Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Collected or Selected?

I've just come across a piece advertising a reading by Lee Harwood, in Hove, to mark the launch of his Selected Poems, from Shearsman. Apart from cursing the fact that Hove is halfway across the country (admittedly, living slap bang in the middle of England, that's true of an awful lot of places), it set me thinking.

Two or three years ago I bought Harwood's Collected Poems, also from Shearsman, and enjoyed it hugely. I've gone back to it again and again (in fact, it's my current bedside reading). But several poets and readers have mentioned, in the past, that they much prefer the idea of a Selected to a Collected, the latter symbolically writing an emphatic full stop to the poet's career. Of course, they're often brought out after the poet is dead, but that brings its own problems, not least the fact that they can be packed with juvenilia or poems that the writer would rather had remained consigned to obscurity.

Selecteds, on the other hand, allow the poet to weed out work that he or she would rather they weren't associated with anymore, for whatever reason, and might be thought to provide a truer picture of the poet. They're a good way to spark interest in the poet's individual volumes. The slight problem is that, inevitably, there'll be occasions when they don't include work that the reader only discovers, much later, tucked away in those individual collections. I've had that happen a few times, often with Faber and Faber Selecteds, and as I say, it's probably inevitable.

On the whole, though, my preference would usually be for Selecteds, for the reasons suggested. I wouldn't, as I say, be without that Harwood Collected, nor would I swap my gargantuan Ted Hughes Collected for a slimmer volume. So I guess it comes down to the individual poet. Some need to be read in their entirety because their poetry depends on that much wider context, others simply because you like them so much.

But anyway, I'd be interested to know what anyone else thinks...

* As regards that reading, if you're in or around Hove, this Friday, November 7th, at 6.30pm, it's £6, and is at the Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove. Ticket price includes free glass of wine and a reduction on books purchased, and is available from City Books, 23 Western Road, Hove, tel: 01273 725 306.


David Troupes said...

I almost always prefer buying a collected rather than a selected. For a start, I never quite trust the person making the selection – especially if it’s the poet, whose exacting, sometimes punishing standards for his or her own work can see much material left out because it’s not as good as the very best. But it’s this material that makes large collections such enjoyable reads, I think. The Ted Hughes collected is a case in point: it’s all of the wayward material, the abandoned sequences and uncollected tidbits that make the whole feel so alive, and which help shed all sorts of interest little lights on the better half of his work.

I also always wonder about what I’m missing when I’m looking through a selected. If only 13 poems are selected from a particular 40-poem book and I really enjoy those 13, I have to imagine that the rest of it is nearly as good, and the loss is mine.

Even among living poets, I count Paul Muldoon’s Poems 1968-1998 and Jean Valentine’s Door in the Mountain (an example of that rare form, the new-and-collected) among my favorite and most-returned-to volumes. (And anyone in the UK who hasn’t heard of Valentine should hunt down a copy of Door in the Mountain now; there is no other living American poet I would recommend as strongly).

Kirk Wisebeard said...

Surely its seeing the juvenilia and stuff the poet doesn't want to be associated with that gives a truer picture of the poet? Take as an example (albeit not necessarily poetic) martin Shaw and the Professionals... or Bowie and the Laughing Gnome...

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks very much for the response, David. I agree that Selecteds mean you can often wonder what you're missing, and it sounds like we're in agreement about the Hughes book. And linking to what Kirk says, possibly it's those poets, like Hughes, who are willing to go off in all sorts of strange directions, whose Collecteds make the best reading.

The Laughing Gnome?! Remember when Bowie did a greatest hits tour, and fans could phone in to vote which songs he played, and NME organised a campaign to get it played?!

Matt Merritt said...

I'd not come across Valentine's work before, David. I'll seek some out, thanks.