The Poet’s Tongue

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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 organization. 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.

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There are a couple of things to note here, both related. Perhaps most obvious is the Author column, where alongside Shelly, Blake, Yeats, et al., we find ‘Folk Song’, ‘Nursery Rhyme’, ‘Sea Shanty’, Broadsheet’, ‘Ballad’, and the prolific ‘Anon’. There’s a significant abundance of demotic verse – the non-canonical – alongside the usual anthology pieces. (Actually, one should perhaps say, ‘the usual anthology suspects’: the pieces themselves are rarer than we might expect.)

The other thing we might notice about this index is that it has two keys: the poems are in alphabetical order of first lines and the page numbers are sequential. It is both a table of contents and an index of first lines, and as such it doesn’t really function as a aid to navigating the book. It is redundant, since the main text itself is organized in alphabetical order. The index is there to do some other job than what we expect an index to do, namely to help the reader find what they’re looking for; and that other job 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 democratizing polemic: that Milton should rub shoulders with doggerel; that poems which have titles and known authors should appear in the midst of those which don’t, indistinguishable from them. The removal of any ordering system based on elements intrinsic to the poem – 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 an egalitarian gesture, the alphabet as leveller, part of the book’s leftist agenda. And the index is there merely as a concession: a cheat sheet for those who feel they have to know.

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