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Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Rattle Bag, Ed. by Seamus Heaney & Ted Hughes, Reviewed.

Poetry in anthology form is always subject to criticism by readers who feel aggrieved at the works excluded. Even at 475 pages, this work necessarily omits some well-known works and even some respected poets. But it gives a flavour of the genre as it’s developed over the centuries.

The editors arranged the verses alphabetically so that an air of randomness pervades the volume. There’s no attempt at thematic or topical arrangement. Surprise is the intention: the joy of stumbling on work new to the reader.

Much here is familiar, popular, or representative. But there are also extracts of less well-known pieces, examples of lesser poets, forgotten wordsmiths, and those whose words were originally expressed in foreign tongues.

Is it balanced? I’m no expert: I took up a book, which has been on my shelves since its issue in 1987, simply because I’ve recently become interested in expressing myself in poetry. This was an exercise in discovering what’s possible in the form, an enquiry into what works, and what doesn’t. And, under such scrutiny, it’s natural that my assessment will be deeply personal.

My conclusion? Poetry can be anything, from the formal rhymes of schemes devised to test the poet’s skill, to prose chopped arbitrarily into sections that look somehow appropriate on the printed page. It can voice attitude, wonder, despair, or any of the emotions known to man. And it’s noticeable that it is men who are most represented here; the women characterized by a token scattering of the famous.

I confess, there were works here that I hardly started; their opening lines so obscure or lacking personal connection that I declined to sample them further. There were others that I read more than once, their accessibility or emotional impact such that they made contact with the human experience of this reader.

For lovers of poetry, this volume is either a collection of works already known or a showcase of the craft. But for those seeking insight into a world new to them, those dipping the toe or testing the flavour, it’s an interesting adventure. If, like me, you’re curious about the making of a poem, the structure of a verse, the range of topic or theme applicable, then this will answer some of your questions, and I recommend it.
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