Impossible poetry anthologies, and fridge poems

For a while now I have been on an impossible quest to find the perfect poetry anthology. In my mind, this Platonic volume manages to embody several contradictory properties. It must, first off, be compact enough to be carried around on a day to day basis, in case I get bored on a bus somewhere. For some reason I do most of my poetry reading on public transport – perhaps those Poems on the Underground posters have conditioned me into it. Poems are so much better suited to travel-reading than novels – they ask for plenty of staring out of windows in between lines. They interact more interestingly with your environment more than novels, which simply usurp your reality with their own.

So this book has to be small enough to be carried everywhere, ready to be pressed into service at a moment’s notice – but it must also, as near as possible, contain every single interesting poem in the English language. I’ve given up on the idea of it containing translations of every single poem I like in any other language as well. I mean, I don’t want to be completely unrealistic. There are certain touchstone (ha!) poems that I look for in the index – Prufrock, Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’ or Flea, Wyatt’s ‘Whoso List To Hunt’, a decent slug of Keats, something other than’ The Road Not Taken’ by Frost (not that I have anything against it, other than it’s always there), Gray’s Elegy, and various others. Ideally it would have a healthy number of the twentieth century poets on my list as well, but these tend to be siphoned off into separate anthologies.

So far the nearest I’ve got is probably Dover Thrift Editions’ 100 Best Loved Poems ed. Philip Smith, although it doesn’t have any Eliot in it at all. It is 99 pages long and eminently handbagable, and has a good selection of standards- old stuff I wish I knew off by heart. Plus it only costs £1.25 new. On the down side, the current cover is rather hideous, and limiting itself to 100 poems means it is missing a lot of obvious things.


Better older cover

Before this I was reduced to lugging around Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language, which is a great anthology, but a doorstop of 1000 pages. 1000 thin pages, as a friend pointed out, and thin pages weigh more. It is naturally more comprehensive, but if weight was no concern I could carry around my Norton Anthology, which is more comprehensive still, and doesn’t share Bloom’s aversion to the twentieth century. But the shorter edition of that runs to 1400 pages. I love the way you can get lost in the Norton Anthology – in fact, I’ve lost things in it, whole other books – but it’s no good for the 91 bus.

I also recently picked up I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud: And Other Poems You Half-Remember from School which has a lovely cover and a reasonable selection, but it relies far too much upon extracting bits from longer works. Obviously you can’t have the whole of Paradise Lost or Don Juan but the couple of stanzas from The Wasteland and the first page of Prufrock seem very strange when cut off from their relations. I’d rather they had chosen either Prufrock or Wasteland and given the whole of one than amputated parts of both.

This book also has nice little snippets of information about the poets.

I now have a good shelfload of old anthologies of English verse harvested from charity shops, but they all seem to cut off after about 1920 – if I wanted to be cover all eventualities I’d have to carry a twentieth century book too. Things translated from other languages are given separate volumes again. Poetry anthologies these days seem to be becoming either more specialised, or completely and hideously populist, with chick-lit covers and titles like The Nation’s Bestest Favourites or whatever.

My quest for the perfect anthology has been preoccupying me for months now. I wouldn’t mind compiling my own, but then I’d lose the element of surprise which is so lovely with this sort of thing. So I’ll keep looking.

Until then – as this is a two-for-one kind of post – I’ll offer you some poems David and I discovered last night while we were reading the instruction manual for the new fridge. This is made up of a selection of direct quotes:


Do not hang something on

the door to avoid timing and

falling of the refrig erator

and dropping of foods.


Vegetable drawer

It is for storage vegetable.


Do not put combustibles in

your refrigerator like gas for

light et, banana oil, alcohol,

gasoline, binder, propane,

binder, propane gas and etc.


Do not crow the refrigerator.

Do not put the following articles on top:

unstable and heavy articles, beating things like voliage regulator,

container filled with water.


Do not touch the frozen foods in freezer with wet hands

for the water on your hands may be frozen and suck to the food you couch.


Unusual Noises

The refrigerator is not placed steadily.

The refrigerator torches the wall.

Drain-tray water is falling off.

The outer refrigeration-tube are toughing each other

or the refrigeration tube are torching the inner side of the cabinet.


Do not place anything that make echo near the refrigerator.

Do not place refrigerator in the moist place to avoid the metal parts rusty.

If the power is off too long, before the power on, please check the freezer

compartment bottom and the drawer bottom whether exist melted water

or deposited water or not, if exist, must clean it

with cloth to avoid food and ice frozen together.


You must cut the big meat into small pieces to avoid hard cutting when cook.


2 thoughts on “Impossible poetry anthologies, and fridge poems

  1. My favourite (although hardly compact) is Hughes and Heany’s The Rattlebag. I love the random nature of the selection, put together as they say in the intro like stones on a cairn, with the poems not in historical or themed order but in alphabetical order of title.

    My best offer would be Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times collected by Neil Astley — an eclectic mix of English and translated poems with a strong bias to the last century. Not everyone will like the Bloodaxe publishing style with its rather crude type and ‘packed-in’ feel but the anthology is a mine of new discoveries.


    1. I was going to mention the Rattlebag, but I’ve excluded it from my shortlist because I can’t find it. I know I’ve got a copy of it somewhere – we certainly used it a lot at school, but it’s completely gone missing from my shelves, so I’ve excluded it out of spite, I’m afraid. I’d really like to have another look at it, though.
      I like Staying Alive too, as you said, because there are plenty of new discoveries to be made there. I know what you mean about Bloodaxe’s style – they can come up with some dreadful covers – but that doesn’t particularly bother me. And I’d forgotten it had translations in it. I’ll have to reconsider that one.
      The other collection I forgot to mention in my post is the good old Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. There are some interesting updated editions of that floating around, and it’s handbagable. I’ve got a tiny Everyman Palgrave that was a real candidate for a while.
      I think my trouble is that my ideal anthology has too many contradictory features. I want it as surprising as Staying Alive, as comprehensive as Norton and as pocket-sized as the Golden Treasury. Not that I’m fussy.


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