A Book Review
By Melissa Fortuin
Author: Robin Malan
Year Published: 1969 first edition
The first poetry anthology I found rambling around as a child was a copy of New Inscapes. It was well hidden under a treasure trove of thick well used history textbooks and Alistair Maclean novels that had belonged to my late grandfather. I perused it for a few seconds and then abandoned it again. The sonnets and stanzas didn’t really make much sense to my mind. The imagery and symbolism and straight up lines cut apart and deconstructed was completely foreign and nonsensical, so I did what any bewildered normal kid would do… I went back to my Thomas The Tank Engine. Little did I know that in a few years that pile of books would become so integral to me. My love of poetry was born right there somewhere in between the pages of John Donne’s churchyard renditions and T. S. Elliot’s sweeping bleak city landscapes. And it was that worn out copy with little notes scribbled in narrow cursive that was the seed.
My reason for selecting New Inscapes is simple. I’ve certainly read many anthologies over the years, mainly geared towards a more mature audience. Some anthologies were thicker than Donald Trump’s skull, and that’s saying pretty much. This particular anthology, however, is incredibly nostalgic. In the blink of an eye, I find myself back at my wooden school desk where for the first time the sonnets and stanzas and symbols and those butchered e. e. cummings poems that looked like they had walked right into the arms of Freddy Kruger in A Nightmare On Elm Street were FINALLY being explained to me, as I’m scribbling notes in an HB pencil. I was perplexed and overwhelmed, whether it was the exact syntax or the way my teachers would emphatically read through the works and pause dramatically where necessary. Nowhere, not even in prose had words strung together sounded more beautiful. My heart opened up like a budding flower. A child discovering the power and beauty in words was the result. So in a nutshell (my nutshells are Never truly nutshells) nostalgia is motivation for this schoolyard classic anthology.
New Inscapes was first published in 1969. It was geared mainly for South African senior high school students. The compiler, Robin Malan, felt that very few anthologies available at the time contained a broad enough or well scoped out variety of poetry proceeding the end of the Second World War and as a result, a great deal of modern English poetry would be left undiscovered. His attempts in New Inscapes was to remedy the imbalance in which mostly pre-twentieth-century poetry was seemingly preferred by educational boards. As a result, New Inscapes has been divided into three parts. Part one consists of what is to be considered as ‘standard’ or classical poetry. Here you’ll find your anonymous ballads (pull out the lyre or ukulele gentleman, place your romantic interest under a blooming tree and woo her with tales of disease and knighthood… Allow a breeze to gentle lift your hair while you’re at it), you can satisfy your Chaucer taste buds, see what are Christopher Marlowe’s, Queen Elizabeth the firsts supposed secret lovers deepest qualms (probably that she wouldn’t make them Facebook official), and still get time to recapture your Shakespeare, Pope, Shelley, and Keats. I call these the “oldies but goldies”. Later the mood mellows and there are more structured modern poems. Here you will find your always somber Frost or Prayer before births Louis MacNeice. If you enjoy struggling to read English or wondering if some were written in English at all and wished you owned a feather pen and ink pot or typewriter, part one is your spirit animal.
Part two is more modern poetry but poetry more inclined to illustrate the immense variety of expression and style in modern poetry. The selection in terms of geographic dispersion is great, and not limited to British, American, South African, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and West Indian poets. More amazingly some of the poems contained here are by writers who were still in school when the poems were written. Part three reflects poetry from acknowledged masters for e.g. Ted Hughes, Plath, Thom Gunn etc., as well as works written within the last seventeen years (take into account publication dates) especially in Southern Africa. With the immense volume of significant happenings in these parts over those years, it was integral that I include an anthology that too whispered our stories. Modern poetry as a child was a blessing. It allows one to pack away the Yeats and Wordsworth for a moment to finally dive into something that felt more like my reality and world. Shakespeare can talk about love for his fair maiden but what can my people my city my history and my people’s bloodshed tell me? We simply cannot forget our own amazing storytellers.
Of course in no way is any anthology of various poets stitched together ever satisfactorily complete. The big poetry bosses will argue and debate poems and what makes a good poem or bad poem or classic poem, and arguing compilation is definitely Defcon 1. So if you are ever in the mood for some easy poetry reading, that’s not to bad in the broad department and brings you back to some classroom favorites, then grab an iced tea and make your way to your favorite park bench or tree in your backyard. The perks are you’ll never run out of sweet nothings to whisper to your loved ones.