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What Is a Poetry Anthology?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 17, 2024
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A multitude of types of poetry anthologies abound. What they share in common is that they are all collections of poems written by a number of different poets. Beyond that, however, a wide range of reasons, some logical and others highly personal, determine which poems are included in any single poetry anthology. Ultimately, it’s the anthology’s editor or compiler who selects the poems that will share the pages.

An anthology can be organized chronologically, culturally, thematically, or in any number of other ways. Some anthologies make it their purpose to include the best-known, best-loved, or most influential poets that have written in a particular language or from a particular cultural perspective over centuries. Others turn away from such broad histories, narrowing the scope to a type of writer or poem that can be very narrowly defined, such as 19th-century Irish poets or antiwar poems of the 1960s.

Long-time favorites of English teachers, anthologies are often used to introduce students to a array of poetic styles and voices. Teachers often look for a poetry anthology that features the best-known and most important poets recognized over the course of centuries. Recently, however, some poetry anthologies created for classroom use have taken the position that including the same poets over and over makes their continuing fame a self-fulfilling prophesy and have begun interspersing less well-known poets writing on themes likely to appeal to student readers.

In recent years, some lovers of poetry have gathered their favorites into collections that are thematically, oftentimes whimsically so, organized in hopes that a playful or even affectionate approach will draw the attention of new readers. An anthology of garden poetry, pet poetry, or poems about long-distance running, for example, might perk the interest of people with special interest in those areas. These types of anthologies typically collect well-known poems with those who may be completely unknown to most readers; because the theme is the organizing principal, a range of voices and visions is most appropriate.

The Internet has introduced people of all cultures to incredible artistic richness elsewhere. This has naturally resulted in a growing interest in writing from other cultures. A visit to any bookstore’s poetry section will produce collections of poetry written by or about political activists, folklorists, islanders, or any number of other offerings. Many of these collections celebrate poetry written or beloved not by academics but by people with more common roots, which many contemporary lovers of poetry consider a plus.

Just as thematic similarities can be the reason a poetry anthology is produced, diversity can also be an organizing principle. Anthologies that address a number of opposing views or dissimilar experiences are becoming increasingly popular as a way of inviting readers to consider that a narrow viewpoint doesn’t invite understanding. A poetry anthology that gathers poems written by Arab and Jewish poets, for example, ultimately demonstrates a profound commonality rather than the wide differences that are so often dwelled upon.

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Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Feb 22, 2014

@irontoenail - I do wonder about the way those online anthologies are chosen though. I always thought they would hire an editor who would know all the best modern poetry and would make logical choices. But even "best of" anthologies seem to be compiled by asking poets as a group to submit their work rather than approaching individual poets.

I mean, that's great for the poets who might otherwise be overlooked, but I doubt that the more famous poets are hunting around for every single anthology they might need to enter. So you end up with anthologies that are potentially full of second rate poems.

By irontoenail — On Feb 21, 2014

@bythewell - I think people make a little bit of fun of bad poetry online because they probably don't expect the author to ever know.

And that is one of the things that I like about the internet actually. I've found more poetry that I love through recommendations online than I have ever found in any other way. Anthologies are another really good way to figure out what you like, but there are online poetry anthologies for people who don't want to buy one. Or, of course, you can always go to the library.

By bythewell — On Feb 21, 2014

I have to admit, I love anthologies of modern poems by children. There is something about them that always turns out to be so insightful and interesting even if they aren't as polished as adult poems.

I think it's unfortunate that I often see people mocking them online, as poetry and thinking outside the box is something that we should be encouraging in children.

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