This article appeared in the January 18, 1964 issue of Commonweal
I MUST apologize to the editors of this anthology* for using it as a clothes peg. At least, it is their virtues which make this possible. Their initial idea was so excellent that one cannot help wishing they had been able to carry it out: I say "able" because to carry it out properly would have taken them several years of concentrated work in peace-time, and it is extraordinary and gratifying enough that two men serving in the armed forces during a war should have had the will power to overcome the physical and psychological difficulties of military life and produced an anthology at all, let alone as interesting and provocative a one as they have.
There are people who object to all anthologies on principle. I believe that they are mistaken and that, on the contrary, what is wrong with most anthologies is that their compilers have not taken their occupation seriously enough, or thought precisely enough about its basic principles. There are three possible principles of selection. The first and most obvious is esthetic value plus esthetic character (esthetic value alone is, practically, impossible thanks to the curse of Babel). The factors that determine esthetic character are language, literary genre and date of composition. None of them prevent the criterion of selection from being that of esthetic value, but the greater the part they play, the more the standard of value must be lowered, for it is clear that, for instance, the hundred best lyrics in English from the nineteenth century cannot be as good as the hundred best poems in all languages from all ages.
The second possible principle of selection is caprice or chance, which is itself an esthetic category. Here the power of selection is transferred from the personal esthetic judgment of the anthologist to the principle itself, e.g., I can make an anthology of poems written by beekeepers, or of poems beginning with the letter Q. The point here is that the arbitrary limitation I chose shall be such that my anthology can be exhaustive and include all the poems written by beekeepers, etc., thus eliminating my personal judgment altogether.
The third principle is subject matter. If this is not to be capricious also, it must be a real category of experience for the average human being; e.g., bee-keeping is a real category only for beekeepers; Love, War, Death are categories for all men. If subject matter is the decisive factor, so that the pieces are chosen in order to illuminate it, then esthetic value must play a smaller rôle than in the first type of anthology (though a greater than in the second) and esthetic character none at all, i.e., prose and verse, logical argument and lyric emotion should all be included, for each throws its unique and indispensable light on the subject under consideration.
The trouble with "War and the Poet" is that its editors have tried to satisfy too many and contradictory demands at once. For example, as an anthology of the first type, it wavers between a wish to cover all history and a wish to show what contemporary poets are doing, so that out of a total of 209 pages, the first three thousand seven hundred years of literature get IO5, and the last forty-five years 104. It is inevitable that under such a disparate allocation, the literary standard of the second half should be lower than that of the first; on the other hand, with only half the space at their disposal, the modern poets are crowded for space, and a number of them, Graves and Blunden and Winters, for example, are omitted, not because their war poems are any worse or less significant than those of their colleagues, but because someone had to go.