Introduction to Literature: Poems

Edited by Lynn Altenbernd, and Leslie L. Lewis

In honour of Poetry Month, I decided to revisit an old friend, slightly behind the times but still with lots to offer. Yes indeed, it is that oldtimer published in 1969, the second edition of “Altenbernd and Lewis.” This particular copy is a dog-eared and slightly stained paperback, much-loved and much-used, dating back to university days. The last poet included in the anthology is the American poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974), so obviously it is far from up-to-date, but I still find it a handy reference tool for so much that was written up to that time. I have other poetry books on my shelf, most published after this one, so I am not completely out of touch with the current world of poetry, but this one is still a favourite.

I took several poetry classes at the U. of S. in Saskatoon and remember one particular professor very fondly. Ron Marken’s love of poetry was apparent for all to see and his classes were dynamic and exciting. I can recall many instances of listening to him read with great feeling from Gerard Manley Hopkins (one of his very favourites) or T.S. Eliot. One of my own favourites dates from that time, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I found the chorus calming and mesmerizing: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” Of course some of the lines are much more meaningful now than when I was a student!

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair------

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

I find it very appealing to be able to pick up this book and look for some of the poems that I love and remember from my student days.

Apart from nostalgia, why would I recommend this book? First of all, despite the fact that it is not up to date, it covers quite a bit of territory. It starts with “A Handbook for the Study of Poetry,” which is divided into sections covering the nature of poetry, its language, form and content. A useful guide for the neophyte, it gives some background to poetic tradition, and explains how the form of the poem can affect the meaning.

Apart from a few anonymous lyrics from the 1200’s (of course the very first one is “Sumer is Icumen In”) and some ballads, the only known author listed from the Middle Ages is Geoffrey Chaucer. Three of his poems are reproduced, including the prologue to the Canterbury Tales. From there we jump to the sixteenth century where we meet Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare, among others. The seventeenth of course includes Ben Jonson, John Donne and Milton, and the eighteenth Swift, Pope and Gray. Thereafter we move to the Romantic Period (Blake, Wordsworth, Burns, Byron, Shelley, Keats...) the Victorian Age (Whitman, Tennyson, Browning, Emily Dickinson, Hopkins) and ending with the Modern Period (Hardy, Housman, Yeats, Frost, Sandburg, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton). All the mainstays are there.

For me it is a wonderful collection of old favourites and I can pick it up and find something enjoyable to read without too much difficulty. However, there are a few small points that could have improved its usefulness. It would be nice to know something about the poets, and all we are told are the dates of birth and death. Where were they born? Where did they live? When did they start to write? A few details would have made these writers come to life a bit more. Secondly, this is a book of anglo-saxon writers, almost totally British. It might have been nice to include a few examples of masterpieces from Europe, Asia or Africa, such as Rumi (Tajikistan, thirteenth century) or Paul Verlaine (French, nineteenth century) . . . Obviously, you would need some books of poetry from other countries to round out your collection.

These are minor quibbles. It is a very comprehensive book for someone who wants an overview of the development of poetry in the Anglo-Saxon tradition from Chaucer’s time to the mid-twentieth century and includes some truly breathtaking and beautiful lines.

I think continually of those who were truly great

. . .

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

(I Think Continually of Those, Stephen Spender/1909-1995, English)