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Guest Review: Bury On The Open Door anthology

by Dominic Bury

The Open Door, an anthology of one hundred poems, painstakingly cherry-picked from the one hundred year archive of the esteemed American magazine Poetry succeeds wholly on the premise on which it was conceived. In placing emphasis on the poem, and not seeking (as is common within the poetry coterie) to clump together poets into distinct historical groups, teams or even factions, with their associated influences, successors and champions, editors Don Share and Christian Wiman have produced something not only fresh, but critically important.

Granted, many of the previous century's leading figures are in. Ezra Pound's 'In a station of the metro' opens the anthology, Yeats's 'The fishermen' ends, and the pages are filled by among others T.S.Elliot, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Yet the anthology does not feel like a homage to fame, where a few lesser lights are reluctantly inserted for padding. Instead, as Wiman attests in his introduction the archive has been approached just as they approach the hundred thousand submissions that come into their office each year. They seek 'poem by poem, with an eye out for the unexpected - the one off masterpiece that juts up like a mountain from the landscape you thought you knew'.

During a recent writing course, I was shocked to hear the current British poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy proclaim 'I have written a great deal of poetry, but I am still trying to write just one real poem.' Yet this brutal and wonderfully humble confession is the exact bones about which The Open Door is formed. In seeking poems that have both mastery and mystery, where language is 'honed to unprecedented degrees of precision, but exists within - and in some way acknowledges - some primal and nearly annihilating silence' Share and Wiman produce an anthology with more electricity and palpable energy than the majority of comparable 20th century offerings. It is this ethos, this direction, that makes the anthology tick. It acts not only as heavy evidence of the magazine’s principled aesthetic but the result is an anthology that acts as testament to what a poem is, what it can achieve, and as a manual with which future poetry can be written.

Quite as interesting as what the anthology may provide the future is what it tells of the past. Within both the poems themselves and the editing choices, the all encompassing influence of modernism is found. That Edwin Arlington Robinson is the only poet to be included between 1912 and 1928 other than Ezra Pound, T.S.Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats, Hart Crane and Isaac Rosenberg is highly significant. Not only is Robinson's poem 'Eros Turannos' the only poem in the anthology unaffected by modernism, but its publication in the magazine in 1914 and the publication of 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in 1915, is indicative of a seismic and irrevocable shift in the poetry landscape. For fair analysis, take the first stanzas of each poem. Stanza one of Robinson's poem reads:

                                    She fears him, and will always ask
                                         What fated her to choose him;
                                    She meets in his engaging mask
                                         All reasons to refuse him;
                                    But what she meets and what she fears
                                    Are less than are the downward years,
                                    Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
                                         Of age, were she to lose him.

Take in contrast the first stanza of 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’:

                                         Let us go then, you and I,
                                    When the evening is spread out against the sky
                                    Like a patient etherized upon a table;
                                    Let us go, through half deserted streets,
                                    The muttering retreats
                                    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
                                    And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
                                    Streets that follow like a tedious argument
                                    Of insidious intent
                                    To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .

The two are as different as clay and wind, and despite its profundity, Robinson's poem, with its opaque metaphor and simple end rhyme pattern seems now in comparison to be archaic, overwritten, and inelegant. The fact that all the other poets included between 1912 and 1928 are considered to now to be arch-modernists highlights how much of an impact the movement had, erasing almost two-hundred years of poetic tradition.

As alluded to in the anthology's introduction, there are always those who will seek to react against modernism, even if they cannot totally elude its grip, and fruitfully, it is this reaction that produces what is, if not the best, then certainly the most unnerving poem in the book. Don Paterson's fabulous poem 'The Lie' shows how formal metre and rhyme pattern are still potent vehicles. A narrative of a young boy's incarceration by the poem’s speaker, it is both the repetition contained within the final line and the slight alteration of the 'AABA' rhyme pattern in the end stanza that so affects the reader. 'The Lie' is among perhaps five poems that in their own unique ways come to the fore. Along with the aforementioned 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock', P K Page's 'My chosen landscape', Basil Bunting's 'Brigg flats' and Craig Arnold's 'Meditation on a Grapefruit' stand out.

What a poem is remains hard to put a finger on: a dark patch in the corner of the eye, that when looked towards moves further and further away. Yet what ties these and all the poems in the anthology together is that they are all unequivocally poems. They feel like poems, they positively reek like them. For all their wonderful variety, each of these poems catches the dark patch, holds it to the light and say 'This, dear reader is a bloody poem. Yes, yes, god damn, a thousand times yes.'

Dominic Bury is a young British poet.  He recently graduated from an MA in CW at Kingston University, and is currently an editorial assistant (intern position) at Eyewear Publishing, as well as a professional Governor.
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