The Poet’s Tongue: The Index as Argument

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In June 1935, W. H. Auden and his friend, the schoolmaster John Garrett, published an anthology of English verse entitled The Poet’s Tongue. Appearing the same year as the Dragon Book of Verse and ostensibly intended similarly as a schoolbook (the dust jacket of my 1969 re-issue states that it was ‘prepared primarily as a first approach to poetry’), The Poet’s Tongue is rather different, and rather unusual in its organisation. Thom Gunn described it as the book which ‘started him’ in poetry, noting also the way that the poems were printed anonymously:

“Many of these poems were quite unfamiliar, many not anthologised at all in schools at that time, and they were all printed without authors’ names; those were printed at the end if you wanted to look them up. And this was really interesting poetry, not like the other stuff.”

The book very much falls into the category of edition-as-argument, and the first signs that something polemical is going on can be found in the index at the front of the book (not, as Gunn recalled, at the back).

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There are a couple of things to note here, both related. Perhaps most obvious is the vast amount of anonymous, demotic poetry – folk songs, shanties, ballads, epitaphs, nursery rhymes – which we can see in the Author column mingled with Shelley, Blake, Yeats, et al. The other thing we might notice is that this index has two keys: the poems are in alphabetical order of first lines and the page numbers are sequential. You might say that it’s both a table of contents and an index of first lines. As such, the index doesn’t really function as an aid to navigating the book – it’s redundant, since the book is already organized in alphabetical order.

The index, then, is there to do some other job, and that becomes apparent when we see how the poems themselves are laid out.

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The poems appear anonymously (and not just the ones by Anon). Most appear without titles too, or, as in this case, Walter Raleigh’s ‘Wishes of an Elderly Man, Wished at a Garden Party, June 1914’, with their titles changed or abridged. This is part of the book’s democratising polemic: the Miltons of the world must go incognito, rubbing shoulders with doggerel; poems which have titles and known authors must appear in the midst of those which don’t, and indistinguishable from them.

Arranging the poems by first line, then, eschewing an ordering system based on any literary aspect of the material – chronology, or identity, or even the more subjective contextualizations Bridges had used in the Spirit of Man anthology (1916), e.g. ‘Childhood’, ‘Nature’, etc. – is another egalitarian gesture, the alphabet as leveller, part of the book’s leftist agenda. The role of the index is merely as a concession to the bourgeois taste for authors: a cheat sheet for those who feel they have to know. But it is a key to be consulted after, not before, you’ve read the poem.

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