearance in Ridley Scott’s quasi-feminist movie GI Jane); Theodore Roethke’s animal poems are excluded in favour of the much anthologised Dolor; Norman MacCaig’s Toad is in; so is Burns’ mouse; but no room or appetite for any Edwin Muir, let alone either of his Horses poems; stretching the zoo metaphor a little is Yeats’s The Circus Animals Desertion, that great meta-poem about the act of imagining itself.
However, it was never Laird’s and Paterson’s intention to have their title understood literally, which might have led to Attenborough’s Golden Treasury of English and Foreign Verse. The more important component of their title comes second: Poems to Read Now. The new/now conjunction preserves Pound’s notion of poetry as an urgent report from some frontier of perception: narrative, impressionistic, without editorial interference but with much attention to the music of the moment and the thing. The poems are randomized alphabetically by title or first line, so there is no treacherous chronological path through them, no thematic organisation and no attempt to bunch the more generously represented poets (Yeats, Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson and others have multiple entries) in sections of their own. One simply has to pick it up (and a hard-fought consensus means that it weighs in at less than 500 pages and not the “two-stone, six volume boxed set pitched mainly at the landed gentry” that threatened when the editors couldn’t agree and before they decided to exclude all poets under sixty), pick it up and dive straight in.
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The late Roy Fuller (who like the splendid Don Paterson once served as a Professor of Poetry, though in Oxford rather than St Andrews) gave me the best advice I ever had in regard to reading poetry. He insisted that it should not be “studied” or pored over with deliberate slowness. Good poetry, he said, should be read at the same speed as a crime novel or a newspaper, and one should simply move on from one poem to the next, whether or not by the same author. Favourites and hierarchies would quickly announce themselves. Chance juxtapositions in anthologies would suggest new ways of thinking about individual poets and their works. The music, or lack of it, would become obvious with usage. The idea that poetry, unlike prose, needs to be worked at and deciphered was, Fuller used to grump, the preserve of crossword puzzlers and would-be linguistic philosophers.
For me, the most formidable delight of The Zoo of the New has been to hand it over to my 12-year-old, home-schooled son, who had until now been using Seamus Heaney’s and Ted Hughes’s slightly dated 1982 anthology The Rattle Bag, which is admittedly the acknowledged inspiration for the present book. The decision to exclude younger poets has meant that Laird and Paterson haven’t been able to redress the imbalance of male and white names that was one of the more obvious criticisms of The Rattle Bag. They’ve done much better than Seamus and Ted, though, particularly as regards female poets, who now run all the way from Sappho to Wendy Cope; in the process they’ve produced a more judiciously balanced roster of voices and cultural backgrounds, and with that a more effective blending of what they call the “momentous and the momentary, the deadly serious and the seriously funny, poems caught in the clear shadows and the murky depths”. Given the second of those aims, I’d hoped they might have seen fit to go for something by Ivor Cutler, who might seem to fit that requirement exactly. Paterson’s musical interests (and a recent Nobel Prize) might have led to an exploration of the rock lyric as poetry but no Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell or Pete Brown. A shame in a way.
With the boy it has become an immediate favourite. Like cookery books, poetry volumes should be judged by the stains on the cover and the limpness of the spine. Those are a sign of love and use, not of neglect. So if our Zoo Of The New already bears marks of raspberry jam and Nutella – I’m fussier about the boy’s reading than about his diet – then that’s simply a sign that reading poetry has become too urgent to allow stopping for something as drearily contingent as breakfast. Could there possibly be a better testimonial?
The Zoo Of The New: Poems to Read Now, edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson is published by Particular/Penguin, priced £25