Brendan Kennelly and Neil Astley’s “The Heavy Bear” Poetry Anthology Sometimes Lacks Its Brilliantly Defining Characteristic
The heavy bear that accompanies me: 100 classic poems with commentary by Brendan Kennelly and Neil Astley Bloodaxe, €18
was once at an event at the Irish Writers Center where Brendan Kennelly was introduced by a sponsor who mispronounced his surname. Kennelly politely corrected the sponsor, saying, “I’m Brendan Kennelly, an underage poet with a big belly.” It was a fleeting rhyme of self-mockery by a man demonstrating his own whimsy, humor, warmth and humility.
Regardless of Kennelly’s true status in Irish poetry, one thing he did not take lightly was the pantheon of poets who had created their own passionate bond with the tradition of English-language poetry. And today, on what would have been his 86th birthday, is the release of an anthology he edited with his longtime friend and editor Neil Astley, with the curious title The heavy bear that accompanies me.
It is true that anthologies are unpopular with poets. Thom Gunn once called them a nuisance. Paul Durcan called them “soulless,” and Ian Sansom wrote anthologies as “LiteratureLite,” but a Bloodaxe anthology is a whole different beast. As a groundbreaking publisher in the North of England, they have produced some of the most enduring anthologies of poetry in recent years, turning poetry into a bestselling phenomenon.
The title The heavy bear that accompanies me comes from a poem by Delmore Schwartz. Born in Brooklyn to Romanian-Jewish parents, Schwartz was a gifted writer who was “doomed” to fame, as John Berryman once put it in one of his Dream songs. The heavy bear is a kind of alter ego, a witness, a “stupid clown” of the appetites of the body, and “the motive force of the mind”. The publishers use the title as a way for Brendan Kennelly to “talk about the poems he loves”.
In a warm and loving foreword, Astley writes that he and Kennelly “wanted this anthology to embody our belief that poetry is a force for change.” Astley tells us it’s something the two have been working on sporadically for a quarter of a century.
Inside are the canonical poets of the English tradition such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Ralegh and William Shakespeare. There’s Anne Bradstreet, the “first poet of the English colonies in New England,” and Christina Rossetti. In fact, many of the poems will be familiar to poetry readers, including Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover”, and “Because I could not stop for Death”. by Emily Dickinson. ‘.
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But this last poem, and a few others, do not in fact contain a commentary. It’s a shame because the comments of the former bus driver and people’s poet are surely what gives this anthology its particularity.
When commentary is lacking, Astley sometimes delves into Kennelly’s chosen prose, Journey in joy, or look at Kennelly’s published reviews – which can be original and personal. The commentary on Eavan Boland’s “The Journey” is one such review where Kennelly describes Boland as a college student in the 1960s and how she had no trouble talking “nonstop for eight to 10 hours of in a row”.
Kennelly writes insightfully about other poets like Derek Mahon. “Mahon is a real spirit,” he notes. “But one of the problems for this kind of writer, for an ironic, romantic, skeptical, witty, nostalgic humanist, is what I’ll call the problem of yourself. Where is Mahon in his poetry?
Kennelly’s other Irish contemporaries are represented by Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. And if, as Kennelly notes in the introduction, poetry is “a kind of ruthless education,” he writes less ruthlessly about these selected poems and more with a kind of playful generosity.
But it is Patrick Kavanagh who holds, I believe, a special place in this anthology, and in Kennelly’s heart. “Time and time again Kavanagh wrote out of humility and achieved sublimity.” Kennelly’s own dedication to Kavanagh is included in the form of a poem, ‘A Man I Knew’, where he names the elder poet as a friend and writes ‘the dialogue of the heart with God / was the theme of his life’ .
It reminds me of when I was a visiting student in one of Professor Kennelly’s seminars at Trinity College, and he asked a student, as he sometimes did, to “give us an ‘aul song”. The young woman sat down and obliged us with an original melody from one of Kennelly’s poems from The Book of Judas. The poem was ‘No Image Fits’. Kennelly was speechless.
It was an appropriate poem because Kennelly was many things to many people, and when I think of the heavy bear in the title of this posthumously published anthology, I also think of Kennelly now, what a a familiar figure on the streets of Dublin. city, accompanied by its own heavy bear, the burden of self and its own fame, not to mention the true gift of its extraordinary vocation.
Paul Perry’s latest novel is ‘The Garden’ (New Island). His new collection of poetry ‘Jamais Vu’ is forthcoming. He directs the creative writing program at UCD