In his novel The Fault in our Stars, John Green writes that “sometimes, you read a book [that] fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book,” and wonderfully dramatic and rather intense as this notion may be, I have just read one of those books and perfectly get the feeling. I might not go shouting from the rooftops just yet, but I desperately want to break down some walls and do a few small yells at least.
Set Me On Fire – a poem for every feeling is a poetry anthology edited and annotated by London based poet Ella Risbridger, and it is one of the most interesting anthologies I’ve read in a while. It is not simply a collection of poems – it is a collection of poems written by a very diverse group of poets, sorted after vague feelings (like “mother” which is not really a feeling at all and “hunger” which definitely can be) and placed in the cross sections of said feelings (combine these two into “mother/hungry” and suddenly you have a feeling you might be a bit unsure of what actually means until you read the poems and never spend another minute wondering).
What got me about this anthology was firstly, the varied voices of the poets, all the different stories I most likely never would have found on my own, and secondly, the editor’s annotations – witty, clever and intelligent. Risbridger has sprinkled footnotes throughout the book, sometimes recounting how she felt reading this exact line in that exact poem for the first time, throwing in some literary analysis or simply handing the reader an extra little thought connected to the words on the page. One of my favourite notes is this little footnote in “The Orange” by Wendy Cope:
Adding “And what else is there?” to the sentence “I love you. I’m glad I exist” just feels like taking all those feelings that are just too big to fit into our breaths and condencing them into mere by-pass-thoughts, observations done in happiness, and I adore it.
The annotations, like this note on Rebecca Perry’s poem “Other Clouds”:
makes the whole anthology a thoroughly pleasant reading experience. Every page turnt feels like being curled up on the sofa reading poetry with a good friend, and I’m loving how accessible the editor has made the chosen poems and poetry in general. Her notes focus a lot on how there is no right or wrong way to read poems, and that reading poetry should be fun or cathartic or whatever you need it to be in the moment. If a poem isn’t working for you this is neither you nor the poem’s fault and you are well within your rights to simply walk away. Poetry is a lot better than just suffering through poems that don’t speak to you, just for the sake of having read them.
Risbridger has also included a short introduction about how this anthology should be read (spoiler alert: again, there is no right way to read it! Just pick a page and go from there or find the feeling you need to read about right about now and see what happens) and a rather long after word talking about the process of gathering poems for this anthology. The afterword is a super interesting read – combining poetry reading, spread sheet making and the demographic statistics of the UK. In the after word she talks about how she has made a conscious effort to make the anthology as diverse as possible, to reflect the diversity found among people and to fight the dominance of “dead white men”, also known as the voices who’ve definitely taken up the most space on the traditional poetry scene (or pages, I guess).
This book is dedicated to “Caroline, who hated poetry first”, and Sarah Perry claims that the collection which is “broad in scope, generous in spirit and wittily accompanied by Risbridger’s commentary” will “offer a cure for those suspicious of poetry, while those already in love with the form have new and startling pleasures in store”.
In short, an anthology for people who already love poetry and a book of poems for people not too sure about poems to begin with.
Definitely worth a read, and if you do pick it up, be sure to let me know how you find it!