When love, this single timeless theme, has had countless anthologies dedicated to it, originality is often lacking. However, John Stammers has done an admirable job. The book covers love's many facets and contradictions, including poems that are as predictable in a love anthology as a Mills & Boon plotline, as well as fresher, more unexpected pieces. Many of the usual suspects (Larkin and Wordsworth for example) have been studiously avoided; Shakespeare's sonnets are kept to an almost restrained four. I believe anthologies should be a starting point to discover poets that you may not have met before, and this book is excellent in this respect. One feels that Stammers understands the fundamental problem with anthologies; namely, that you are ripping the poem from its original context and placing it, cold, with other poems that have nothing to do with it. Therefore pairing them, to demonstrate English poetry's legacy and connectedness, seems like a good idea.
Often, it works. Putting Spenser's 'One day I wrote her name upon the strand' with Stammers' own 'House on the Beach' is inspired; the sand in both poems playing with the ideas of transience and immortality. Donne's beautiful aubade 'The Sun Rising' juxtaposed with Galway Kinnell's 'After Making Love We Hear Footsteps' is an unexpected but brilliant choice, the many opposites in the two poems: Donne's young lovers and the married couple in the Kinnell, the desire to stretch out the fleeting moment in the Donne and the sense of quiet eternity in the Kinnell; only serve to highlight the one thing which binds them both together: transcendental love.
However, not all the pairings are as well-chosen. Placing 'To His Coy Mistress' by Marvell and T.S Eliot's masterpiece 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' next to each other seems nonsensical, canonical as both the poems are; as does the inclusion of 'Prufrock' at all. Pairing Robert Browning with Elizabeth Barrett (with 'Love' and Sonnets from the Portuguese xliii') is depressingly predictable - I'm sure Elizabeth would love, just once, not be stuck with Robert. As often as a classic and a contemporary poem sit well together, each illuminating the other, there is a pairing that jars. The fact that Milton's 'Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint' is next to Matthew Caley's 'ABBA CD' only serves to highlight the disconnectedness between old and new poetry. And so the past seems dull and archaic, and the plastic shallowness of the modern melts under its own spotlights.
John Stammers's selection is inspired, varied and unusual - everything a collection of poems should be. Yet poems worth reading will tell their own stories to the reader – and here, Stammers doesn’t always let them breathe.
Holly Stevenson won the T S Eliot Shadowing Scheme Prize in 2007. She is currently studying English at Clare College, University of Cambridge, and is Interviews Editor for The Cambridge Tab.