Robin McKinley is an American writer who has lived the last 20 years in rural Hampshire with her husband, the English writer Peter Dickinson. Her first novel was Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, published in 1978, and her most recent one is Pegasus, published last autumn. Robin is presently going round the twist writing the second half of the story that she left hanging off a cliff at the end of Pegasus. You can read about the other books she has managed to finish, and strange maunderings about her non-writing life, at Robin McKinley and on her blog. Here Robin writes about The Norton Anthology of Poetry.
Robin McKinley on The Norton Anthology of Poetry
It's a very rough go, choosing one influential book. My first thought was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which is probably the single most influential book of my life, and which I read so long ago it was before it had become a global phenomenon. I have often since envied people reading it for the first time - but I'm also glad of having been able to feel that I was discovering something amazing without the world's help. My best friend loaned me her copies - what generosity! In hindsight I don't know how she let them out of her hands long enough for someone else to read them - we were the only ones in our 7th-grade class who had ever heard of them, let alone read them. It was the best secret ever. My second thought was Rudyard Kipling - 30 years ago as an American living in America it would have been The Jungle Books, but after 20 years in rural Hampshire it would have to be Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies. My third, perhaps slightly illicit, thought was Peter Dickinson. But I'm married to him, so this might count as special pleading - although I first met him by going to a lecture he was giving, because I was a mad fan. (Later we bonded over a shared love of Kipling.)
But none of these felt quite right. I wanted something that I don't ordinarily talk about - something I'm aware of being important, influential, but that I've never really dragged out of the shadows and waved around and said to other people, here, this is one of the books that has made me the person and the writer that I am. This is one of my desert island books. And the book I kept coming back to, as I thought of some of the other ones (George Eliot's Middlemarch? Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre? Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Life? Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades? Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book? H. Rider Haggard's She is one of the best Beauty and the Beast retellings ever; George Meredith's The Egoist saved my life; J.G. Farrell's The Siege Of Krishnapur is a terrific novel and a handy means of deflecting the Kipling-bashers before I grow violent)... is the insalubriously named The Norton Anthology of Poetry, shorter edition, coordinating editor Arthur M. Eastman, copyright 1970.
Most of the books I'm most aware of having affected, cajoled, talked me round and become a permanent fixture upon my inner landscape are novels and short stories, perhaps because I was built to be a novelist and (occasional) short-story writer myself. But poetry has also always been necessary, although when I was a child I didn't recognize this as such - I just sometimes pulled one of the poetry anthologies off my shelf rather than a story book. Although it was the story poems I loved the best: 'Custard the Dragon',* 'The Face on the Barroom Floor',** 'The Ballad of East and West'.***
It took the Norton Anthology, in my first year of college, to shock me into a recognition of poetry as something more than just another means of delivering a story. The Norton was a set text, not even for one of my classes; but I had to walk past it to get to my own stacks of required reading, and I stopped, because it had a repro of a William Blake painting on the cover, and I was in my adolescent Blake phase. I'm not sure about this, but I seem to remember thinking it looked more interesting than what I was supposed to be reading so I decided I'd have it too.
You can always argue with an anthology's choices - the Norton's minimal selection of Kipling is terrible, and there are pathetically few women included - but it's still the first book I think of when I need poetry. There is enough Browning and Yeats and Marvell and Keats and (barely enough) Auden to keep you going in a drought; I first fell in love with John Donne and John Clare, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams and Theodore Roethke in its pages. I rediscovered Robert Frost as a poet instead of some grand old New England fossil I was supposed to revere because he was some kind of local - I discovered Edward Arlington Robinson, that very New England poet, for the first time; and Robinson Jeffers' 'Hurt Hawks', first read here, has haunted me so badly it produced the merrel in Spindle's End. I memorized Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' and Hopkins' 'The Windhover' from these pages. (And forgot them again. Never mind.) I took a course my junior year in 'the courtier poets' after reading Wyatt and Howard and Ralegh and Sidney here. I discovered that old ballads are poetry: 'Thomas the Rhymer', 'Sir Patrick Spens', 'The Twa Corbies', 'The Bitter Withy' - I started hunting down books of old ballads after I met a few of them here. I dare say I would have discovered balladry somewhere else soon enough - but the point is, I didn't. I found it in the Norton Anthology.
Many years later, on the first anniversary of 9/11, Peter and I decided to read each other poems; three of the four I chose were out of the Norton anthology. And a few years ago when I half-inadvertently started composing music, I wrote my first song to one of Peter's poems, but my second was 'A Lyke-Wake Dirge',† first met in the Norton Anthology - and while I now have that very famous old poem in other books, of course it was the Norton I pulled down to use.
My copy is brown- and curly-edged, stained, bent, and the corners are crumbling. I salute the binding glue, however; the spine is still holding. There are a few too many of my adolescent thoughts about individual poems, written, surprisingly neatly, in the margins - but I can live with that. I was expressing enthusiasm, after all, and the marginalia have made a kind of palimpsest - sometimes literally, since over the decades I whited-out, wrote over, scraped, and started again. Some of these remarks are squirm-making enough to me now that I would think twice about loaning my beloved old book to anyone else who might see a few of them. I don't know if this Norton is still in print, or if newer editions may have changed the contents. Even if I could get a shiny new fresh pristine edition of exactly this book - including the Blake illustration on the cover - I wouldn't want it. This book has been with me 40 years: it's my friend, bumps, splotches, injudicious marginal notes and all.
* I'm sure this is a potent source of my preoccupation with heroes (male and female) who are ordinary people (or possibly dragons) who rise to the occasion.
** This at the age of nine or ten is probably all the explanation you need for why I grew up to be a ranting feminist who writes about women as human beings with both honour and agency.
*** It still makes my hair stand on end, although for somewhat different reasons than 45 and 50 years ago.
† Having conveniently forgotten Benjamin Britten. My music teacher didn't forbid me to go on with mine, but he did forbid me to listen to the Britten again till I finished.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]