I just finished a fat, fine anthology of poetry called The 20th Century in Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae. It took me almost six months to nibble my way through the 800 pages of poems contained therein. The poems are organized chronologically, but not necessarily by the year in which they were written. Instead, the editors selected poems that reflected the events and moods of the 20th century, beginning with Thomas Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” in 1900 and finishing with a poem by Jeffrey Harrison, “Pale Blue City,” that somewhat presages the events of 9/11. For me, this was a marvelous anthology up until the mid 1960s, but after that, the authors fell down somewhat, with poems that often are neither particularly striking nor discernibly connected to the century in any significant way. Still, I come away from the book with a list of poets whose work I will seek out. I re-read some wonderful old friends by poets like Housman, Yeats, Auden, Eliot, Owen, Stevens, Lowell, and Bishop and found some new lines that will stay in my memory. The anthology was hard work, but worth the result.
Book groups can certainly read anthologies, but rather than scramble for multiple copies of books that often aren’t easy to obtain, why not make your own anthology? You’ll get the same great result: new authors and works to explore, encounters with old favorites, and a delightful afternoon or evening of discussion. Just pick your topic and send your readers on the hunt in search of poems, stories, essays and other short works that explore the subject. I’ve always been pleased when my book groups have made this kind of exploration. The theme is evoked expertly with a big variety of sources and the selections that my fellow readers have made have often surprised me. The expected and the unexpected commingle and the light and the heavy, the serious and the humorous all make appearances. Perhaps best of all, the resulting choices often uncover new corners of the personalities of my reading friends. So pick out a good topic and set a meeting for your crew of “editors” to build a great anthology. Good results are just waiting to happen.