Harrison Middleton University

The Case for Anthologies

The Case for Anthologies

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


November 29, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Libraries and bookstores don’t often keep anthologies around for the simple reason that they are difficult to categorize. However, I find them tremendously useful. So, today’s blog will give a short analysis of a few of my favorites and my reasons for keeping them. These are in no particular order.

Standing Down; From Warrior to Civilian, published in 2013 by the Great Books Foundation, is one of my favorite anthologies. It begins with Homer and Thucydides and moves all the way to Margaret Atwood, Tim O’Brien, and Yusef Komunyakaa. It asks tough questions about what it means to be a soldier and also what it means to be a citizen. The anthology covers voices of soldiers, friends, family, mothers, etc. It gives a well-rounded account of the complexity inherent in solders’ lives. This makes my list of favorites because it is endlessly discussable, and probably one of the most important topics that Americans can and should discuss together.

Everyman’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry as translated and edited by S. A. J. Bradley is another favorite, but for different reasons. As someone who dabbles with translation, this volume is incredible. The amount of work that went into translating so many pieces astounds me. Bradley’s work ethic and rigor accurately portray the struggle of translators. In his introduction, Dr. Bradley also explains an important aspect for reading this volume: “[T]he study of Anglo-Saxon poetry affords insights into spiritual, intellectual, social and artistic preoccupations of the Anglo-Saxons, and the opportunity to consider their distinctive formulation of these issues which are even now of relevance to us, articulated in the language of which we are heirs and in literary forms amenable to our formal literary-critical approaches” (xix). In other words, this book picks up on some important tropes still visible in American rhetoric, but only visible if you know what to look for. This book acts as an aide in exploring some of the more hidden tropes of society.

The Great Books Foundation’s Science Fiction Omnibus also deserves mention. As a huge science fiction fan, I view the genre as a completely vital way of opening up possibilities. Science fiction embraces unknowns in a very liberating way, which makes it exciting and limitless. In this book, authors such as Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, and Ursula Le Guin, ask us to question who we are and who we want to be. This volume views ethics from the perspective of different types of civilizations and is highly relevant to a number of current themes in media and popular rhetoric today.

This list would be incomplete without a mention of Norton anthologies, which are a foundational feature of college literature courses. So, of course, I have marked up and dog-eared much of my Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Books like this one demonstrate how rhetoric shifts over time, but the same ideas are at play. They show how later poets extend or play with an idea from earlier poets, or rebel against tradition, which is useful for many reasons. In addition, the Norton anthologies often include excellent footnotes and additional resources such as letters and texts which open up the field in new and surprising ways. These anthologies are a treasure for people interested in seeing a form evolve over time.

1000 Years of Irish Poetry edited by Kathleen Hoagland is a daunting book. Of great interest to me are the anonymous poems that have found their way into Irish lore. So many anonymous voices of the past are overlooked, yet they may distill an important piece of culture. The anonymous voices are often quoted on placards and greeting cards, with little understanding of their history or the depth to which they reflect greater culture. Thoughtlessly repeated truisms become both an informative and interesting key to understanding society. Furthermore, this volume offers short introductions to each new poet and a sketch of historical and political agendas. Covering one thousand years of anything is incredibly daunting, but this book presents clear themes and beautiful ideas.

I am immensely grateful for The Silk Dragon by Arthur Sze (who just won the 2019 National Book Award for Sight Lines). This slim volume of poetry begins with a brief tutorial on translation. Walking through the thought process opens the door for everyone to better understand translation, which brings so many vital voices to us. It is instructive, even for non-translators. Furthermore, this book moves from T’ao Ch’ien, who lived around 365-427, all the way into the present day with Yen Chen, which means that Sze had to translate many different styles and dialects of Chinese. Despite the gap in years between the poets, the anthology presents a striking dialogue between poems and ages.

Immigrant Voices: 21st Century Stories published by the Great Books Foundation completes my list. I love this book because it discusses America from within and from without. It discusses what America means as a metaphor and as a concrete entity. It also opens up conversations ofi home, of transience, of who we are and what we want to be. Again, as with Standing Down, this book is an important one to be read and discussed.

Obviously, this list is incomplete. There are many anthologies that I have used and studied over the years which deserve mention here, but I chose to include only some of those that I work with on an ongoing basis, or that repeatedly surface. I would love to hear recommendations from you as well. What anthologies do you find useful? Do you use them to trace an idea through time and civilizations? Why do you enjoy (or not enjoy) anthologies?

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