The Zoo of the New review: a life-enhancing anthology of poems

Nick Laird and Don Paterson’s selection captures poetry’s visceral thrill

The Zoo of the New: Nick Laird and Don Paterson’s anthology includes poems by Sojourner Truth (left), Sylvia Plath and WB Yeats

The Zoo of the New: Nick Laird and Don Paterson’s anthology includes poems by Sojourner Truth (left), Sylvia Plath and WB Yeats

Thu, Apr 20, 2017, 16:36


Book Title:
The Zoo of the New: Poems to Read Now


Edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson

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Nick Laird and Don Paterson’s expansive and imaginative anthology, The Zoo of the New, takes its striking title from Sylvia Plath’s poem Child, which begins:

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with colour and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate –
April snowdrop, Indian pipe

In their brief introduction the editors spell out what they are implying by the title about the kind of poetry they wanted in the book: it “had to possess that ‘clear eye’, and we had to feel that the stir of its conception has been matched by its embodiment in language. And, no less crucially, it had to slap us awake to our world by means of its alertness to its own.”

So in the book’s subtitle, Poems to Read Now, the Now is as important as anything else. It makes you wonder at what point in this age of the sudden acceleration in the debasement of public language and its claim to truth – the cultural phenomenon with which 2016 may come to be primarily associated – they settled on that emphatic Now.

In the introduction they also discuss the challenges for the anthologist and the guidelines they set themselves. In the organisation of the poems they follow the practice of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes in The Rattle Bag (which they describe as “the principal inspiration for our own book”) in using alphabetical order by the poems’ titles.

On its appearance, in 1982, Alan Brownjohn said that The Rattle Bag “sets a standard which other anthologies will find it difficult to equal”. Laird and Paterson take up the challenge in interesting ways, and not only in the alphabetic ordering, for which they make the same kinds of claim as Heaney and Hughes. They say it “randomises” the entries, rather than organising by theme or chronology, so the book can be dipped into anywhere and can also offer unpredictable and felicitous collocations.

Golden Treasury

There are other methodological links to The Rattle Bag here. The tradition of compendious poetry anthologies in English starts with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics in 1861, in four annotated books devoted to periods from the Elizabethans to the Romantics.

The name has been used for new editions ever since, but nowadays only as a progressive historical survey. Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse appeared in 1900 and was updated by Helen Gardner (as the New Oxford Book) in 1972 and by Christopher Ricks in 1999. Both the successive Palgraves and the Oxford books remained as historical surveys, varying only in the personal preference of the selections.

So in following the practice of The Rattle Bag Laird and Paterson are continuing a new tradition, not only in the alphabetic ordering but also in widening the geographical and cultural coverage. Heaney and Hughes said that they “fetched material from America fairly deliberately”, as well as translations. Laird and Paterson are building on this addition of the unexpected to the “great tradition”.

To address the inevitable controversies that anthologists face – notably the question of omissions – Laird and Paterson cover their backs by two simple but effective strategies.

First, all the inclusions had to be accepted by both editors, which means that a shock omission might have been strongly advocated by one editor only, for all we know. Second, and I think uniquely, they “decided that poets under 60 could not pass”. This accounts for the absence of many of the leading poets of the present era (including both editors themselves, two of the most admired and successful poets of our time).

They regret, though, that this age constraint has made it difficult to redress the imbalance of gender and racial representation as much as they would have liked. As they say, the iniquitous cultural imbalance did not start to be effectively addressed until the 1980s.

Length is not a consideration; they do not baulk at including extensive extracts, even of unfamiliar texts, such as the 160-odd lines of “Book Seventh” of Wordsworth’s Prelude rather than the more frequently anthologised early books.

Irish representation

So how can we generalise about the nature of this anthology and the editors’ preferences? It is dangerous to suggest any indispensable poems, bearing in mind, for example, that the only Milton among the 400 or so poems here is On His Blindness and that there is no Pope, Spenser or Browning.

However, it is interesting to consider Irish representation (Laird is originally from Co Tyrone). Derek Mahon’s Disused Shed and Austin Clarke’s The Planter’s Daughter seem certain; so does WB Yeats’s The Stare’s Nest by My Window, although it is surprising at first glance to find Brown Penny included rather than, say, Sailing to Byzantium. Francis Ledwidge is represented by the beautiful Wife of Llew, not by Lament for Thomas MacDonagh. Michael Longley is judiciously represented but not by the masterly Ceasefire.

Thinking back to Palgrave’s songs and lyrics, it is surprising to find so little expressly musical presence, given Paterson’s other life as a prominent musician. The only piece by the Irish-American Michael Donaghy, his lamented friend and session collaborator, is the brilliant and heart-rending The Hunter’s Purse.

But in the end the only viable criterion is what Laird said was spectacularly useless: that a poem was “good enough”.

Nevertheless, by the end of browsing through this heartening and life-enhancing selection, some recurrent principles do make themselves felt. Nature in some sense constantly returns. And we see what the editors mean about the re-creation of the “visceral thrill” of the first reading of a poem.

Above all we are constantly and positively surprised – and educated – by the variety and strangeness they claim. Their anthology does not wear its heart on its sleeve, and it is anything but hectoring, but it doesn’t evade the political, either: Ain’t I a Woman, from Sojourner Truth (1851). is not lightly forgotten; neither is Carolyn Forché’s horrifying The Colonel.

The publishers say this will establish itself as the “classic anthology of our time”. It certainly has an inspiring reach and passion, as it bids exhilaratingly to purify the dialect of the tribe.