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Fifty Fifty | 27-Oct-04

Fifty/50: fifty poems from fifty years of the Poetry Library 

The first reaction of many readers when they pick up an anthology is to ask how the editor went about choosing the contents. The central aim of this book was to reflect the holdings and character of the Poetry Library. The idea was not to look for another re-writing of the history of poetry, the promotion of one group or movement, or a polemic.  We wanted to create an anthology which was inclusive and celebratory; a book that would revel in the great qualities of late twentieth and early twenty-first century poetry - its wide range and vast scope, its democracy, in short.

There were six editors - three members of the Poetry Library staff and three poets who have worked closely with the library and know it well. Each chose a list of poems published over the last fifty years that were important to them. The criteria were simple: the poems had to come from a book in the Poetry Library, published or translated into English in the last fifty years and to be, in most cases, under a page in length. Each poet was allowed no more than one poem in the book.

With six editors and over a hundred poems to discuss, the process was by turns humorous, heated and sometimes a little arbitrary. We went through each year at a time, voting for the poem we thought best. Some years there were six contenders, some years only two. If there was a tie (which happened frequently) lots were drawn. The only year this committee of readers was unanimous about was 1975 (Cavafy). The process to a great extent, therefore, chose the poems and while the anthology contains poems that each editor individually put forward it also contains poems that not every editor would like to see there. Despite this, or rather because of it, the resulting book, I think, provides a strangely balanced selection of work. 

What we present here, I believe, reflects poetry from the last fifty years: quirky, funny, serious, simple and sophisticated, accessible and difficult, experimental and traditional - and all available in book form on the shelves of the Poetry Library.

Simon Smith
The Poetry Library

26th January 2003

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