Fresh air for the imagination. An assortment of recent anthologies offers something for everybody to read
The Oxford Anthology of Shakespeare, selected and introduced by Stanley Wells. New York: Oxford University Press. 396 pp. $19.95. The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry, translated and edited by Jonathan Chaves. New York: Columbia University Press. 481 pp. $29.95.
100 Poems by 100 Poets, selected by Harold Pinter, Geoffrey Godbert, and Anthony Astbury. New York: Grove Press. 176 pp. $16.95.
The Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry, edited by Fleur Adcock. Boston: Faber & Faber. 330 pp. $15.95, cloth; $7.95 paper.
The Devil's Advocate: An Ambrose Bierce Reader, edited by Brian St. Pierre. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 327 pp. $22.50.
Anthologies can be used like old-fashioned sachets. The dead leaves of old books, packed in spice, will keep the closed drawers of the imagination fragrant. A review of recent anthologies, however, suggests a more active use: to let some fresh air into the imagination.
``An Oxford Anthology of Shakespeare,'' for example, is not just another selection of tidbits from the Bard. Stanley Wells, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare projects, has chosen to represent this ``most protean of writers'' not by the very dramatic scenes, but by those passages that would ``suffer least from detachment from their surroundings.''
Together these ``set pieces'' provide many of the genres, topics, and types that later writers would realize. Twelve chapters suggest the length and breadth of Shakespeare, the people and places, the themes (friendship, love, and death), the types of presentation (``stories'').
Generous passages from the plays mix with whole sonnets and lyrics. The two longest sections are on ``love'' and ``responsibility and government.'' Of the two, ``love'' is given double the space. Sound priorities! Wells's groupings are themselves revealing. We see that for Shakespeare, wisdom and folly were symbiotic.
Sometimes Wells can trick you. Reading the ``Magic and superstition'' section, I waited in vain for Prospero - only to find him at the end of the next section (``Responsibility and Government''), ``drowning'' his book.
A final chapter collects such ``unconsidered trifles'' as ``What great ones do the less will prattle of'' from the Captain in ``Twelfth Night,'' reminding us that the mighty Shakespeare began and ended as a writer of memorable sentences.
Beginning with the ``Book of Odes'' (8th to 6th centuries before Christ), the anthology, not the individual book, was the basic unit of ancient Chinese literature. Official and unofficial philosophies mix in poems that strike the Western reader as incredibly uniform in style within the two great periods.
Jonathan Chaves's translation of the later period - Burton Watson has translated the Tang and Sung texts in the same Columbia University series - reveals the ``shih'' form as both the bridge from the earlier Golden Age and the perennial vehicle for personal feeling.
Chaves's translations reveal the variety and freshness of the ``shih'' form. Long misread by poetasters, these poems have a philosophical concentration, a lack of noise (controlled connotation), and a worn simplicity that many big modern poems lack, not to mention all the newspaper verse that seems to be written in faint imitation of some Chinese master.
Sometimes an anthology makes a personal statement. ``100 Poems by 100 Poets'' presents English poetry as seen by British playwright Harold Pinter. A problem was posed on a long train ride: Nominate 100 poets - 100 dead poets - to represent the best of English poetry. What he and two friends came up with will stimulate even the most jaded reader.
Since when have the American Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) and the Tudor humanist John Hoskins (1566-1638) shared editorial space? But the building blocks of poems - words - are in some sense interchangeable (such are their family connections), and curious juxtaposition of disparate poems can result in verbal alchemy. It does, often, here.
Englishwoman and poet Fleur Adcock's ``Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry'' is distinguished by two things: its generosity toward Americans and its universal appeal. Adcock sees nothing intrinsically interesting in poetry by women. Extrinsically, she notes in her introduction, it's a fact that poetry by women has been underrepresented in traditional anthologies.
Her selection is a useful complement to any you might have and a delight in any case. It opens with the superb and neglected Charlotte Mew (1869-1928). Using the traditional English meter with fresh perception, she begins a poem with ``It is the clay that makes the earth stick to his spade.'' The unexpected stress on ``stick'' really sticks in the mind....
One can always argue (and reviewers always do) about selection, but rediscovering ``The Frightened Man'' (``In fear of the rich mouth/ I kissed the thin''), by Louise Bogan, sent me back to my old gray copy of her selected poems.... Adcock's is a book of discoveries.
Given the price, the paperback can be bought by twos and threes for that spontaneous gift.
If, as I believe, literature is journalism that survives its immediate occasion, and it takes a Plato - or an anthologist - to tell the difference, then Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) wrote literature and richly deserves a fine anthology. A journalist by trade, a failed novelist by conviction, Bierce recently ended up as a ``hero'' in a fine novel - ``The Old Gringo,'' by Carlos Fuentes. He was quite a character. As it turns out, he was also quite a writer.
Anthologist Brian St. Pierre has gathered from Bierce's immense output a judicious, wittily introduced selection of anecdotes, fables, epigrams, lyrics, editorials, essays, and stories naturalistic and supernatural.
Overcoming the ``poverty and puritanism'' of his origins, Bierce became a hero in the Civil War and a newspaperman in San Francisco in both its boom and bust phases. Somehow he learned to write. He tempered his angry wit on the hard iron of English syntax.
His ``Devil's Dictionary,'' included here, defines ``Heaven'' as ``A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.''
Bierce didn't like Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde. While his reasons for not liking them may have been self-serving, it does seem that, on occasion, he was their peer as a writer. If this looks like hyperbole, pick up a copy of ``The Devil's Advocate.'' As his advocate to posterity, Bierce could ask for nothing better than this book.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.