When I was a child there was something called ‘Chip Club’ – a leaflet given out at school once or twice a year, from which we could order books. I was lucky, my mum always bought me a book, and in 1974 I chose 100+ American Poems, edited by Paul Molloy. Why? Maybe for the title, since it sounded like you were getting a lot of poems for your money. Or maybe America was the lure: all the best telly was American – Kojak, Star Trek, the Mary Tyler Moore show. This was the era of the moon landings; America was everywhere; Watergate was always on the news and I felt so sorry for poor Richard Nixon with his sad, teddy bear face.
I was also very curious about poetry. 100+ American Poems was, I think, meant to be a book for children: published by Scholastic, the poems were interspersed with arty black and white photos taken by American high school students, and the photos certainly made an impression on me. But I’ve never outgrown this eclectic gathering in which Thoreau rubs shoulders with Ogden Nash, Marianne Moore with Countee Cullen. On the cover there’s a dense list of names including Bob Dylan, yet strangely no Dylan inside – what happened? Perhaps the Nobel controversy was brewing even then, and some big cheese at Scholastic must have snapped, ‘Get rid of Dylan, he isn’t a poet!’ I didn’t miss out – my sister had the Greatest Hits album and in our shared bedroom I spent many hours of my childhood listening to her singing soulfully along to Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright. (Yes, he was definitely a poet.)
Like all great anthologies, 100+ American Poems sets out its stall on the very first page, with Dream Boogie, by Langston Hughes:
Good morning daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
I loved these lines, even though I had no idea what they meant, or who Langston Hughes was, or why he had such significance. Why would I? I was a small white girl growing up in Hereford, which was also small and white.
There was Capacity, a poem about people on a bus: Affable, bibulous, corpulent, dull, eager-to-find-a-seat, formidable … I chanted it over and over again. The poem was by John Updike, a name I had seen in Hereford library on the cover of a book called Rabbit, Run which sounded like it should be in the children’s section.
There were poems bafflingly attributed to a cockroach called Archy, who didn’t use punctuation:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
Archy had a love-hate relationship with a cat called Mehitabel, and he also had a friend who was a moth: i wish / there was something i wanted / as badly as he wanted to fry himself
There were several poems grouped under the heading The First Americans; it took me a while to make the connection between these poems and our regular blood-curdling Sunday tea-time date with the classic serial: Last of the Mohicans. But as I read Uncertain Admission by Frances Bazil, I began to form the hazy idea that there might be more to it than scalps and moccasins:
The birds soar above me with doubtful dips and dives
They all, in their own way, ask the question,
Who are you, who are you?
I have to admit to them, to myself,
I am an Indian.
I have to admit …. It was a disturbing, chastening line, and I’ve remembered it all my life.
Also lines from Auden’s Elegy for J.F.K:
Why then? Why there? Why thus, we cry, did he die?
And Richard Wilbur:
My dog lay dead five days without a grave
And May Swenson:
I took my cat apart / to see what made him purr
There was Walt Whitman of course, warbling away, but then again, there was Langston Hughes:
I, too, sing America.
I loved 100+ American Poems. It opened my eyes, and even though only nineteen of those poems are by women, I forgive it. Perhaps at some level even then I was aware of the erasure, and perhaps this led me as a teenager to the top floor of Hereford library where there was a wall of shelves the length of a house, filled with poetry. Perhaps this was why, some years later, I studied Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lord, Judy Grahn: those great poets, those mighty feminists. But I don’t denigrate the dead white men; I don’t regret being introduced to Frost, Poe, Roethke or any other poet in the book. They taught me so much, and whenever I dip into the book now, I’m reminded of being just ten years old, of first becoming aware that all poems are voices – and all of them insisting: Listen to me.