Allie Esiri: Who Should be Included in a 2021 Poetry Anthology?

Writing in his 1821 essay ‘The Defence of Poetry’, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley famously declared that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. A bold statement, it captures the rather paradoxical nature of the poet – at once a figure who has the potential to shape the world irrevocably with just a handful of well-chosen words, and one who is also perpetually overlooked and under-appreciated by society at large.

This new anthology seeks to shed light on the place and influence poets hold in the world – as forces of change and witnesses of history; as chroniclers of the everyday and architects of transcendent images – and to make sure that their genius is very much appreciated. Within the pages of the book you will discover an array of some of the greatest poems ever written by 366 different poets – one for each day of the (leap) year.

Poetry at its best has always, from Homer in Ancient Greece to contemporary greats such as Kae Tempest, Simon Armitage and Amanda Gorman, enabled us to see different worlds, or rather, our own world differently. And yet so many similar collections of verse have focused almost entirely on white, western male writers, creating an even more unacknowledged class among the already unacknowledged exceptional women, LGBTQIA+ and minority poets. It is important to redress this wrong and include a huge range of writers from across the globe and across time, going as far back as 2000 bc. Sitting alongside canonical titans such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wordsworth are lesser known names such as Enheduanna and Charlotte Mew.

But unlike my previous anthologies, which were built around the idea of offering A Poem for Every… the focus here is as much on the writers as their works. Each poet is introduced to you through a short paragraph that will give you a snapshot of their life story, their place in literary history and other pieces of context or anecdotes.

A Poet for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri

Much of this book is dedicated to the promotion of those who have been unfairly all but forgotten. But conversely, it’s also important to address the complex reputations of some of our most beloved writers. How do we go about reconciling the fact that so many writers who were so rich in talent were so inexcusably poor in their treatment of others? Racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, intolerance and cruelty have been found in countless poets – does this diminish the brilliance of their writing?

It is a difficult, sensitive issue with no easy answer, but maybe we can turn to the poets themselves for guidance. W. H. Auden – seemingly one of the good guys, who helped a woman escape from Nazi Germany through a marriage of convenience – once argued for the separation of the artist from their work in his poetic elegy for W. B. Yeats, saying, ‘The death of the poet was kept from his poems.’

But the book also seeks to celebrate all the progress that has been made. Poetry today is less an elitist circle, more an ever-growing community that’s enriched by a plurality of writers who are giving a voice to the historically voiceless and lending an ear to those too often left unheard. I’m proud to have put together an inclusive book that strives to be representative of, and relatable to, readers of all backgrounds.

A collection of such infinite variety fittingly has no set way of being read. You can make it a daily habit – a poem in the morning to invigorate the mind, or every evening to calm the soul – or approach it as a treasure trove of poetic gems to dip into whenever you want. 366 poets are waiting for you within these pages. All they need, dear reader, is you, as, in the words of Walt Whitman, ‘To have great poets, there must be great audiences.’

Allie Esiri

Allie Esiri curates poetry anthologies, audio projects, live shows and film. Her poetry anthologies are A Poem for Every Night of the Year, the bestselling new poetry book of 2016, A Poem for Every Day of the Year and Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year. Credited with bringing poetry into the digital age, Allie Esiri’s apps iF Poems and The Love Book feature readings with actors including Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hiddleston, Bill Nighy and Emma Watson.

Fiona Waters: What Exactly is an Anthologist?

Every now and again I am asked ‘What exactly is an anthologist?’ Followed rapidly by ‘Any fool can collect a pile of poems.’ Well yes, but would that make an anthology, or would it just remain a random collection of poems?  Even more dispiriting was the poet, who will remain anonymous, she muttered sadly, who said (in public) that I couldn’t be any kind of a good anthologist because I didn’t write poetry myself. I was completely taken aback as I had never questioned my credentials to be an anthologist, but the wonderful John Mole rode to my defence with ‘You don’t have to be a carpenter to appreciate a Chippendale chair.’ Just so.

The best anthologists have many skills. You need the ability to put together a collection that has plenty which is new and will intrigue and stimulate, as well as enough of the old favourites to make the browser feel comfortable, but is not a mere rehash of collections already out there. It is a constant quest to find that which is new, not only just-written new but also newly discovered by the anthologist. (And that never stops however widely read the anthologist is.) A true sense of one poem leading into another is required, either by association of subject or thought, but also the bravery to inject a powerful poem that will whack the reader in the solar plexus.

I AM THE SEED THAT GREW THE TREE, A nature poem for every day of the year, selected by Fiona Waters, Illustrated by Fran Preston-Gannon

A real knowledge of diverse poetry from many cultures and a span of the classic verses from centuries back. The poems can be beautiful, heart rending, hilarious, memorable, and long or short. And when talking about a children’s anthology, the anthologist should have the courage to include that which might be considered ‘too challenging’ for a child. I have never let any such demarcation get in the way of offering a poem that sings to the soul. All children lack is experience, otherwise they have all the emotions, feelings and passion that so called grown- ups possess.

Embarking on a new anthology elicits a real sense of adventure, where shall I start? When Nosy Crow asked me to compile a new collection of animal poems to follow I am the Seed that Grew the Tree, my initial reaction was such delight, which was almost immediately replaced by a great sense of the enormity of the task. I knew there were plenty of poems about lions and tigers, giraffes and kangaroos, penguins and owls but what about anteaters or porcupines, snails or seahorses, and, of course, the pangolin? But my anxiety was soon washed away, they were all there, queuing up to be included. The permission quest was, as ever, fraught with seemingly insurmountable convolutions but that in itself is part of the thrill of the chase.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! An animal poem for every day of the year, selected by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup

Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright was my biggest undertaking to date but I had the wonderful Nosy Crow team by my side, particularly the exceptional and poetry loving Louise Bolongaro. That is another essential for a good anthologist – a supportive and encouraging publisher. I have been greatly aided and guided by Su Swallow and Gaby Morgan, both knowledgeable poetry lovers, in other collections. And, of course, Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright would only be half the great beast it is without the incomparable Britta Teckentrup. Her illustrations are so atmospheric and fill the page with vibrant subtlety.  

My own love of poetry stemmed from an early spell-binding encounter. I must have been about 7 when I heard Gabriel Woolf reading The Lady of Shalott and I was hooked for life. Not long ago I rediscovered a faded exercise book filled with my favourite poems all written out in my best copperplate. My first anthology? I like to think so.

Fiona Waters

During her fifty-two years in the world of books, Edinburgh-born Fiona Waters has worn many hats. From John Smith’s Booksellers in Glasgow, she moved to Cambridge to run Heffers Children’s Bookshop for eight years before going to join The Bodley Head. Her last move took her to Dorset where she was the Editorial Director of Troubadour, then the largest independent Book Fair Company in the United Kingdom. She is renowned in the world of children’s books for her passion and enthusiasm, and her encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s poetry.