Book review: The Zoo of the New: Poems to Read Now

It’s a thankless task, editing a poetry anthology — by their very nature they attract criticism for who makes the final cut and who doesn’t. 

Compiled by Nick Laird and Don Paterson

Particular Books, €30

Despite this, they are a long and proud tradition — poetry is a literary form that invites the collecting of verse across generations and themes into single volumes.

With Nick Laird and Don Paterson’s The Zoo of the New, the scope is astonishing. In a short introduction they make their reasoning clear. 

Their anthology is, they say: “just a book of things we love, which we thought you might love too.” 

The zoo-ness and the newness consist, then, not in some kind of radical mix of contemporary poets working at the edge of the form, as the title might suggest, but in the variety of poems and their ability to “surprise, delight or shock”.

So much for the reasoning, does it work?

The answer is a qualified ‘yes’. In this enormous collection’s 430-pages the range of poets, both living and dead, is so large that it can’t fail to appeal to a general reader. 

Some are featured more than once, and deservedly so: Heaney with, among other works, The Harvest Bow, and an extract from Mossbawn; also here multiple times are Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and William Blake — the latter, a little surprisingly, with five entries — suggesting Laird and Paterson are fans.

What is different about The Zoo of the New, however, is a vision of poetry spanning centuries, even millennia. Ancient 2,500-year-old verse — Sappho’s As — sits alongside folkloric rhymes like the well-known There Was an Old Man of Nantucket.

Here, too, are Baroque-age pieces by Dryden, Raleigh, and Donne, verses which form the deep foundations of English poetry.

While Laird and Paterson state that the overall criteria for a poem’s inclusion was that they both had to agree on its merit, the risk of hitting the lowest common denominator that can come with this ‘let’s-agree’ approach has been avoided. 

Yeats, for instance, may be an old reliable for editors, but rarely with an extract from Vacillation, while Kavanagh’s Epic earns a place, rather than his more widely anthologised work.

As is inevitable with all ambitious anthologies there are poets who died during the compilation process. In this case it is Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, whose recent death at age 87 adds a poignancy to the doubts and fears expressed in his middle-aged anthem, Nearing Forty.

For contemporary masters the editors look to Mark Doty, David Harsent and Jo Shapcott, as well as many of Ireland’s greatest poets — Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Bernard O’Donoghue, and Éileain Ní Chuilleanáin. 

One suspects, perhaps, that Laird’s Irishness does show in the choices, despite the claim to joint decision-making.

While the scope and imagination behind The Zoo of the New are impossible to fault, a decision the editors can be taken to task for is their conscious exclusion of poets aged under 60. 

The choices in this anthology may be broad but they are all made within this one constraint. Why manacle themselves in this way?

The explanation they make is lacking: “Poets are, after all, almost always rotten judges of their own contemporaries”. 

The result of this age bar is that “the choices inevitably reflect the historical inequalities of poetry publishing”.

So, yes. Lots of old white men.

This undermines the publishers’ blurb that The Zoo of the New will establish itself as the ‘classic anthology of our time’. 

A classic of its kind, maybe; but without the voices of Maram Al-Masri, Sinéad Morrissey, and Sarah Howe, among others, ‘of our time’ might be a claim too far.


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