Kevin Saving on
Hart, J., Words That Burn
(the 'follow up' to)
Hart, J., Catching Life by the Throat
Anthologies are, perhaps, one major way in which poetry publishing is still commercially viable. The word itself comes from the Greek anthologia which means, literally, 'a collection of flowers'. In these two volumes, Josephine Hart (aka Lady Saatchi), novelist, theatre-producer and a kind of 'poetry impressario', has - simultaneously - gathered colourful garlands and placed her (I'm sure quite dainty) feet firmly upon the bandwagon.
Both books adhere to roughly the same format. Eight different poets are afforded their own chapter in which eight or so examples of their work are selected - prefaced by a (brief) biographical note and a kind of 'introduction' to the selections themselves. The 'featured artists' in the first volume - its title inspired by Robert Frost's declaration that poetry is 'a way of taking life by the throat' - are Auden, Dickenson, Eliot, Kipling, Larkin, Marianne Moore, Plath and Yeats. Words That Burn (a 'lift' from Thomas Gray's 'The Progress of Poesy') shines its light on Bishop, Browning, Byron, Frost, Lowell, Milton, Christina Rossetti and Shelley. Each book is supplemented by a CD in which 'name' actors declaim a smaller set of samples from the texts.
Hart's enthusiasm appears genuine. She also has the contacts in the theatrical world to lend weight to this venture: Harold Pinter, Bob Geldof, Jeremy Irons, Juliet Stevenson, Roger Moore, Ralph Fiennes, Charles Dance Edward Fox and a host of other 'luvvies' are enlisted as 'voice props'. Each agreed to work for free (such is the power of 'The Hart Foundation' - once 'Gallery Poets' but now 'The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour'). This organisation sent free copies of Catching Life by the Throat. to every secondary school in Britain and plans to do the same with Words That Burn. Any, residual, profits go to the 'King George V Fund for Actors and Actresses'. Hart has clearly 'gen-ed up' on the poets themselves, and the thoughts of critical luminaries such as Harold Bloom and John Bayley crop up at regular intervals in her text. Unfortunately, she has a way of insinuating herself into the picture, not always happily (although she does have one, interesting, personal story to tell regarding Philip Larkin). She can often appear slightly 'gushing', although some of her biographical notes -and, indeed, her selections - can be appealingly 'left-field' (especially so in the latter anthology). We learn, for instance, that Elizabeth Bishop was reading Milton's 'Optiks' when she wrote 'Love Lies Sleeping'. She very nearly 'gets' Bishop - but, then, did anyone ever, wholly, 'get' Elizabeth Bishop? She does a fair job both 'digging' the poetry of and 'digging the dirt' on Robert Lowell (who'd, himself, 'dig the dirt' on just about anyone - including 'Cal' Lowell). No stranger to hyperbole, she claims Byron's 'Don Juan' to be 'the most savagely witty poem in this or any language' (crikey, this lady is well-read!) whilst a distracting note of sententiousness is occasionally evident (as when she concludes after quoting the final lines of Paradise Lost, 'The End. And the beginning'). However - and rather in contradiction of my previous somewhat carping criticisms - Hart can sometimes extract little-known poems from writers one thought one knew well: Browning's 'Porphyria's Lover' was quite new to this reviewer, for instance.
The question of 'pitch' is always important and, probably, these books might find their natural 'Target Readership' amongst GCSE (or late-secondary level) pupils, or - possibly - as an introductory 'primer' for adults wishing to find a helpful guide to deliver them into the arcane world of 'serious' poetry. As such, these two Virago productions succeed very well.
Kevin Saving © 2009